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The Happiest Sad Sack on TV: Why You Need to Watch CRASHING

The Happiest Sad Sack on TV: Why You Need to Watch CRASHING

For almost 8 months straddling 2013 and 2014, comedian Pete Holmes had his own late night talk show that made comedians (and Mark-Paul Gosselaar) dress up like Street Fighter characters, let Holmes discuss the finer points of his trip to an Enrique Iglesias concert, and gave birth to his biggest success yet. Holmes, not Iglesias.

On the first episode of the second season, Holmes did a sketch where he pitched terrible movie ideas about animals who become magicians to Judd Apatow. There’s a kind of innocent moroseness in Holmes’ eyes when he delivers the punchline pitch for a film about a guy who gets married at 22 because he’s religious, then gets divorced because his wife cheats on him. Apatow grinds out some severe deadpan to say, “That doesn’t seem like a comedy at all. That just seems tragic and sad.”

And now, three years later, it’s a show. Starring Holmes. Executive produced by Apatow. Tragic and sad.

It’s also Holmes’ real life. He’s been able to use time to transform his personal tragedy, not purely into comedy, but something that’s incredibly funny without diminishing the downcast angles. In HBO’s Crashing, Holmes plays a semi-real version of himself (fictional Pete) who’s asking big questions after walking in on his wife Jess (Lauren Lapkus) sweating from post-coital harmony with Leif (George Basil), who saunters out of the bathroom shortly after wearing only a strategic hand towel. Instead of flaring up, instead of screaming his way out of the house, Fictional Pete stays for a deliciously awkward argument that feels like two newlyweds fighting outside a UCB improv class.

That’s one key to Holmes’ comic outlook: he uses his genial nature to soften the kind of cringe-factory comedy that The Office specialized in to play in the same sandbox without getting too scuffed up. It’s also a key to the other hook of the series, which is a scruffy parade of working comedians who give Fictional Pete a couch to sleep on, life/career advice, and a metric ton of life experience.

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There have been several shows about comedians doing comedy, but unlike Seinfeld where a successful funnyman shows us the life that provides so many of his droll observations, Crashing is laser focused on a particularly naive newbie interacting with seasoned pros once they’ve switched out of Entertainer Mode. Every win he gets is qualified, every step of the ladder comes with a caveat.

Artie Lange plays a big part in the series, and every scene with him feels like he’s just let out a deep sigh. It’s weirdly intimate, like waiting for a clown in the circus parking lot only to have him walk by, make-up-less, desperately ready to disappear into a shot of whiskey. These moments are both unexpected and deeply satisfying. That goes similarly for guest couch-owners Sarah Silverman and T.J. Miller, who become powerful allies because Fictional Pete (and you’d assume Real Pete) is such a clear-eyed puppy ready to be house broken and given five minutes on stage.

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One of the biggest reasons to love Crashing is that dash of realism added to Fictional Pete’s journey toward becoming a highly paid professional stand-up, but the show should also work for those who don’t care about seeing show business sausage being made. At its simplest, it’s about a doofy man with a dream working to make it a reality, even as those who already have the dream tell him it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Obviously the main reason to fall in love with the show is that it’s hilarious, doleful, and lovely. Crashing is one of the tightest comedy shows in modern memory, packing in set-ups and plot points into every nook and cranny while still, impossibly, finding time for witty dialogue riffs and scenes of pure playfulness–like when Sarah Silverman and her crew decide to take turns acting out the classic pretend-you-didn’t-get-the-job-then-reveal-you-did conversation. There’s an amazing alchemy there that allows each episode to feel like a feast stuffed into a tiny half hour. That also means that, with only eight episodes in the first season running about that long, you can binge-crush this thing in a single afternoon.

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It’s a show that celebrates stand-up comedy while being (mostly) honest about how stressful it is. How joyous yet sometimes hollow the success of it can be. Like The History of Comedy, WTF with Marc Maron, and pretty much everything out of Patton Oswalt’s mouth, Crashing furthers the trend of being straightforward about the complexity inherent in choosing a job where you turn your pain into other peoples’ laughter for 45 minutes before heading home on empty streets to a bedroom far smaller than the one your audience has pictured in its head. It’s a conversation Holmes continues on his own podcast, You Made It Weird, where he interviews pros like Miller and Silverman and Seth Rogen about what makes them so unusual. With Crashing, he’s synthesized that ongoing conversation into the story of one man trying to scrape up his life after a marriage burned down by adultery by attempting a nearly impossible feat, that probably won’t be all that fulfilling, while homeless.

It sounds like tragedy, but in the hands of Pete Holmes (the real one), it’s become a gorgeous, wonderful comedy.

Images: HBO


Want even more Pete Holmes? Make sure you check out his podcast, You Made It Weird, right here on the Nerdist Podcast Network!

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