Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: An amateur comic comes home to find his wife in bed with another man. He later goes onstage at a comedy club and bombs spectacularly trying to discuss the experience. Afterward, his car gets towed. He then goes back home to salvage his relationship, only to find his wife in bed with the very same guy. Homeless and uncertain of his prospects, he wanders a subway platform with an unlikely new friend, then gets mugged and stabbed by an unknown assailant for his trouble.
That’s the punch line. Why aren’t you laughing?
The pilot episode for Crashing, a new HBO comedy starring Pete Holmes, is yet another entry in the “stand-up comedian’s autobiographical experiences” genre. In a media environment saturated by stories about and by stand-up comics — from Louie to WTF With Marc Maron to the recent film The Comedian which Robert De Niro, you guessed it, plays an aging stand-up — a show like Crashing comes onto the scene somewhat hobbled, not by much fault of its own. The series’ general premise is vague enough to inspire some eye rolls from the peanut gallery — amateur comic hits rock bottom, which is just the push he needs to really pursue his dream — but it’s filtered through Holmes’s unique perspective, one that relies on his genial persona as a contrast to the coarse, cutthroat world of comedy clubs. It’s enough to set this first episode apart, even if the broad strokes seem overly familiar.
In real life, Pete Holmes is a bona fide Christian who was destined for the church before discovering comedy. He married his college sweetheart at 22, only to get divorced six years later. Since then, he’s performed stand-up for well over a decade, written for a couple sitcoms, started the You Made It Weird podcast, and hosted a late-night show that was canceled in under a year. On Crashing, he plays a version of himself just before that wave success, as he’s struggling to navigate a rough-and-tumble world without the moral and financial support of his wife.
The series opens on Pete and his elementary-school-teacher wife, Jess (Lauren Lapkus), awkwardly having sex on the floor. Jess pushes him to do something spontaneous while Pete struggles to get comfortable. Afterward, he leaves for a comedy set in the West Village, but not before she slips in a barb about his career: “It’s not really work. You go do shows that don’t pay you and you have to buy two drinks in order to do them.” The set goes well enough, but the next day, Pete returns home to find Jess in a postcoital state after sleeping with the art teacher, Leif (George Basil). He leaves in a huff and, well, things only get worse from there.
As pilots go, “Artie Lange” is especially heavy on situation, with quite a chunk of the episode spent soaking up the comedy-club environment. It’s dark, it’s boozy, and it’s filled with comics trying to peacock in front of their peers to prove who’s best. In other words, it’s not necessarily the place where you’d find a sober, earnest individual like Holmes, whose default mode is to apologize and defer. This attitude, combined with his novice comedy chops, renders his onstage attempt to make light of his breakup an awkward, unfunny mess. After meekly trying to shut down a heckler (“Where are you from, Syria? I thought we didn’t let you in”), she calmly shouts back, “Is that the best you can do? This is painful. Can’t you feel it?” Needless to say, he can.
After that disastrous set, Pete meets Artie Lange and the episode almost immediately takes on a different dimension. The profane, chain-smoking Lange stands in such sharp contrast to the gangly, self-conscious Holmes that the two make a great comedy team. Lange tells him his set was one of the worst he’s ever seen (“My cousin was giving a best man speech at a wedding once and he accidentally admitted that he molested a kid when he was a teenager. That was less awkward than your set up there”), but ends up buying him a slice of pizza anyway. It’s then that Lange breaks down the realities of being a comedian: There are no guarantees, there’s little glory, and most of it is spent doing nothing and waiting for your turn. Pete envisions stand-up like it’s medical school, training before you’re officially a professional, but that’s really just the whole career. It’s not a life for everyone. For a select few, though, it’s the best gig in the world.
By episode’s end, Pete has had his car towed, a mugger has stolen his phone and wallet, he has a stab wound in his leg, and he’s lost a home and a wife. It’s a lot for any person to handle in a single day, but nevertheless, Pete sleeps soundly on Artie’s couch, even while Artie drones on and on about how he goes to the bathroom with the door open. Why? Maybe because the cliché legitimately holds true: Sometimes, everything has to completely fall apart before you can build anew. “This is the grist for the mill, Pete,” Leif tells Pete as he leaves his comfortable old life behind. “Everything is now working together to take you from where you are in this moment to where you’re most afraid of going.” The moment of wisdom is bookended by complete hippie nonsense (“I am you, and you are me, and we are making love to your wife …”), but it still certainly rings true. “Artie Lange” portrays a good man at his lowest moment entering a very dirty business, but instead of reaching for rage, he reaches out to others, as clumsily and uncomfortable as he can. It’s a start.
• Pete accidentally bumps comedian Greer Barnes, who approaches him after the set to vent his rage and frustration. “I’m supposed to do Colbert tomorrow night. If I have a bad set on Colbert tomorrow, you’ll be halfway to an ass whipping.”
• Crashing basically allows Lange to do stand-up bits as conversation pieces. My favorite? After Pete insists Artie is a legend, he responds, “Yeah, but for fucked-up shit, not for having a good life. I’m a legend for shitting my pants on coke on a United flight.”
• I like how Crashing incorporates Pete’s Christian beliefs into the series without making too much of a statement. When Artie asks Pete why he tried to defend him from the mugger, he casually responds, “I knew God would protect me.”
• I appreciated Pete’s anger after he found Jess in bed with Leif, even if it was tempered. “You’re leaving me for a guy who has the fuckin’ Parthenon on his back?”
• Pete doesn’t want to 69 because he doesn’t like doing two things at once. “It’s like playing the banjo while you’re riding a bicycle. It’s unnatural.”
• “How is it that I’m stabbed and I still walk faster than you?”