A person gets up on a stage with the intent to make people laugh, talks to the audience and waits for a reaction. Doesn't that sound scary to you?
Ever since I was a kid, the life of a comedian has fascinated me to no end. The most intimate brand of theater involving a single person and a room of strangers. The competitive spirit between comedians, the lust of a good bit eliciting a rousing reaction and the possibility of a set simply bombing. All of it is like candy to me.
Equal parts inspiring and hilarious, HBO's "Crashing" gave us a glimpse into the life of a hustler comic trying to make it in the fierce modern landscape of comedy. Real-life comedian Pete Holmes collaborated with his hero, comedy maestro Judd Apatow, to create a semi-autobiographical version of his own life. When it landed in 2016, I was pleasantly surprised. With the announcement this week of its cancellation, Sunday represents the series finale, I find myself looking back at this understated gem.
Before the show aired, I didn't know much about Holmes, and I think the show played better that way. You got to ride that roller coaster with his character, also named Pete, without the knowledge that the man behind the story had actually made it and built a career out of it. Experiencing "Crashing" is best without knowledge of Holmes' real life, even if parts of it do sneak into the show throughout its three seasons.
The show's premise was simple enough. An up and coming comic in New York (Holmes) finds his life turned upside down when he catches his wife cheating on him. Forced out onto the streets and into the homes of comic friends, such as Artie Lange, Holmes has to chase his dream while being shell-shocked emotionally.
Some of the best scenes of the show come when Holmes and Lange trade barbs and philosophy. The two men are polar opposites of each other, in behavior and choice of humor. Raised religious and settling for more humane jokes, Holmes climbs the stage looking like the prep school substitute teacher who just quit his job yet didn't change clothes on the way to the stage. As for Artie, well Pete said it best in Season 2. "Artie, if I was any more white, you'd try to snort me." The scenes between these two carried the show.
The cameos from fellow comics such as Colin Quinn, T.J. Miller, Dave Attell, Bill Burr, Sarah Silverman and Hannibal Buress from taking their shots at Holmes over the course of 24 episodes was a real treat. Part of the juice of the show was trying to figure out if the roast-worthy humor was real or fictionalized for the show. I would go on record saying a fair amount was ad-libbed on set.
The show hit a high note when it slowed down enough to show the brutality of the life of a comic. For Holmes, it was not only deciding which brand of comedy he wanted to pursue but being able to live with himself at the end of the day. When he accepts a gig touring colleges distributing humor that respected comics would roll their eyes at, Holmes struggled with the dichotomy between a paycheck and the respect of his peers.
A comedian doesn't just have a great night and find his entire life change. Everybody can't be Ray Romano, who did a segment on David Letterman one night and saw his career take off. The process is much more rugged and unpredictable, and Apatow and Holmes never looked past that reality while maintaining the laughs.
When Pete meets and falls for a fellow comic in Ally (the lovely and gifted Jamie Lee, who also wrote for the show), the push and pull struggle of competitive emotion was a highlight of the second season. When the two stare each other down at a comedy show where they have to roast each other, the writing and acting couldn't have been better. You can feel the tension in the room during those silences.
The honesty in the show never ceased to exist, and it was never preachy or over the top. This season, Pete found himself mentoring a younger comic, only to see him rise up and snatch an opportunity from at the famous Comedy Cellar in New York. A few episodes later, he finds out that Ally got a spot on Seth Meyers' late night talk show. All the while, Pete embarks on a religious comedy tour that will once again test his patience.
With Holmes, a lot can be said with a simple look. I won't declare the comedian a good actor, but he sure can play a version of himself, teaching us about the hard knock life in the process. He made it easy to root for Pete throughout the three seasons, even if some of the choices he made weren't the greatest.
One of the defining moments of this season has been a tumultuous relationship with Kat (Madeline Wise). While the romance was doomed, seeing Pete stand up for himself to his clingy mother (who could never cut the chord and hurt Pete's relationships) was a great scene. It showed growth in the character and gave fans a little hope.
That's what the show has always been about. Learning from your mistakes, and using them as ammunition for your next creative endeavor. What is a comic without problems? Not a funny one. Comics, like artists of other varieties and walks of life, need the pain to produce laughter. They go hand in hand.
Guest star Jessica Kirson said it best in last week's episode. When Pete fears that a respected comic from New York will slam him for selling out in doing a tour of churches, she instead bestows some advice on the young man. "Don't be funnier off the stage than you are on it." Right there, Pete Holmes saw it all flash before him.
At its best, the show's restraint was its greatest weapon. It was on full display during a powerful recent episode where a seasoned comedian who loves the old-school style of comedy too much runs into a brick wall when a joke involving female consent takes a nosedive. Without a monologue or a lot of drama, the episode worked well due to the writing and acting.
Hopefully, Sunday's finale isn't the end. Sure, Holmes will go out before John Mulaney in order to take a big step in his career. He may or may not do well. He may or may not win over Ally's affection, and rekindle their romance. He may just end the show walking down the streets of New York searching for clarity. The best television shows don't include a big, melodramatic ending; they just show the end of one journey and the beginning of another. The best show life simply going on.
A movie in a few years would be nice. It can't be as bad as the "Entourage" movie that should have never happened. The only reason that happened was no one in that cast could find work. If Holmes and Apatow do it, there will be a good reason. I'll spend 100 minutes with this shy comic in a movie theater...or perhaps on Netflix.
Either way, thanks for the time, Pete Holmes. Whatever you were going for with this series, I think you achieved it and then some.
Getting up on a stage and making people laugh. That's no joke.