For those who can’t stand people that seem to live in a constant state of happiness, Pete Holmes is an ideal vessel for hate. He is perhaps the most famously optimistic and joy-filled comedian working today, a man, mind you, who finds pleasure in telemarketers and driving in traffic. As he told Conan O’Brien in late 2016, “I’m a comedian. Comedians are supposed to be jaded, cynical, angry people. But I’m not: I’m a silly silly fun boy. Life is temporary. We die one day. Live it up! People are too hard on jokes! […] Just laugh! We die, laugh! I like being an easy laugh.”
What may seem like innocence very much is not, however, as Holmes didn’t become this way by living as an untrampled flowerbed: Like most comedians, it took Holmes some time to find success in his field, but his life was also shaken up by a divorce at 28 years old, after his wife cheated on him with (and eventually married) a man named Rocco.
Holmes, now nearly ten years removed from that split, feels his wounds have healed enough to tell the story of the strife behind his smile. To do so, he’s partnered with Judd Apatow for a new HBO series, Crashing. Louie is an easy comparison to make for any painfully autobiographical comedy, but it’s also the perfect starting point to begin talking about this show, which is as true to reality as it gets: Holmes plays a younger version of himself as a struggling stand-up comedian whose wife goes outside the marriage with a man whose name, you may have guessed, is Rocco.
In the premiere, which airs on February 19, we meet Holmes, a comic who’s not quite on his way yet, still playing unpaid gigs in hopes of something more, although his material is decent (“What do you think the employee discount is at the dollar store? Do you think it’s ‘just take it?'”). After walking in on his wife hooking up with somebody who isn’t him, he finds himself on stage trying to have his own his own brutally real Tig Notaro moment, but ends up flat-lining. A pretty true-to-life version of Artie Lange ends up becoming a de facto mentor to Holmes and eventually offers him his couch to crash on (hence, Crashing).
Holmes previously told us, “When we pitched the show to HBO, I only talked about Joseph Campbell, Buddha and Christ. [Apatow] begged me to remind them it’s a comedy.”
None of this reads as that funny (more tragic, really), but perhaps it reveals more about how real-life Holmes became the silver-lining seeker he is today: While Holmes today finds laughs in modern mundane annoyances, the show cracks a smile in the wake of more profound tragedy. Eavesdropping on a conversation between schoolkids about their favorite characters from Pixar’s Inside Out, Holmes chips in, “I like Joy too. It’s a lie, though. It’s a lie you’re gonna chase your entire lives.”
When late-20’s Holmes didn’t have it easy, laughter became that much more valuable, a sentiment exemplified by the scene where he refuses to give up his joke book to a knife-wielding mugger after handing over his phone and other belongings without as much protest. Comedy is important because it contrasts tough times and gets us through them, a point the premiere of Crashing makes strongly. It’s a reminder that, whether you’ve been betrayed by love or by slow drivers, there’s always a reason to smile.
Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos
Featured image: Mary Cybulski/HBO