Talking Faith, Standup, and Season 2 of ‘Crashing’ with Pete Holmes

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As a verb, Crashing — the title of comedian Pete Holmes’s semi-autobiographical HBO series — took on multiple conceptual connotations throughout season 1. Our protagonist Pete, a naïve and sheltered evangelical Christian, watched his life come crashing down after discovering his wife having an affair with a bohemian bro named Leif. As an aspiring amateur comedian struggling to find his voice and a point of view, Pete was no stranger to crashing and burning on stage as an open mic-er. Essentially a wandering waif left homeless by the subsequent divorce, Pete resorted to crashing on the couches of much more successful comedians (played by the likes of Artie Lange and Sarah Silverman) who offered a broken Pete sanctuary out of pity and kindness (but mostly out of pity). As far as “crashing” goes, it was a titular comedy of errors constructed around humiliation.

Crashing returns to HBO this Sunday for its second season, and the title has taken on a new, much more redemptive meaning. This time we find Pete’s insular worldview slowly evolving as the mostly-atheist comedians he’s bonding with come crashing into this life. He’s partying a little more, having sex as a bachelor for the first time, and taking creative risks on stage with his act. Pete is still a saint surrounded by a comedic jungle of sinners, but he’s on a righteous and uproarious journey of self-discovery.

Pete Holmes took a break from the writers’ room to sit down with me to discuss the new season of Crashing, how he feels about “Christian comedy,” and why his faith has only benefited from being fluid and open-minded.  

Last season we saw Pete repeatedly take it on the chin, both personally and professionally. In season 2, Pete is still desperately trying to glue the pieces of his fractured love life back together, but he’s slowly but surely finding his voice has standup. How deliberate was that pacing?

I wanted to do the journey of a comedian as slowly and as realistically as possible. But if we did it too slowly and super realistic, Pete would still be an open mic-er through the whole second season. So we had to speed it up a little. It’s like listening to an audiobook on one-and-a-half speed. You can still follow it and it’s still natural, but we’re moving things along a bit quicker. If my character was succeeding all the time and really having an easy time with zero stakes, that wouldn’t be honest. It also would turn into more of a success porn show — like a dream-fulfillment show. Crashing and Pete’s journey are more about these micro dreams – small victories that used to feel incredible. In real life, the first time I went up at the Boston —the comedy club in New York that I really played at and is in the show — that was a success. I was just performing in Manhattan for a paying audience, even if I had to handout flyers for it. It was a huge deal. I think in TV and film, too often success for a standup is them getting to do Letterman.

Your faith in the first season was used as an engine for broader story beats. This season you’re really leaning into the day-to-day specificity of being this lone believer surrounded by atheist comics.

In the Christian community that I grew up in, we would talk about the bubble. I went to a Christian college, which was also a bubble. And I don’t mean it in a bad way. It was something we were conscious of. We’d be like, “Boy, we’re kind of in this bubble.” Some people never leave it. I married someone that was in it. Then we created our own little bubble within it. I didn’t know or have long conversations with many atheists or New Age-y people at that time. So it was very deliberate in season 1 to show how Pete is in denial. He thinks he’s going to get back with his wife. He thinks he’s going to get back with God as he knew Him, or It. Season 2 is Pete realizing, “Oh, this is for real.” Superman isn’t going to break through the wall and rescue him. He’s just single now. He’s alone in New York. He’s going to meet by virtue a lot of comedians or atheists, and that’s true to my experience. That’s true to the time of my life where I start to meet the beautiful, very attractive atheists.

Crashing gets atheists right. Most TV shows portray non-believers as one-dimensional clichés. How conscious of that depiction were you?  

I think often on TV, atheism gets simplified to something that’s just, like, “Whelp, I don’t believe in God!” and it’s viewed as a negative thing. It’s focusing on what they don’t believe, when really, atheists believe in a lot of things: the material world, the phenomena of the solar system, our human bodies and the miracle that all that is, even though they don’t think it is a divinely produced miracle. I wanted a gorgeous atheist. So Penn Jillette was the perfect choice, because when I talked to him on the phone just to discuss the episode, I got the same feeling that I get when I talk to a Buddhist scholar or somebody else that just has a very appealing worldview. Not too attached, not too rigid. Just a lot of peace and rapture for the moment.

Your devotion to your faith is well-documented, but so is your affinity for the secular world. You also curse and discuss drugs and sex in your act. Do you even consider yourself a “Christian comic”?

It’s actually funny, because as somebody who loves Christ, it’s a weird sore spot for me because I don’t think it should be a thing. But I am not a “Christian comic” and would never want to be considered a Christian comic. I don’t mind being known as a Christ-loving comedian, but that is not going to go on the poster. I’m also a Buddha-loving comedian. I’m also a void-and-the-nothingness-loving comedian. It’s all in there. But the problem for me — and I have a huge problem with this — is in the West we often reduce these very complicated and esoteric and non-dual belief systems into an ethical standard, like a Boy Scout morality. So “Christian comedy,” what does that mean? It means that I’m expected to not talk about fucking. It means that I’m expected to not talk about drugs. It means I’m expected to not talk about anything that’s not Christian in that view. And I fucking hate that.

There are Christian comics who only tour the church circuit and do 100% clean acts. How do you feel about them?   

There are stories of Christian comedians — and I have a heart for these people — where they’ll be touring churches, and they say something like “pissed off” and the crowd turns on them. Is that really what that message got reduced to? Is a group people that smile broad toothy grins and don’t swear, is that what Jesus was? What I always say is that people were drawn to Jesus because the idea behind him is so appealing, even to a hardcore atheist. It’s retold in every movie for a reason. Redemption and grace and openness and an appreciation for infinity are very sexy. And it somehow got watered down to not saying “pissed off” onstage. Honestly, that’s why I swear. I don’t have a swearing habit, but I deliberately enjoy swearing especially when I’m talking about spiritual things because that’s my way of being non-dual. I don’t want you to put me in that corner: “Well now Pete’s a Christian person, so he can’t say ‘motherfucker.’” And I say that’s not true.

We are pattern-seeking mammals but we really love ourselves some nice, clean binary thought.

It’s a sports team. We’re cheeseheads and we’re evangelicals. It’s very similar. You don’t have secret handshakes, but you say “frick” instead of “fuck” and you’re kind of in the same club. I don’t think eternal truth is as banal as that.

That concept of what defines a clean comic is perfectly crystallized in the hilarious cold open of the new season, where Pete’s browsing for porn online and timidly sets Google’s safe search filter to “medium.” Like he’s graduating to being a semi-dirty comic.

[laughs] That’s absolutely right. Pete this season is putting his own safe search on medium, for sure. That beginning moment is very deliberate. He’s looking at a Google search of boobs but he’s not ready for the hardcore stuff. I don’t know if he’ll ever be that. I don’t know. That’s honest. He’s also just eating and masturbating and medicating himself. It meant a lot to me to represent that side of what it’s like when your wife leaves you. Because for people whose wives or husbands have left them, there is this period that gets glazed over, which is mostly just eating and drinking and sleeping. Even if we could just do it at the beginning of the season as if to say, “This is what he’s been doing,” that’s a nice nod to my sad brothers and sisters.

Your character is sort of this nomad who’s perpetually acclimating. These non-religious comedians who he befriends are helping him evolve and become more open-minded, but some of their debauchery helps keep him tethered to his faith as well.

I love that. I think that’s something that I still can be guilty of and be affected by the people I’m with in real life. If you listen to the recent Gilbert Gottfried episode of my podcast, you can hear the whole time that I’m just very roast-y. I wouldn’t say dark —maybe a little dark — but just making fun of everything he said. It’s because that’s what his vibe is, so I just started playing into it. But Pete on the show doesn’t know his identity yet and therefore will adopt anyone’s, even if it’s just for one episode, including Leif and Penn.

Speaking of Leif, I love how this season starts out as a two-hander focused on your new, fraught relationship. Here you are with the guy who ruined your life, yet now he’s helping you rebuild it. Could you speak to that comedic relationship a little bit?

Obviously in real life, my wife had an affair and I did not become friends with the guy. That’s not to say he’s my enemy. I’m just saying we didn’t start hanging out. I think that even though our relationship is not literally true, what rings potentially true about it is that it’s one those things that you didn’t expect that ends up blossoming in other ways. For me, my real-life divorce led to a pursuit of the life that I really felt good about and felt like myself within. So Pete being friends with Leif is really Pete being friends with change, trying to make friends with change —which is a Ram Dass thing — and going with the flow a bit more. There’s also some value to Leif. He knows what he’s doing and Pete doesn’t have anybody else. So he’s really grasping his straws. It’s like in Moana – her boat crashes, but it crashes on the island she’s looking for and that’s kind of what Leif is. Pete crashed into him. The show is mostly a retelling of Moana. [laughs]

I’ve always been fascinated by the life of a barker, which seems dehumanizing yet essential just for the fact you grow thicker skin and it helps your craft in long run. This season Pete meets an aspiring rapper played by Wale who is passing out this mixtape on the corner. It shows that the grind of being a barker is a common bond across mediums.

It’s derivative of the whole journey because if you want this, you should be cold and you should be nervous and you should be humiliated. That’s why when I see the barkers now, it always means a lot to me. Most of them have seen the show so we always talk about the show’s depiction of it. My hope was to turn it into something that doesn’t inspire dread, but rather a sign that you’re on the right path. So casting Wale, there was a Judd call and it was a brilliant call because it was a way of winking at the audience. Like, here’s a great and relevant rapper right now and even he had to go through it. Everybody has to, even rappers. A lot of rapping is about confidence and swagger. But even those guys had to lay it down in the beginning and strip the ego a little bit.

Is there anything you hope people take away from this new season that they may not have from season 1?

Yeah – hopefully more of an understanding of what it means to be a comedian. I feel like the first season had maybe a loftier goal of conveying the fact that suffering is part of the journey. That’s still in the show. Now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of the nuances between the comedy scenes in New York and across the country, and how it is exactly that we make money, what we have to sacrifice to make a living while maintaining our relationships, and what are the difficulties there. I just feel like when the movie Comedian came out, I always knew that when I met Seinfeld I would thank him for making it. That movie really helped explain to my parents what it is we do. I did get to meet him about a year ago. I told him that, and I’d been holding on to it since 2002, so that was surreal. My goal now with Crashing is to hopefully show the emotion and the feeling and the humor and the struggle behind what it is to be a standup.

And what about you? Has writing and living within the universe of this show allowed you to discover new truths outside of it?

What I’m now finding to be very beneficial is fluidity. When I talk to comedians who are atheist, I don’t stand in the place marked “not atheist.” There’s something really beautiful about being fluid, because somewhere right in the middle is equanimity. That is the fluidity that I enjoy, where it’s not two goalposts in a football game. It’s asking, “How do you feel at this very moment?” Sometimes I don’t even like saying I believe in God, because there are moments where I need to remain open to my despair and doubt as well. I don’t think it’s a flaw in the system that I experience those things. I think that is the human experience. I’m not here to steam-clean that into some starch sheet of perfection. I’m here to feel all of that stuff.

Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.

Talking Faith, Standup, and Season 2 of ‘Crashing’ […]