An exhaustive number of half-hour sitcoms have taken as their protagonist a successful comedian. Far fewer, however, have taken as their subject the struggling up-and-comer—much less an amateur like the fictional version of himself comic Pete Holmes plays on Crashing: a naïve, well-to-do Christian who blushes at the prospect of non-marital sex and winces through every pursed-lipped sip of Chardonnay. In the nocturnal, dog-eat-dog world of New York standup, his try-hard sincerity and chafing kindheartedness lend him the dimensions of an anti-hero; he is less the guy you root for than the guy you make fun of.
And yet, as the first season presses on, it’s hard not to feel a begrudging goodwill for Pete emerge. Much like in Holmes’s real life, the Pete on the show, raised an evangelical Christian, learns that his wife, Jess (Lauren Lupkus), has been cheating on him with another man, Leif (the excellent George Basil). With nowhere to go, and no money to support himself, Pete leaves his comfortable suburban enclave for the streets of New York, where, for the rest of the season, he “crashes” on other comedians’ couches. In one episode, he stays with T.J. Miller; in another, he stays with Sarah Silverman, who serves as a de-facto matriarch to a litter of unsuccessful male comedians. But Pete’s greatest patron is Artie Lange. Theirs is a perfect match—of abstinence and addiction, clean and foul-mouthed, green and world-weary. Though it’s more than that, too: by the end of the first season, Pete has begun to question his faith, while Artie, who has dealt with substance abuse issues for years, perpetually struggles to accept a “higher power.”
“Pete is going to learn something that’s important as you get older,” the real-life Pete tells me, in the cluttered backroom of a Chicago furniture store, where an event is being held for the season two premiere of Crashing. “The idea that religion and God and goodness exist...everywhere. That’s kind of what it means to me to be spiritually mature—to see goodness in people like Artie, who's a bad boy but has such a big heart, or at a late-night comedy show.”
In the first episode of season two, which premiered last night, Pete undergoes a sort of casual HBO-style apostasy. He talks with proud atheist Penn Jillette, who forces him to question his long-held evangelical truths. He gets drunk and parties at a burlesque club, bathed in devilish red light, where men in drag fellate dildos. He returns to a comedy club and runs into Ali, an acerbic fellow comic, and what follows amounts to a reluctant consummation of his secularism.
“I always had the idea that the show would be in the smallest, smallest, smallest way like Breaking Bad,” Holmes says. “I don’t think Pete’s going to turn into a badass by any means. But I love those shows that, by the fifth season, you can have a flashback to the first season with some emotional music and you can be like, ‘oh my God, look at how much this guy has changed.”
“I think what’s interesting about Pete’s character is that he has a little bit of arrested development from his faith,” the comedian Jamie Lee, who plays Ali, tells me. “So he’s around people the same age, but they’ve already reckoned with the questions coming up in Pete’s mind.”
While it’s not uncommon for comedians to plumb the depths of life’s biggest questions for material, it is rare for a comic to approach his craft with as much metaphysical fervor as Holmes. On his popular podcast, You Made It Weird, Holmes routinely asks his guests, which range from fellow comics to actors to professional athletes, what they believe to be the meaning of life. That essential question looms over Crashing, too. In the second season, Pete is searching for new answers to complement his old ones, everywhere from Leif’s charlatanic new ageism (yes, Pete remains friends with the man who slept with his wife), to Dr. Oz’s telegenic science (Dr. Oz has a cameo in season two).
Judd Apatow, an executive producer and co-writer on the show, has said that, for him, it's really about “a religious person interacting with the wonderful and sometimes wounded people who inhabit the comedy world.” Indeed, Crashing would not tick if Pete weren’t also working out his awakening on stage and with his fellow comics. Through Ali, a potential love interest, he discovers a whole new world in the city’s alt-comedy scene. And given the show is now in its second season, Holmes has been able to surround Pete with a growing roster of recurring comics, like Artie Lange, Dave Attell, Dan Naturman and Rachel Feinstein.
“To me, comedy always feels like meeting the next person, the next person, the next person,” Holmes says. Like The Larry Sanders Show, Holmes hopes that as the series continues to improve, they can book even more comedians.
"There have been full Hannibal [Burress] scripts, full Kumail [Nanjiani] scripts, full [Mike] Birbiglia scripts," he confesses, noting that he'll occasionally just go ahead and write whole episodes for select comics, even if they haven't committed yet. With an almost wistful smile, he adds, "There's an Amy Schumer script I'm quite fond of."
Isn't there always?