'Crashing' Star Pete Holmes On Staying Positive In Dark Times: 'It's Who I Am'
Pete Holmes has made a career out of laughing off the harder parts of his life.
If you can chalk up the appeal of "Crashing," HBO's breakout sitcom created by and featuring Holmes, to anything specific, it's the show's authentic heart.
The stories are largely drawn from Holmes' actual experiences in the comedy community, most of the bigger comedians in the show play themselves and, just like in real life, Holmes' awkwardly devout character is trying to "make it" in the business while going through a divorce after his wife cheated on him.
The main character is even named Pete Holmes.
On the heels of "Crashing" being renewed for a second season, we had the chance to talk with Pete about the show, what it takes to joke about darker subjects like divorce and what it's like to work with comedy heavy-hitters Judd Apatow, TJ Miller, Artie Lange and Sarah Silverman.
Elite Daily: The show is loosely based around your life. The character you play is almost aggressively positive while going through awful stuff. Were you more or less that positive while dealing with similar situations you go through in the show?
Pete Holmes: It's really kind of fun to revert and play that old version of me. He was basically who I am now, sweeter and a lot more naive and not very wise or experienced at all. So, it was fun to improvise as him and be him for a while every day.
At that time in my real life, I was so happy to be doing comedy and so happy to be mildly accepted by the New York scene that people used to accuse me of being on drugs. They really thought I was on drugs all the time just because I would say things like, “I'm just so happy to be here,” and that used to freak people out.
I guess a big issue with people in the New York comedy scene who are starting out is balancing wanting to do comedy and devoting large chunks of time to doing comedy, while trying to maintain a social life. Do you have any advice for maintaining that balance?
That's an interesting question. I don't know. I would say the normal stuff comes later. There is going to be a period where your life is very kind of rock and roll and strange. That's why you tend to make such close friends with other comedians and even tend to date other comedians.
For the first incubative period of maybe five, six, seven years, you really need people that are understanding and sympathetic to this kind of countercultural lifestyle.
Maybe that would be my advice: Surround yourself with people who are as passionate as you are because they won't think it's weird that you didn't go to their wedding because you got offered an emcee gig in Cleveland.
You play a very positive comedian in the show and you're obviously a very positive comedian, Do you think there is room for someone with almost unyielding positivity in comedy, especially now in 2017?
It wasn't intentional, it's who I am. I think that's the real advice. If you're being authentic to yourself, whether it be that you're positive or you're sour on everything, as long as you're being really real, audiences specifically feel that and will respond to whatever happens to me…
I am very positive, and I think there is something going on in the stuff we consume that seems to lean towards wanting to watch stuff that is kind of more of that lighter bend. I couldn't have planned for that in a million years, but I understand it.
I think that's one of the reasons why “La La Land” is sooo popular is because people are stressed and we just want to watch beautiful people dance. Or, in the case of “Crashing,” you just want to watch a doughy boy not give up hope.
Going back to being authentic, you were very religious and your character is also incredibly religious, what would you tell someone trying to maintain religious identity in a place like the comedy scene in New York?
I would say that all things you're afraid of being found out about — if you're a person of faith, or if you're a vegetarian, or your parents are insane or whatever it might be — those end up being, in the long run, the things that help you stand out.
And really standing out is very, very important, given that there are so many performers. When I was coming up, I was way more private about how spiritual I was. I tried to kind of keep it to myself. But then, when it came time to getting a show, that's when you bring everything to the table.
So if anyone is wondering how they fit in, anyway you don't fit in may feel like a weakness now, but will be a strength in the long run.
On your show and your podcast, you tend to cover really dark subjects. In “Crashing,” you talk about drug addiction and infidelity, something else that comes to mind is your podcast episode with Harris Wittles. How do you mentally navigate talking about something like those things with such a positive spin?
That's the beautiful thing about being a comedian: No matter what you're talking about, you typically have license to make observations about it, even while you're in it.
Harris was doing that in that interview as well, that's just kind of the something to “almost above all else.” We can be very sympathetic and compassionate to people, but it's very weird if you stop making jokes. It's almost an insult to the other comedian if you stop joking and trying to be the lighter side of this thing.
When I think of that podcast, I think of Harris doing that even more than I do. That's one of the things drew me to comedy. Teachers and pastors all have to operate by a code. Comedians can really be silly or serious, or be silly while being serious or serious while being silly.
We kind of have creative rights to do whatever it is we feel like doing, and that's one of the things that makes this such a liberating and fun job.
Is there any subject too dark that you would never cover?
You know, I get in trouble sometimes — and I just mean with myself — especially when we are talking about suffering or something we tend to go to pretty light examples, like traffic, or a breakup or, you know, something like that.
When you really get into big suffering. like nationwide genocide or tragedies, those tend to be things I stay away from. Not because we can't, but just because you can doesn't mean you should, you know?
Was there ever a point with the show where you were like, “it's too dark?”
Oh, yeah. That would happen all the time. Sometimes it would be Judd that would step in say, like, “I know that may be based on something real, but I think it's a little too uncomfortable or a little too off story to include.”
If you include everything that you've ever done, every embarrassing thing, none of it on it's own might be so shameful that the audience would walk away from you. But if you include all of them and you only have eight episodes in the show, the character starts to get assassinated in a quiet way.
You want to walk that line between sharing a lot and being different, but not losing your relatability. If you stack one after the other after the other, it just becomes a smear campaign you do on yourself and people stop rooting for you.
What was it like working with Judd Apatow?
I think what Judd is very good at is keeping it eventful and keeping it funny. Real divorce has a lot of closing the curtains and eating ice cream and taking naps all day. I would kind of pitch him stuff based on what I really did when I was really depressed.
A good example is I would tell him it really feels like your private life is displayed for people to pick through, you know you have to put on Facebook that you're divorced and all that stuff.
And he was like, “Oh, you should have a yard sale, that sounds like the materialization of that feeling is a yard sale. And that way, we can have a funny, eventful yard sale instead of people talking about your whole deal."
Going on that, do you have any advice for people going through divorce?
I would say you just really have to have faith that everything that happens is an opportunity to learn and grow.
It doesn't feel that way while it's happening, but you try and look at the events of your life and the narrative of your life almost as a movie or a TV show, and just ask yourself what kind of character do you want to be on that show.
I think it's tempting to roll over and play dead, but if you can create some sort of fantasy, some sort of best-self version where you bounce back. If you grieve and really grieve, you feel all those feelings, but you know, at the end, you're going to be OK and come out stronger for it and all those cliches are true.
It's good to keep those in mind. Think of yourself as a character in the TV show of your life and ask yourself what kind of character do you want to be.
TJ Miller, Sarah Silverman and Artie Lange are all in the show. Did you pick your favorite comedians and kind of put them in there, or was the show written with them in mind originally?
Once they were booked, we would change the script to fit them. We would never have the actor change to fit the script. So we would write it vaguely.
Like, TJ Miller's character was just kind of a crazy comedian named Dan or something. Then, when we knew TJ was definitely going to do it, that's when I would go back and write all the TJ-specific dialogue.
The same was true for Artie. In the pilot, he was just somebody named Bob or something. When Artie auditioned and destroyed it and we felt good, we then changed everything, obviously, to fit his personality and the story.
With Sarah, we asked her if she wanted to do an episode and she said yes, and we wrote it for her.
Do you have any goal comedians to get on the show?
For me, it would somebody, like, I'd love to have Steve Martin do a scene or two, or Dan Ackroyd or obviously Seinfeld be a really big deal if he was a character.
Also, we'd find ways to showcase guys that aren't necessarily mega famous. They're not just, like, professional headliners. Seeing more people like Greer Barnes or Big Jay Oakerson and kind of peppering those guys throughout the season, I'd love to do that as well.
Do you have any favorite up-and-comers?
Yeah, I mean, the people that we've used are some of my favorite. Henry Zebrowski, Jermaine Fowler and Aparna and I would love to see more of the local talent in New York. I do have people, but I'd hate to say their names and not use them [laughs].
Part of the show is going to local shows, seeing who is authentically going through this stuff and then finding a place for them. It's a show about how the comedy community helps itself, y'all help each other.
It's fun to have the show to actually be a way for the comedy community to help itself and help other people be on the show.
Was there a lot of improvising on set?
Oh, yeah, I want to say 80 to 90 percent of jokes were improvised because the way that we would write it was pretty straight and make sure it was true and emotionally correct, tonally. And then, it's not that jokes were the easy part, but they are the fun part.
So we would do it once as written, then we'd riff and we'd riff. Whenever I watch the show, I'm reminded, "Oh, shit! That was improv, and that was an improv, and that was an improv and that was an improv.” So we do improvise a lot.
Was there anyone on set that blew you away by improvising?
It's hard to guess, I mean, Artie improvised the entire scene in the pizza place in the pilot. That was incredible. He'd finish and everyone would erupt into applause, it was incredible.
TJ would riff so many jokes, and riff jokes and give them to other people, coordinating on those talents. Then, like, it was really fun to see how Judd and the writers, like Beth Stelling, would come up with jokes on set and then yell them out for me and the other actors on set.
So really, everybody that works for us is really good at thinking on their feet.
Last question, I brought this up a couple times, but you're a super positive comedian, do you have any tips for staying positive in 2017?
My advice would be to be involved, but don't get lost in it. Meaning, we can get angry, we can get anxious and we can get stressed — whatever it is that's going on in your life, try and stay in that kind of silly place. The observing place.
That's what the comedian is, the observing place where you make jokes and keep it light. We all have that. As crazy as things get, we can be involved and protest and help one another, but stay in touch with the part of you that is also kind of giggling no matter how shitty your day is. I think that's one of the secrets to staying light.
You can catch "Crashing" on HBO on Sunday nights.