Jamie Lee, who stars on Crashing, has gotten off to an impressive start to 2018. In addition to portraying rising stand-up Ali Reissen on the HBO comedy, her January album, I Mean…, features hilarious riffs on father-daughter relationships, marriage, hookups and sexual mores.
Crashing co-star Pete Holmes tells Playboy that Ali flips tired ideas of women in stand-up, as she “is the way better comedian, the more experienced comedian, the wiser comedian, to Pete’s bumbling, failing counterpart.” Indeed, episode 7 of season two zings, with Ali sticking to her guns by telling an anti-rape joke during an audition, and later taking Pete to task for (successfully) watering down his act so as not to offend anybody.
Lee chats with Playboy about how she and Pete—her real-life ex—are like Seinfeld’s Elaine and Jerry. She also discussed #MeToo, why “everybody has fucked-up thoughts” and creativity as addiction.
“People wanna see a girl who isn’t asserting her femininity or sexuality in any way. I think there are more female comedians who are starting to flip that trope, which is really exciting,” you said recently. Could you expand on this idea?
When I was starting out, I felt like there was an unspoken pressure to not lean into classically feminine topics: anything from dating to body image to success. I think people would hear those sort of buzzword topics and be like, "Oh, you’re just a typical female comedian talking about female issues.” We’re in a place now where people want to hear the truth, what you’re passionate about. If those are the issues that mean something to you, then you need to be the one to delve into them in an interesting, meaningful way for your own benefit.
How do you hope people react to Crashing?
I hope it warms people’s hearts, and I hope that the character of Ali Reissen inspires young girls who are interested in going out and [doing] stand-up, to actually go for it. The character is very powerful. She’s very determined, and she’s very career-focused; I think that that is an inspiring type of person to portray on television, especially right now with everything that’s happening with Time’s Up and #MeToo. I think we need to show as many boss-ass bitches as possible!
“That initial call when you get the ‘Crashing’ part is such an insane feeling. Now I’m quietly appreciative.”
What’s your take on the whole #MeToo movement?
It’s really important, and I’m thrilled that it’s happening. It seems long overdue, and we still have a lot more work to do and progress to be made, but it feels like there’s been a shift in the air, a shift in life. When I walk outside, when I interact with men, in a bigger sense or in a friendship sense, I’m finding an added level of awareness. It’s very subtle, but it’s very significant to me, as a woman.
The biggest thing about #MeToo is that it’s fostered a community of speaking up, speaking your mind, bravery and sharing. I think that in a place that was previously a place of shame or fear, we’re moving in a direction away from that, where we’re telling each other, as women, “It’s OK to speak up, and your story’s very valuable.”
What might people get from your debut album, I Mean …?
I want people to laugh a lot and think maybe, “Oh, I like that this story is saying stuff that maybe I’ve thought but that I didn’t feel comfortable saying.”
As the daughter of Texan rock-concert promoters, you had an interesting anecdote about going to see GWAR as a young person and being sprayed with blood and other bodily fluids. A different sort of upbringing from Pete Holmes, Crashing’s male lead?
Yes, very. I did not grow up in a religious household, but I did grow up in Dallas, Texas, with a lot of religious people—a lot of evangelical Christians—because it’s the Bible Belt. So kind of felt like an outcast. There’s this urge for me of wanting to see the edge because that’s what I was showed by my parents–that you can have success and be unconventional. That was the message in my household.
How is it dating Pete on HBO after dating him in real life?
We’ve been friends for so long, so much longer than we dated, and we’ve also worked together on several projects, so I honestly don’t even think about it anymore. I find us people who have been friends a long time who dated for a very short period of time. Kind of like Jerry and Elaine.
But Jerry and Elaine end up getting back together, as friends with benefits!
Right, cut that part out! Jerry and Elaine who both got married to other people, and the other people were also friends. More fun, more fun. I find the relationship between Pete and Ali very different from the relationship I had with Pete.
Bill Burr’s contribution to season 2 is stimulating. He says, “Everybody has fucked-up thoughts,” and “I don’t think there’s a [comedy] line”. What do you think?
I find that still to be really comforting and very true. We do have a dark side. I always say that I have this deep morbid curiosity, and I think that comedy does give you a safe space to navigate those dark corners of your brain, versus closing them off and shutting them out. It sort of forces you to clean out that part of the closet, if you will.
Do you feel your persona becoming more provocative? One of Ali’s Crashing on-stage zingers is the punchline, “Grandma, you have ‘mount.’”
Oh, yeah! I love that joke. It is true that I do have some fairly aesthetically focused women in my family. So I never actually said, “That’s my grandmother”; she would be very upset if I did. I think I still tried to joke from a very real place for me, which is that I felt a lot of body shame growing up.
While breaking onto the New York City comedy scene, you had to live in a gross apartment?
Yes, I had a really disgusting apartment. It was such an old building, and it had this smell. I don’t know if it was the ventilation system, but there was this wafting chicken smell percolating through my apartment all day, every day, and I was breathing in this chicken fat. Then other people would start cooking, different types of smells, and it was very suffocating. It was also a small apartment, so I felt like I was trapped in this sensory deprivation tank of stink.
And your roommate was inconsiderate, too?
I did hear her having sex a lot, and that was hard for me because I was really single. It took a lot of confidence in myself—and reading a lot of self-help books, and listening to self-help audiobooks—to push through that time, because the future was really unknown.
There are some strong female collaborators on Crashing. What makes a writer like Emily V. Gordon special to work with?
Working with other women is really important—it’s a stronger work environment. Emily, I’ve known for a long time. She’s super talented. She’s so quick and funny in the writers’ room—it’s truly no surprise to me that she was nominated for an Oscar [for co-writing The Big Sick] and is about to write a movie for Amazon.
I enjoyed Ali and Pete’s heated disquisition about Chris Rock after performing to sensitive college campus audiences in episode 7. Do you agree with Rock’s argument that campuses are too conservative?
I think performing at colleges—versus a comedy club—is a bit of a different experience. Sometimes it’s the same—you can fully be yourself, even be raunchy or boundary-pushing—but there are other times where you’re worried that the students are too young for some of your more “adult material.” It really just depends on the school and its particular vibe and culture.
Comedians’ advice is a Crashing leitmotif. What’s the worst creative advice you’ve given?
The best advice I’ve given someone is that there’s proof in the pudding. I do know a lot of people who say, “Oh, I’m a writer—I wanna be a writer”, but they haven’t actually written anything. I think that it’s actually as simple as having tangible clues of your passion to back up that it is actually your passion.
Is there a particular Crashing scene from season 2 that’s stayed with you?
Yeah, there’s a scene in the fifth episode of this season between Pete and I, and also John Mulaney. Love that. It was really fun to film, and I’m really excited for people to see it because the chemistry between Pete and John Mulaney is really good and funny.
I did enjoy that—it’s classic character-Pete. He’s trying hard to be helpful, but being awkward and annoying.
Yes! Meanwhile, Ali’s in control, doing her thing. Pete so badly wants to immerse himself in other people’s lives. That’s definitely the way he connects and relates to people. Ali is someone who’s a little suspicious of that, so the dynamic between them is her trying to figure out, “Is this guy for real? Can I trust him? Can I let him in? Because I’m pretty good on my own without him.”
“I was about to be an actress on HB-motherfucking-O, telling the story of a determined female stand-up helping a male stand-up navigate the rough waters of comedy. Fuck it, I’m a badass,” you wrote on Lenny about getting the role.
That initial call when you get the part is such an insane feeling. Now I’m quietly appreciative. I still feel really excited.
Crashing notably explores Artie Lange’s heroin habit. How is he doing presently?
I wish I knew. I haven’t talked to him in a little while—we’ve tweeted a bit back and forth on Twitter—but over this summer, I had such a great time working with him. He’s one of the most gentle, caring, uplifting people to be around. When I was starting out in stand-up, he had a show on DirecTV, and he had me on a couple of times as a guest, which really at the time meant everything to me. I’m such a fan of his, so for me it is pretty surreal to be on a show with him, especially because he’s so good on Crashing. I hope he is feeling better and doing better.
Is creativity addictive?
Definitely. There is nothing more exciting and more satisfying, and it really does bring me such joy. I really am at my happiest when I’m writing or coming up with a new idea. It’s really hard to not follow that. I don’t consider it work—I really do consider it to be my heart and my soul. And stand-up will always be a passion of mine. It is in my bones.
Crashing airs on HBO, and the first two seasons are currently available for streaming.