I'm Sorry But HBO's Crashing Sucks

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I'm Sorry But HBO's <i>Crashing</i> Sucks

For a different take on Crashing, read Robert Ham’s short essay from Paste Quarterly #1.

This week’s episode of Crashing, Pete Holmes’s show about how he became famous enough to make the show he’s making, almost gained sentience. It happened in the third act, as Pete’s uptight parents offered him a few notes on his stand-up set—the first they’d seen—in which he joked about shredding the manual to his paper shredder (“If this doesn’t shred, I’ll read it.”) and marveled at the paradox of “Falling Rocks” signs: “What are we supposed to do—slow down? Speed up?” His mother, a pitch-perfect Audrie Neenan, ponders the trifling nature of his material. “I didn’t really learn anything about you,” she says. “Where was the perspective? The other guy, he was dirty, but at least he had a point of view: ‘Sex can be a difficult thing.’ I got a very clear picture of what he’s struggling with.” Pete sputters with incredulity, asserting in short order that he’s just “making jokes,” that “it’s observational, you know, it makes people happy” and finally that “this is my life.” His face is stricken with pain. He can’t believe his mother, whom he dotes upon with age-inappropriate intensity, would say these things. We’re halfway through the season and he finally seems to be grappling with the possibility that he’s made a mistake—that maybe he shouldn’t have sacrificed his marriage to tell goofy jokes to sparse crowds. He watches his parents leave, aghast. Then he goes to a bar with his estranged wife, Jess (Lauren Lapkus), who says she’s proud that he finally broke up with his mom. She’d warned him earlier that they were too close. He didn’t believe her. Now he’s learned his lesson. “She’ll find somebody new,” he says. “Maybe my dad.” And there it is: The episode’s climactic discovery is not that Pete’s art lacks substance but that he must grow past his childlike attachment to his mother, who doesn’t get him anymore. Not that his jokes suck, but that she was wrong to say so. Not that he’s made mistakes, but that he was right all along.

This… is bullshit.

I have held off on writing about Crashing’s astounding lack of self-awareness because the series is an origin story, ostensibly, and origin stories often begin in a place of relative naïveté. And boy has Crashing luxuriated in its naïveté. The premise of the show is that Pete’s wife leaves him because he loves comedy more than her, something which is never articulated with any greater clarity than that their sex life is dull and he is gone at nights sometimes. So far we know next to nothing about her inner life beyond that she dislikes comedy, or his inner life beyond that he loves it. More bizarrely, the show frames Pete’s pursuit of comedy as some brave Quixotic act. In the third episode, “Yard Sale,” TJ Miller tells off Jess for failing to support Pete’s art. She retorts that stand-up is for narcissists who crave attention and gratification. A schoolteacher, she balks at the notion that comedy could put any goodness into the world. TJ, who literally says that comics matter more than teachers, rejoins with the story of an email he received from a fan: TJ’s podcast, the fan said, saved his life. The scene ends with Jess stony and silent, TJ having won the argument and Crashing having implicitly taken his side. If that sounds like an extreme reading, consider the choice Jess offers Pete in the episode’s climax: She will take him back if he gives up comedy.

Seriously! None of this is played with any hint of irony. Pete is the good guy, Jess is the bad guy. Pete has a goal, Jess presents the difficult decision he must make to achieve that goal. Perhaps the intent is for them both to occupy some moral grey area in a story about the difficulty of sustaining a marriage, but that would require of Jess a deeper motivation than “you love comedy too much so I cheated on you with someone who doesn’t love comedy so much.” It would also require Pete’s stand-up to have more depth than tepid observational riffs that reflect neither a love of making people laugh nor literally anything else. The jokes he performs provide no window into his inner life, as is typically the purview of art within art about artists (and which Holmes has said is the purpose of the stand-up in Crashing). It is also virtually indistinguishable from the casual quipping that dominates so much of Crashing’s dialogue. Everything the man says is a bit, yet not one tells us anything more about him than that he loves comedy and is Christian, though even this is left on the periphery. Allegedly he cares about making people happy, but obviously not enough to notice that his wife is deeply dissatisfied with their marriage. (Maybe he was too blinded by his love of driving into Manhattan to do open mics, but I’m skeptical—the show takes great pains to show he’s a level-headed guy). These are fundamental questions which Crashing has barely tried to answer. What does Pete want? To tell jokes. Why? To create joy. Well, yeah—that’s what jokes do. So what about this world has compelled Pete to make joy his mission? That… road signs… are… silly?

It’s a problem that Pete has no deeper point of view because Crashing asks us to believe that his love of the art is so powerful it could a) destroy his life and b) give him a reason to crawl out of the wreckage. But Pete doesn’t stand for anything. He doesn’t even stand against anything. He’s in the game for the sake of the game. He’s here to have a good time. And that’s a fine reason to do comedy—in real life. In an autobiographical TV show framed as a story of personal sacrifice in the pursuit of a higher calling, the whole thing gets disturbingly solipsistic. And just a touch sociopathic: This is the story of a man who wants to have fun, so he goes out and has so much fun that he stops paying attention to his wife. Then, later, he goes to great lengths to make her feel shitty about leaving him. And the show rewards him for it! At the end of the aforementioned episode, “Parents,” he tells Jess that he’s having the time of his life. He’s getting gigs left and right. He’s making friends. Jess hands him her wedding band and he takes it, finally accepting that their marriage has ended. Everything is fine.

If Pete has no point of view, Crashing has no point of view. The story is a mirror pointed at another mirror, an Entourage-level exercise in hagiography. This might be easier to stomach if it were well-written—most of the dialogue is a comedian’s wet dream of conversational banter, featuring earnestly delivered dad jokes like “My calendar’s so empty, I open it up and Siri asks me if I’m okay”—or if Pete had a particularly interesting life story. Or, God forbid, both of the above. Perhaps this isn’t a problem for longtime fans of his podcast, but I have yet to see any reason to care about Pete’s struggle. His wife left him, but he doesn’t seem all that upset about it. He lost his house, but he learns in episode three that he’s getting it back. In pretty much every episode somebody tells him he’s good at comedy. By the end of the season I imagine he’ll start a podcast and discover for the dozenth time that he can be a successful comic without ever saying much of consequence. The few times anyone tells him he is selfish or misguided, a pretty standard critique leveled against protagonists like him, the show makes clear that they are in the wrong. In short, Crashing is less interested in making its hero suffer than in validating him, again and again and again. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it is definitely very weird to see a famous comic make a premium cable show about how good and right he is.

On the other hand, it was bound to happen eventually.

The Louie-spawned era of television comedies about comedians has included some truly excellent shows—well, Maron, at least—which generally take it as a given that the actual work of being a comedian isn’t all that interesting. It’s pretty much sitting in a room writing, then sitting in another room waiting to talk. Like Crashing, these series tend to give us only glimpses of their protagonists onstage, recognizing both that if people wanted to watch stand-up, they’d watch a special, and if a joke is short enough that it doesn’t need five minutes of context, a good writer can usually work it into dialogue. Unlike Crashing, the protagonists of these shows—Louis CK, Marc Maron, Tig Notaro in One Mississippi—have lives outside of comedy. Louie’s got his kids, Marc’s got his various addictions and interpersonal failings, Tig has a dead mother to grieve and rediscover. These shows recognize that comedy is a way of looking at the world, not the world itself. They also recognize that telling jokes onstage is not ipso facto an act of bravery or sacrifice. What’s brave, you know, is saying something brave. Not all comedians have brave things to say and that’s fine; there is plenty of room for everyone who wants to shoot the shit to make a living shooting the shit. But as the industry trends towards more and more shows about comedians, and as networks step over each other to scoop up comics who gained massive followings through podcasts and web series and stand-up, a problem emerges: Given a large enough group of people who became famous talking about themselves, you will inevitably end up with people who don’t know how to talk about anything else. This is evident in many “creator-driven” shows on networks that recently pivoted into comedy. It is also evident in many younger comedy platforms that need lots of new content fast, and offer attractive deals to artists who may not have the chops or mass appeal for primetime. And now, with Crashing, it is abundantly evident on primetime too.

Am I being too harsh on a low-stakes, lighthearted sitcom about the pratfalls of a hapless white guy? I don’t think so. We are presently in a comedy bubble, and the thing about bubbles is that they burst. The stand-up boom of the 1980s crashed when there were more comedy clubs than comics to perform in them. If the trend epitomized by Crashing continues, I fear we may soon have more autobiographical shows about comedians than comedians with interesting biographies. More broadly, I don’t think it is too much to expect that a premium cable series have even the framework of a social conscience, or at the very least moral curiosity. A show should say more than “Look at me, I matter too,” especially if the person saying so is Pete Holmes. It would also be nice if the people who make TV shows had some sense of what came before them, though maybe that is too much to ask. I am thinking of this bewildering exchange between Holmes and Mike Birbiglia on a recent You Made It Weird, in which Holmes makes the case for shows about comedians:

HOLMES. Why comedians? Here’s why, in my opinion. One, they have a believable reason to be funny. Even if your wife is leaving you, you’d be making some jokes. So that helps us. Two, no matter what your dream is, everybody’s hope out of existence is to have their insides, their thoughts and their feelings, brought outside and be celebrated. So the plight of the comedian is the plight of everybody.

BIRBIGLIA: Right. It’s the reason why they sing in musicals, it’s the reason why there’s voiceover in films often. You need to understand what’s on the inside in order to care about what’s on the outside.

HOLMES. And the comedian, like in a good Sopranos episode, can go onstage, certainly, but he’s also expected to be mildly narcissistic, overindulgent. My dad doesn’t sit around with his buddies and really, like, lay it all out like a yard sale: “Here’s the insides of me!” But comedians do. So even if you’re a dentist or a teacher—which is show business, let’s be honest—or a writer or an architect or a cook, you can watch somebody who’s not good becoming good, and pour yourself into that empty vessel of a comedian, and thankfully it’ll be funny, and we all love funny. So that’s why I think not only is my show not, like, “Why do we have another late night show with a white male host?” or whatever, which can be an issue for sure.

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah.

HOLMES: It’s a welcome addition, I hope, because people are like, “Yeah, it’s just like Homer quote-unquote ‘works at a power plant,’ let’s just get to the goods.”

There is much to unpack here, but let’s start small: um, what? A generous read of that first paragraph might take it as a reaction against joke-machine sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory that grant total misanthropes the power to toss out zinger after zinger. But what rings false about these shows is not that their characters have no reason to be funny—it’s that they don’t act like real people. Real people are funny. Real people who are not comedians are funny. A person need not be a comedian to tell a joke. A line of dialogue need not be a joke to be funny. Many of the funniest things are not jokes at all. It is no coincidence that some of the funniest shows on television are prestige dramas: Rounded characters, intelligently and thoughtfully drawn, will inevitably find themselves in funny situations. An endless stream of zingers does not suddenly become watchable when the character delivering it is a professional zinger machine. Am I the only one who gets sick of that thing where a group of people under some inescapable social pretext doesn’t have anything to talk about, so someone makes some quip, and then the next person wants to prove they’re funny too, and then you have no choice but to hop on in, and it just cycles around and around until you’re all dead or the party ends? No, I don’t think I am. It’s fake. It’s exhausting. Too much of it will drive you crazy—you know there’s a person behind the mask, but they won’t tell you who they are. It’s no way of moving through the world, not if you want to get anywhere good. The same entropy affects so much middling comedy, stand-up or otherwise, where you can almost hear the writers asking, “This thing that happened—how can I turn it into a joke?” instead of just saying what they think.

And to suggest that comedians have some sort of monopoly on talking about their feelings? Let us put aside that the history of dramatic writing is the externalization of internal emotion through action, that it is generally considered heavy-handed when a film uses voiceover to deliver exposition, that the musical theatre metaphor would only apply if Pete’s stand-up in Crashing actually explained his emotions, and that the whole purpose of any story is to place words and actions in such an order that they generate empathy in the audience, allowing you and I to feel some relation to the people onscreen. If your pitch for your art is that it exposes your inner life, then your inner life had better be a lot more interesting than “I like comedy.” And if you would like people to see themselves in your plight, then you might want to show them some honest-to-goodness plight. The plight of the comedian may well be the plight of everybody, but the plight of the straight white guy who’s encountered some inconvenient setbacks on his path to fame and fortune is emphatically not.

The poet and novelist Stephen Dobyns once wrote that the “hidden subject” of any work of fiction is the reader. It takes him an essay to make his case but the gist is this: A story is a metaphor. It represents the writer’s idea of reality, which has value to the reader in that it either resembles her own idea of reality or “wakens” her to such an idea. Over the course of a story, that metaphor moves “from the quirky specificity of the writer’s life to the greater universality of the reader’s.” By discovering your truth, I am able to see mine anew. What was so confusing about that scene in “Parents” is that Pete’s mother’s criticisms are wholly legitimate. She’s asking for him to say something distinct enough about his vision of the world that she might gain a better sense of hers. As well she should—it’s reasonable to hope that if you give someone your time and your attention, they might in return give you some new way of thinking, or at least some new thoughts. Pete’s response, and Crashing’s by proxy, is a big fuck-you. It’s just jokes, he says. They don’t have to say a damn thing. It’s not about you, it’s about me.

There will be plenty more shows in the mold of Crashing. I hope deeply that they do not adopt its ideology, or lack thereof, though I suspect many will. The wisdom goes that we are in a golden age of TV comedy, yet this cannot last if comedians do not use their platforms to say something about the world we live in. “We write,” Dobyns says, “to be free of things, not to express ourselves; to become articulate, not to mumble to ourselves; to drive our feelings and vague ideas into consciousness and clarity.” It may be that memoir is as proper an avenue for some to achieve this clarity as it is improper for Pete Holmes. Please, prove me wrong. All I ask is that those who are fortunate enough to have a microphone make their voices necessary.


Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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