“I’m sorry things are going well for me and they’re rough for you right now,” Pete Holmes’ estranged wife Jessica tells him in an episode of Crashing, a new HBO comedy created by and starring Holmes as a fictional, slightly younger version of himself.
“I’m doing okay, actually,” Pete tells her. “Honestly, I have no money, but I’m having the best time of my life.”
This isn’t a defensive boast from a man whose marriage fell apart when he caught his wife having an affair, and who is technically homeless, since Jessica (Lauren Lapkus) was supporting both of them during his fumbling attempts to break into stand-up comedy. This is a sincere, understandable assessment of the entertaining, and surprisingly successful, comedy hobo odyssey Pete finds himself on after he leaves Jessica and their suburban house behind. It’s awful that he’s lost the love of his life — and, as someone brought up in a devoutly Christian family, the only woman he’s ever been with — but the wreckage of his personal life winds up being the best thing that ever could have happened to his professional one.
The break-up turns Pete from a comedy dabbler into someone who literally has nothing else to think about, especially once his housing situation is temporarily solved by bunking with more successful comedians like Artie Lange, TJ Miller, and Sarah Silverman — all playing versions of themselves that Holmes and executive producer Judd Apatow insist are very close to how they are in real life. Pete’s hosts not only give him a place to sleep for a few nights, but offer him advice on life and comedy, helping him become better at both in the process.
So Crashing (it debuts Sunday night at 10:30; I’ve seen the first six episodes) has to simultaneously chronicle the end of Pete’s marriage and the true birth of his career. Unsurprisingly, given what comedy wonks Holmes and Apatow are, it’s a lot more interesting on the latter than the former.
Lapkus has long been a weird and energetic delight in projects both bad (NBC’s short-lived Are You There, Chelsea?) and good (her episode of Netflix’s sketch anthology show The Characters), so it’s a drag to have her in the wet blanket straight woman role here — not only as the one cheating on Pete, but the one getting frustrated with his silly comedy dreams that go nowhere. Jessica’s ultimately written with more nuance and sympathy than that starting point would suggest — most of the comics Pete encounters essentially take Jessica’s side in their assessment of his would-be career up to that point — and George Basil has a few amusing moments as Jessica’s new boyfriend Leif, who really wants to do right by Pete, other than the whole sleeping with his wife thing. But most of the marriage material is cringe comedy that would have been better off being left behind after the series’ opening minutes, especially since the show’s heart, like Pete’s, is so clearly with the stand-up scene.
That half of the series is a very charming, funny and smart love letter to Holmes’ chosen artform (and the one where Apatow started out before becoming this century’s reigning comedy mogul). It not only goes into the fine and weird details of life at the bottom rung of the stand-up ladder — the fourth episode, where Pete has to hand out fliers as a “barker” for a comedy club, only getting to perform a set that night if enough people come in carrying his flier, is particularly strong as both a story and a look at how someone’s job actually works — but gets candid, appealing performances (much of them improvised) from the other comedians playing themselves.
These extended cameos manage to hit the sweet spot between showing admiration for people who in real life are Holmes and Apatow’s friends peers and using them to offer insight into why people want to become comedians, what the business can do both for and to them, and why they keep coming back for more. So Lange’s stint on the show is mostly self-lacerating — in the second episode, he recruits Pete to drive him to a gig in Albany, both because Pete has a car and because he needs someone to keep him sober when he’s on the road — where Silverman comes across as a cheerful den mother who has things figured out enough that she can mentor the less happy or successful comics, yet when the two of them wind up in a scene together, they feel like both friends and equals.
While the TV version of Pete is still figuring out his comic voice — his ultra-religious parents attend one of his shows, and his mother prefers the profane opening act to Pete’s, because the other guy at least had a point of view — the actual Holmes has a clear handle on what makes his alter ego tick, and what makes him unique in a world that comedy nerds, at least, already know very well. Pete’s Christian upbringing, and his cheerfulness in the face of overwhelming humiliation and failure, makes him an easy target for comedians both famous and obscure, but those traits also make him a likable and unexpected hero in the midst of this story.
“Comedy’s kind of a new religion,” Miller insists to Pete in the third episode. “We’re traveling, we’re preaching an ideology of seeing everything with a smile.”
When it’s studying and performing the rituals of that new religion, Crashing is a treat, and a worthy new addition to the comedy house of worship HBO has been building for decades. But, like the fictional Pete Holmes, you have to endure some mortification to get there.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org