The star and director of HBO's newest comedy series talk life, stand-up and more.
CHARLOTTE N.C. — Judging by his background, Pete Holmes doesn’t seem like your average comedian. He grew up fairly religious and went to the Christian-based Gordon College in Massachusetts, where he majored in English and Communications. He married young, at age 22, to the very first girlfriend he ever had but found himself divorced six years later and thrust into the world of stand-up comedy.
Since then, he’s appeared on numerous late-night shows, done cartoons for “The New Yorker,” hosted his own podcast called “You Made it Weird” and even managed to land a brief two-year gig hosting his own late night show on TBS. Now, Holmes has brought his talent to HBO in a new series titled “Crashing.” The comedy series is largely based on Holmes’ own experience starting out as a stand-up comedian in New York and dealing with the divorce of his first wife.
The series is produced by non-other than Judd Apatow, who also directed the first two episodes. Apatow has helped produce many of the biggest comedy films and TV shows of the last two decades, as well as directing features such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Trainwreck.”
I sat down with the two to talk about “Crashing,” their experience in stand-up and what it’s like to bring someone’s personal experiences to the small screen.
Pete, you’ve talked a lot about how the show is based on your own experience as a stand-up comic, what made you want to share your experience and develop it as a TV series?
P: “I just feel it was the story I could tell the best. I was going to do another sketch or talk show but then decided that the story I could tell better than anybody was one of a religious guy who married the very first girl he ever dated, only to have her leave him, and fall into the comedy scene in New York. As for the reason I decided not to do it as a movie or a one man show, I felt the engine could be the experience of crashing on a different comedians couch, which seemed very episodic. At that point, I felt it fit the mold of a Judd Apatow production and, after talking to him, he agreed that television was the best format to tell this story.”
How do you decide how much of your real-life experiences to put in the show vs. situations that may be too personal or need to be exaggerated for comedic effect?
P: “I think that is one of the things I learned from Judd. In a real divorce, there are a lot of moments where you have the blinds drawn, eating ice cream and quietly sobbing while watching “Sex and the City” because every little thing just makes you sad. I can even remember how every woman I saw after that experience would remind me how I was divorced. Even if it was just a waitress at a restaurant, I would cry out “Really universe! A waitress?” So, those are the kind of things we had to take out, simply because they were just too uneventful.
That’s also where Judd comes in because he is very good at taking something that is emotionally true and externalizing it. For example, in the third episode there is a yard sale, which didn’t happen in real life but the idea of having all your possessions laid out and sifted through by your neighbors is a good representation of what going through a divorce feels like. It’s about losing your privacy, being a little humiliated and getting three dollars for a framed photo of your wedding. So, that helps convey the story better and that’s what Judd would do. I would tell him something sad, like the waitress story, and he’d point to how that feels like this other thing that would work better in a comedy as opposed to a sad indi-movie.”
Judd, you’ve worked with numerous comedic actors over your career as a director. How do you approach giving a comedic actor direction while still giving them room to explore the comedy within their character or the scene itself?
J: “Generally, I find that comedic actors have really good instincts. A lot of it is setting up a situation where people feel comfortable. I like to talk with the actors, even weeks or months before we do shoot, about how they see their character or how they see the scene, so we can have it fairly worked out before we reach the set. From there, you want to create room for something extra to happen within that moment. So, if you’re fully prepared, you can get what you thought you needed and then you can have a little time to see if anything new sparks.”
One thing that’s apparent from the first episode is a deep love of stand-up. What role or attraction does stand-up and comedy have in both your lives?
J: “Well, it’s fun! It’s fun talking to people and bringing comedians on stage. It’s also a thrill because it can go so well or so badly. It’s one of the few tight-rope walking moments you get in life where you’re not in any kind of physical danger.”
P: “It’s pure exertion [laugh] and we like that! You get all the thrill of exercise without any of the danger. I also just think everybody, whether you’re a dentist or an architect, just wants their thoughts and feelings validated, whether that be in a conversation, a car ride, or a dinner. We do it with audiences and I think that’s part of why it feels so good. When everybody is laughing there tends to be some kind of agreement and it can also be immediate. You can think of something on your way to a show, do it on stage that night and you get the feedback right away. I think it also has to something to do with our depraved souls because we need that [laugh].”
What do you think helps set the show apart from other series about comedians in New York such as “Louie” or “Master of None”?
J: “I think we are in the same world as a lot of those shows, but it’s really about Pete and his own perspective. Certainly, we’re influenced by shows like “Louie,” but even that show didn’t have a whole lot of episodes about being a comedian. There was that great two-parter in the last season with him on the road but there were only really a handful of episodes that showed that world in great detail. So, we felt that nobody had really truthfully shown the comedy world, certainly the open-mic, early period of one’s career. But we’re proud to be mentioned in the same conversation as all those great shows.”