By Matt Hanson
Crashing shows us how Pete Holmes’s innate sweetness and affability carries him through the awkwardness and indignities of being a working comedian.
At first glance, Pete Holmes doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would fit the image of “wokeness.” After all, he’s a tall, slightly paunchy, goofy, blazingly white boy hailing from the tony suburb of Lexington Massachusetts who comes from a deeply conservative Christian background and speaks frankly about his evangelical roots. In some ways, I feel a slight kinship towards him — we have much in common (two of my siblings attended the same college, one was a member of the improv group he founded). He reminds me of how I might have turned out if I hadn’t read Nietzsche and listened to punk rock in high school. But even though my teenage apostasy came a little earlier and bitterer than Holmes’s did, I enjoyed the third season of his HBO show Crashing with the pleasure of familiarity. What I didn’t expect was how endearingly woke the show became, in its low-key way. Apparently, HBO was unimpressed. Holmes recently tweeted that Crashing was not renewed for another season, though co-producer Judd Apatow has not ruled out a possible movie.
Crashing shows us how Holmes’s innate sweetness and affability carries him through the awkwardness and indignities of being a working comedian. Rare among comedians, Holmes isn’t a flag-waver or a breast-beater. Neither does he slather on the snark. Generally, he prefers mild but amusing anecdotal humor or quirky observations. He tends to be uncomfortable making anyone else but himself the butt of the joke. Holmes’s progressive attitudes come shining through when you read between the lines. The show’s writing and characterization call out comedy’s sexism problem while also challenging the ideology of his Christian heritage.
The season began with an episode called “Jaboukie” where Holmes does a road gig in a small town in Delaware and encounters the titular young black queer comic at an open mic, likes his stuff, and takes him back to New York on a whim. There’s a coveted gig at the fabled Comedy Cellar that we know Holmes has been working towards for a very long time. It also happens to be a showcase that could change everything. Holmes does well, but Jaboukie kills and gets the gig instead. The talent booker dashes Holmes’s cherished dream by indifferently telling him that “I’ve already got plenty of white guys talking about nothing.”
This obviously guts Holmes emotionally, but he rises above his disappointment, swallows hard, and complements Jaboukie on his good fortune, for which he himself happens to be responsible. He doesn’t pull the usual petty move and project blame or wallow in victimhood because someone more diverse and socially conscious landed the break he craved. Standup comedy is desperately competitive; any given night could provide a huge career boost or utterly sink one’s chances. Holmes’s stoic graciousness supplies a deeply painful moment that is also admirably generous. I’m not a comedian, but even if I was, I doubt I’d have the guts to be as gentle and kind.
What Holmes doesn’t do is react the way that one of his fellow comics does in the later episode “MC, Middle, Headliner” which to my mind is the best of the season. Holmes and his ex, Ali, find themselves thrown together with a veteran comic for a weekend gig at a blandly corporatized club. Jason the veteran is the snarky doorman at the dingy NYC club where Holmes has been cutting his comedy teeth; he can’t stop crowing about finally getting to headline. Black-clad, leather-jacketed Jason is clearly a relic of the old-school version of aggressive, in-your-face standup that ruled in the ’70s and ’80s. Just because he’s a comedian he feels he is entitled to be outrageous — his macho obnoxiousness is just another way of keeping it real. His set is all karate cops and grunts, punctuating bits about how asking for consent is such a buzzkill and how annoying women are in general.
The very clever move is to show how Jason’s set goes great at first and we see the unfazed audience totally eating it up. After the sets, Jason stomps around and complains that no one wants to go out and get wasted and cannot believe that the other two are just sitting around drinking tea and having video chats with their partners. Ali, who is something of a sarcastic female Greek chorus throughout the series, quickly becomes fed up and decides to openly mock Jason’s style, partly because she’s stuck as the opener. Jason does the same routine again and this time he completely bombs. He hits on the waitress backstage and, when he’s rebuffed, has a temper tantrum.
Predictably, Jason goes ballistic again in the parking lot later that night and berates eye-rolling Ali as another emasculating feminazi. Jason whines about standup’s bygone glory days, but the show makes clear what the real motivations are for his outrage. He’s achieved very little career-wise after an embarrassingly long time, and he’s clearly pretending that not being a sellout is the reason why he’s still getting nowhere, rather than not actually having anything anybody wants to buy. That’s a phrase Patton Oswalt has used to take the piss out of his angry younger self onstage, and you suspect that this attitude is more prevalent in the comedy world (and, by extension, among creative types of all kinds) than most like to admit.
The show’s message about the ugly male psychology that lurks at the root of MeToo is urgently needed. It’s an especially welcome disinfectant for the often grungy ethics of standup comedy, since (predominantly male) comics are used to being rewarded for offering their raunchiest secrets up for public consumption. Should it be such a surprise that so many comics turn out to be creeps? It took a while, but we’re reaching the point where a comedian’s incessant riffing on their dark, twisted fantasies isn’t always taken for granted as edgy and provocative — now it’s just called being a dick.
One of the charms of Crashing is in how conscientiously un-dickish its star consistently is, even towards the kinds of groups that most progressives (to say nothing of comedians) tend to openly disrespect, such as the Christian church. Holmes once aspired to be a youth pastor and has plenty of episodes where he struggles in various ways with his vestigial connections to his family’s faith. He defends his free-spirited girlfriend’s choice not to wear a bra in church, stands up to his pious mother’s nagging about his nonchalant lifestyle, and he eventually chooses to lose out on a very lucrative church tour by amusingly criticizing the Bible’s eccentricities onstage. I especially appreciated his bit probing the absurdity of the story of Abraham and Isaac. I probably dedicated far too much time to writing my senior thesis on Kierkegaard all those years ago — even through I thought I’d left all that churchy stuff behind. All of Holmes’s politely subversive moves are impressively radical for someone who grew up in a similarly conservative milieu.
In comedy, as in politics, it’s not very difficult or brave to criticize what everybody you know already hates. Holmes is willing to do his own kind of comedy, to simultaneously criticize both the culture he came from and the culture he changed his life for. Perhaps we have come to a time when earnestness has become subversive. It’s easy to see the person with the mohawk and nose piercing as the outlaw. Sometimes it’s the goofy guy in the polo shirt and khaki pants who is every bit the rebel, too.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.