“If it sucks, you’re doing it right. I think that’s a fun thing to share with people.”
This is how Pete Holmes — creator of HBO’s latest comedy series “Crashing” — replied when I asked him to describe the central message of his new show. Accompanying Holmes during our conversation was Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”), one of “Crashing” ’s producers and the director of two of the series’ episodes. The Holmes-created and Apatow-produced comedy has been widely praised for its charismatic cast and clever wit. Released on Feb. 19, the series currently holds a 92 percent “Certified Fresh” rating on the popular aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.
Playing a fictionalized version of himself as a middling comedian recently separated from his wife, Holmes’s inspiration for “Crashing” is derived from his own experiences. Holmes divorced his wife in 2007 while struggling to progress his comedy career into his late-20s. It was at this time that Holmes became close with fellow comedian T.J. Miller (“Deadpool”), who features in two of the show’s episodes.
“The fun thing about T.J. was — when my real wife left me, he invited me to come hangout for a week in Pittsburgh,” Holmes recalled. “We laughed, and had a lot of room service… [now] when one of us is hurt we’re like dolphins [and can sense it].”
Holmes’s divorce had a profound effect on his psyche and drastically altered his perspective on life — he turned away from his faith to being able to appreciate the mystery in everything. This shift freed him to address new and different topics in his comedic routine, Holmes stated.
To fully explore these ideas about “boners and stuff,” Holmes and Apatow elected to do a television series, as opposed to a feature-length film. This represented a shift in from the norm for Apatow who — despite possessing a shared background with Holmes in stand-up comedy and the Los Angeles comedy club scene — typically does most of his production work on movies.
For Holmes, he decided it was a show as soon as the premise started to present itself as something episodic. While not his traditional domain, Apatow said he enjoyed the change in directing constraints due to the freedom offered by television that permits deeper character explorations. Despite the difference in medium, he maintained the same approach of striving to be funny by working with the actors before filming to acquire their perspectives on the scene and their character.
Applying this same approach to “Crashing,” Apatow and Holmes worked to develop a distinct style for Holmes’ character. When asked to compare his character on “Crashing” to his actual self, Holmes distinguished between the two personalities.
“[My character is] like me if I was a little bit sweeter and more naïve. It was a little bit of a vacation [to play that role],” Holmes said. “It just helped me have a point of reference for any scene.”
Although Holmes’s outlook changed, he still occasionally bombed during his stand-up routines.
“I remember doing a show with Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) that was so bad that I smoked a cigarette after the show because I wanted part of me to die,” he said, recalling one of his worst outings.
As a longtime stand-up comedian himself, Apatow was able to relate to Holmes’ experience, echoing similar thoughts about the effects of rough comedic performances on comedians.
“A lot of the fun of the show is watching someone do stand-up when they’re not good at it,” Apatow said. “[But] if [Holmes’s character] keeps trying, he’ll get funny enough to make money.”
Due to this frank depiction of the stand-up comedy experience, “Crashing” was deeply influenced by comedian Louis C.K.’s series, “Louie,” Apatow confirmed. Apatow went on to explain that, when viewing “Louie,” he realized that there are only a few episodes in the show that truly portray the world of stand-up comedy. Having a connection to “Louie” — a series that has been nominated for 22 Primetime Emmys — can only be considered a positive for “Crashing.”
However, “Crashing” was not constructed solely around finding the humor in daily struggles. Rather, it is meant to resonate with dreamers.
“There’s always a trend toward people having big dreams,” Apatow stated. “In that way I feel people can relate to this.”
Holmes echoed similar sentiments about his intentions for “Crashing.”
“Hopefully the show will give a reference point to anyone following a dream,” he added.