'Crashing': TV Review

Macall B. Polay/HBO
More about commitment to the process than the making of a star.

Pete Holmes and Judd Apatow's new HBO comedy about making it in stand-up is likable and increasingly funny.

In the world of 2017 comedy, Pete Holmes is a big deal, star of podcasts, stand-up specials and even a short-lived late-night show.

In the world of the new HBO series Crashing, he plays a guy named Pete who is a very little deal, not really a deal at all.

In the wrong hands, this is a disconnect that might play as disingenuous or downright annoying, but it's actually a clever perspective for Holmes' naturally unassuming comic stylings and worldview. This is a man who has built his podcasting career out of knowing (and learning) an awful lot about stand-up and comedy by looking back on a version of himself that knew very little. Created by Holmes and executive produced by pilot director Judd Apatow, Crashing grows with its hero, starting off as more likable than funny, but steadily getting more laughs as it goes along.

In this semi-autobiographical origin story set in the present day, Pete is a struggling wannabe comic living in the suburbs with his wife Jess (Lauren Lapkus). To say he's "struggling" might be an overstatement; his wife is supporting him and he periodically goes into New York City to do five-minute sets at open-mic nights where the price of gas, parking and mandatory drink purchases make his chosen profession a significant money hole. Without any personal urgency, his pursuit is pretty relaxed. But when he comes home one day to find Jess in bed with another man, Pete loses his marriage, his comfortable crutch and his support system.

Effectively homeless, Pete finds himself navigating the NYC comedy scene much more aggressively, learning about the actual day-to-day grind of breaking in, including barking and out-of-town road sets, and fulfilling the show's title by crashing with successful comic figures like Artie Lange and T.J. Miller, and in crowded apartments occupied by fellow neophytes.

Pick your sociological explanation of choice, but with aspirations ranging from improv to stand-up and to the occasional sitcom writer, comics are everywhere on both the big and small screen. This is a bit odd since there hasn't really been a massive breakout smash that everybody is emulating — although perhaps Louie is responsible for revitalizing what was the Seinfeld and every-other-'90s-sitcom formula.

Crashing probably won't be a huge hit, either. It's a small show with a limited scope (Showtime's upcoming hourlong I'm Dying Up Here, with its '70s trappings and cast of a dozen-plus regulars, would be an example of tackling a comedy scene in a big way) and the reactions it produces are understated as well. That made it hard for me to get my mind around a review, even after watching and enjoying six of eight first-season episodes. It took until the fourth episode before I was sure I was really liking Crashing and I only got to the point of actively looking forward to episodes just as I ran out of screeners. But I think it's designed as a show that you ease into.

The thing I enjoyed most about Crashing is that it doesn't try to convince you Pete is good at what he's doing. He's not awful, but from delivery to choice of material, he's less than half-baked as a performer. He isn't some untapped genius who just needs to get a shot. Rather, he's a guy with a distinctive worldview — like Holmes, Pete had a very religious Christian upbringing and other characters are constantly grappling with his wholesomeness — that he only sometimes knows how to bring to the stage. He's earnest and amiable and you get why people would want to encourage him or befriend him, even if he's one of those comics for whom every conversation becomes an attempted "bit" and those bits are rarely good.

The show's challenge is to lure you into rooting for Pete despite his failings and then to gradually show the things he does well, the things that one day might make him successful if he continues the grind. The tendency in shows like this is to bend over backwards to pretend the main character is a diamond in the rough, but the effort in Crashing goes into simply finding kernels of potential.

Holmes' Pete is an everyman with dreams and he's generally the straight man in Crashing or, more frequently than that, he's the butt of jokes, since even his cuckolding wife is a funnier character in the early going (because Lapkus is very good). The guest star comics (ranging from big names to up-and-comers who will be variably familiar) have many purposes here, including mocking Pete, showcasing their own superior material, offering professional wisdom and also displaying what I'd say is an overwhelmingly positive vision of the business, courtesy of Holmes and Apatow.

Maybe future seasons will get into backstabbing, joke-stealing, corrupt agents or managers, depression and the price of failure, sexism, racism or any of the other adversity you might expect from a warts-and-all Star Is Born take on comedy. To watch Crashing is to think that comedy is a "We're all in this together" world in which surely young comics are exploited and living below the poverty line, but they're hungry and desperate together and even the biggest of stars remember where they came from and are prepared to provide support or a couch.

The best way to look at this optimism is not as naiveté, but as a spirit that comes from Pete (and probably Holmes), who believes the best of himself and of others. Maybe when he becomes more successful, Pete and the show around him will become more jaded? Or maybe the point is that in an industry of crusty, crabby lunatics, Pete Holmes was and remains almost pathologically pleasant.

So, too, Crashing may not be hilarious or all that edgy, but it's pathologically pleasant. And HBO is welcome to that blurb.

Star-creator-showrunner: Pete Holmes
Pilot directed by: Judd Apatow
Premieres: Sunday, 10:30 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)