Because New York and Hollywood tend liberal, actor and comedian Pete Holmes’ journey from teenage conservative Christian evangelical toward progressive “Christ-leaning spiritual-seeker” (to borrow his own words) is an unlikely one. HBO’s Judd Apatow-produced Crashing, now in its entertaining sophomore season, probes Holmes’ origin story.
Crashing’s Pete is an aspiring stand-up in New York City who was kicked out by his wife when he discovers she is having an affair with his friend. In season 2, Pete kicks off an awkward courtship with Ali Reissen (played by Texan Jamie Lee, an actual ex of Holmes’). In a hilarious recent episode, Holmes ends up crashing on Bill Burr’s couch (and having spirited debates with him), after Artie Lange ditches him at dinner to go score heroin.
Over the phone from his L.A. home, Holmes is an intelligent, affable man, giving in-depth answers. Our conversation covers his faith, Burr and Apatow’s edge, why he’s too attention-driven to remain a New Yorker cartoonist and the allegations against his friend and former costar T.J. Miller.
“If you picture a clear Gummy bear in a suit with a little American flag pin, that’s what Mike Pence looks like to me.”
What do you hope people take away from the second season of Crashing?
Whatever your dream is, if it sucks while you’re starting out, that means you’re doing it right. [Laughs] That is the underlying message of both seasons so far, is the idea that you’re not alone, and the idea of suffering for what it is you feel it in your heart to do is completely normal. Everybody that you admire also had to go through the same shitty hoops to get where they are today. That’s why the show’s called Crashing, not Flourishing.
There’s hopefully an underlying message of a little bit of hope and a little bit of solidarity for people. Even if they’re not comedians—if they want to be writers or photographers, or just a better parent, or a more realized person—that path is difficult. I wanted to make a show about not trying to hold your nose and get through all that stuff, but actually have a character who’s trying his best to enjoy it as best he can.
The first season, my character, Pete, is in denial that his wife has left him and that he’s been kicked out of his nest. In the second season, he’s owning the reality and the position, meaning he’s not expecting any sort of comeback. He’s now a single person, living in Manhattan, and he’s pursuing his dream, full-stop. It’s a different energy when you surrender to your circumstances. He doesn’t have one foot on the shore anymore—he’s in the boat, and he’s gonna take it on a wilder ride this season.
“It’s like, ‘Think about Big Bird from Sesame Street walking into a strip club. What would Big Bird do?’”
One of my favorite episodes of season 2 was the recent Bill Burr episode—there’s so much memorable stuff in there. To quote a couple of lines, the Bill character says: “Everybody has fucked-up thoughts,” and “I don’t think there’s a [comedy] line.” What are your thoughts on going too far as a comedian?
Bill is one of my favorite comedians, if not my favorite comedian. I know people are offended by his comedy regularly. You know how sour is one of the flavors in Thai food? That’s how Bill cooks his stand-up. It’s supposed to have this almost unpleasant element to it, an edge to it. And that is mastery as a stand-up. If he’s saying something—let’s say, about Hillary Clinton and [how] she can’t be the president. He knows; he was doing that during the election campaign, at a time when it was really ballsy to do that.
He would offend everyone, myself included. [Laughs]. “I don’t agree—I might even think this is inappropriate.” But you don’t stop there with Bill. He uses that heat coming off of you to help you fall into the next part. You’re gonna die laughing. And that’s what makes him such a master. Kind of use of shocking, or provocative, or inappropriate things. A master can use them as ingredients, like in Thai food, like a sour, or an overly spicy flavor in a dish, deliberately, to take the audience to a place that ultimately delights them.
I think the problem that we have these days is that we’re all on the record with what we like and what we don’t like–meaning the internet, and sharing everything on Facebook, and everything on Instagram. Everything is kind of displayed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, meaning there are dark sides to ourselves. Young [Sigmund] Freud called it “the shadow”—there’s a darkness to people that needs expression. A lot of art, or a lot of art’s purpose, is to explore those depths, those uncomfortable thoughts that everybody has. Even if you’re a nun—and a very good nun, a devout nun—sometimes in the morning, you pour cream in your coffee, and you’re like, “I fucking hate caffeine.” The whole of human experience needs to be explored through art.
Last year you opened for Dave Chappelle at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. During his compelling specials, which he dropped on New Year’s Eve, he said he considers going back into retirement because audiences are too sensitive now.
Oh, I didn’t know that. He said that? That’s interesting. Dave was doing so much stand-up in New York. I remember somebody telling me they went to his birthday party, and that at his birthday party, he did a set. This is a man who’s been doing stand-up since he was 16. He does it at his birthday party—you know, we all love stand-up, but I don’t do it at my birthday, you know what I’m saying? That’s another level of genius, and that’s another level of composition and talent and ability that he’s gonna have to do something, know what I’m saying? Mozart can’t stop playing the piano. [Laughs] It’s gonna have to happen in some way.
What’s your take on the whole comedy-world harassment issue?
I wouldn’t call it a comedy-world issue—I’d call it a very serious women’s issue. The point of all this is for all of us to consider and finally wrap our minds around that most women go through their lives feeling unsafe. And a lot of women have unsafe, bad things happen to them.
I’m a bit of an optimist; my hope is that all of this exposure is a web of accountability now. Now, if you’re a shitty person, you get called out. My hope is that beyond that being an interesting story or a salacious headline, that it’ll lead to a world where women are safer. That men behave better. Half of our population is afraid and has reason to be afraid. And it’s my hope that the movement leads to people behaving better and fucking cutting it out.
“T.J. [Miller]’s a very dear friend of mine, and I didn’t know the details of that story until I read them.”
What do you think of the allegations against T.J. Miller, who appears on Crashing’s first season?
T.J.’s a very dear friend of mine, and I didn’t know the details of that story until I read them. I knew that he had been stopped from graduating, and that basically all I knew was that he said, “I was falsely accused of something in college, and it went away. There was a [campus] trial, and it went away.” Then when it came back, along with everybody, I read the details.
I don’t have a perspective—obviously, I don’t wanna sell out my friend because he’s been such a lovely person to me. I think it’s a time to listen, meaning, I don’t think another guy needs to come up and be like: “This is what I think is going on!” It’s important to listen to women, it’s important to believe women and that’s what I’m doing. I’m waiting to see what people are saying instead of throwing more noise at the issue.
Let’s pivot. What is something special you’ve learned working with your producer Judd Apatow on the second season?
Judd is a big believer in shooting things lots of different ways and then having the option, when you’re editing the show, to make it a bunch of different ways. He always realigns it. “Now shoot one where Pete’s embarrassed and Jess is angry. And riff, and improvise.” Meaning, it’s almost like the job is never done—it’s just abandoned at a certain point. You’re always working on it. He’s always trying to make it funnier or trying to make it realer.
The thing that might surprise people the most is that he’s very particular about the reality of the show. It’s something that Garry Shandling taught him, and Judd taught me, which is that if you believe the world and the circumstances and the characters, the comedy just kind of happens. As opposed to just writing perfect, clever jokes that any of the characters could say. You wanna make situations that have a bit of warmth, a bit of heart to them, so the comedy comes more organically.
“Your naivety combined with your confidence is horrendously irritating,” Marc Maron said testily about you on your podcast, You Made It Weird. What’s your riff off that?
[Laughs] For better or worse, I know I do genuinely annoy Marc Maron. I consider us friends, but I don’t think he’s putting it on. But when he did my podcast, I think we uncovered it a bit; we’re kind of two sides of the same coin. When we sit together, we can actually find our similarities. I’m somewhat envious of his ability to speak his truth regardless of people’s feelings. He doesn’t put on a show for people—he doesn’t grin and bear anything, really. He looks at me, and he sees a guy who seems to genetically savor a sillier, goofier, less-inhibited worldview. I think we kind of envy one another.
I think I envy your Mike Pence one-liner [“I feel like Mike Pence’s favorite Gummy bear is clear”].
Especially if you picture a clear Gummy bear in a suit with a little American flag pin, that’s what Mike Pence looks like to me. I don’t think he wants to be alone in a room with a woman because he’s too delicious! [Laughs] It’s not partisan. Come on, that guy looks like a fucking Gummy bear.
Pete appears in church, during episode 6, “Artie.” Did you import significant liturgical influences into the season?
My character goes into a Catholic church, and the reason for that is because Catholic churches are beautiful. [Laughs] We’re trying to use that visual vocabulary to remind the audience that, even though this season is about Pete questioning his faith, he’s still clinging to it. Especially when times get hard, when things get low. It’s kind of like that expression: Once a smoker, always a smoker. It’s like, Christians, in my belief, can’t just become ex-Christians? That’s how I feel, and a lot of my friends [feel]. Meaning, you’ll never be fully an atheist. You’ll always have some of that info ‘cause it got into you when you were still forming your brain. So it’ll always kind of be there with you on a bumpy plane ride, during a moment of stress.
You describe yourself as a “Christ-leaning spiritual-seeker”? The morning after you hook up with Jamie Lee’s character, Ali, is scored to that “Lou-cifer” Reed song “Sunday Morning.” Is that the sort of thing you would’ve imagined yourself doing as a young evangelical?
[Laughs] I was raised fundamentalist, meaning believing the Bible literally. My wife left me when I was 28, and I lost my faith. Then I started rebuilding it. And one of the things that actually brought me back to it was a fuller understanding of where God—or you can just call it awareness, or goodness—is. And that’s that it’s everywhere. It’s not something that happens in church, it’s not something that happens because you’re being a sweet guy who doesn’t say “fuck” or “shit.” It’s so much more expansive and inclusive than I thought it was.
I always saw my faith as a club that I belonged to—I was a card-carrying member of the capital-R Right religion that provided me all these amenities. The greatest one of which being, of course, eternal life in heaven, while everyone else burns forever. That’s how religion was sold to me.
I think it’s right there—I think it’s just re-framed by people in the interest of control or religious systems or something. It kind of got ruined along the way. I’ve turned away from all that, but the reason I say I’m Christ-leaning is, I read the Jesus story now very, very differently. Very openly, very inclusively, very lovingly.
Anything else that might surprise people about real-life Pete versus Crashing Pete?
When I play Pete on the show, I have to be a bit more naive and sweeter and trusting with people. I’m still somewhat naive, and I’m still sweet, but back then, nothing bad has happened yet to you. So, you have no reason to distrust people. Unfortunately, now that I’m 38, I’ve had enough situations where I don’t know if I trust that type of guy, you know? [Laughs] I’m a little more guarded than the character.
So, playing him is so fun, and it’s actually kind of like a vacation. It’s like time travel on one hand, and it’s like a vacation on the other, is that I can just relax and be basically like a 15-year-old kid again. We joke on the show when we write stories for my character, it’s like, “Think about Big Bird from Sesame Street walking into a strip club. What would Big Bird do?” [Laughs]
Real-life Pete is also a New Yorker cartoonist—kudos for that existentialist one with the dog and the stick. Does cartooning still interest?
I am so much more a glutton for the audience response, meaning I need to do stand-up, I need it to be my face. … So my appetite for attention was greater than what cartoons in The New Yorker could provide. … I think comedians are a little bit more depraved. We need that immediate response all the time.