The interior of Rififi, the East Village’s legendary alternative comedy hotspot, is filled with mismatched chairs, thick blue columns, red lanterns, a DJ booth, and crushed velvet seating around the perimeter. Or, at least, it was when it closed its doors in 2008. The Rififi I’m looking at is the same, however—perfectly reconstructed within a small sound stage at Cinemagic Studios in Greenpoint as a setpiece for the second season of HBO’s Crashing. “It’s like summoning a ghost,” says Pete Holmes, the creator and star of the show, which fictionalizes his couch-surfing discovery of the New York comedy scene after his wife runs off with a co-worker. “But a friendly ghost, like Casper.”
Rififi isn’t the only ghost that has been revived for Crashing. The Boston Comedy Club is set up on an adjacent soundstage, filled with old comedy posters, headshots that sneak the faces of the crew onto set amongst those of established comedians and scraps of receipts taped to the cash register, all meticulously distressed. (“We’re the messer-uppers” announce two crew guys). But Rififi is the focus of today’s shoot, and Rififi was Holmes’ first true comedy home in New York, a playground where every notable comedian of the 2000s either stopped by or got their start. The Crashing team was even able to track down, to the delight of the Rififi veterans present, the exact model of amplifier on which they would rest their setlists before going on stage.
Holmes isn’t the only one taken aback by how precisely everything has been recreated. Jamie Lee, a writer for Crashing, is here as a love interest for Pete this season. Her attempt to perform at several different venues in one night—a major appeal of New York for budding comedians—is the focus of this episode. Today’s scene will revolve around her getting bumped by John Mulaney at Invite Them Up, Rififi’s signature show, causing Pete to come to her defense, and, naturally, mess it up. Mulaney, looking characteristically dapper in a grey suit and red tie, is also impressed by the authenticity of the set, as are Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale—the erstwhile hosts of Invite Them Up—who stand in a corner discussing the timeline of the Crashing universe, where they and their show have found themselves plopped. The show does bend time a little when it comes to the trajectory of its star. Pete is a 2005-beginner, interacting with a 2017-famous Mulaney. Everyone on set seems to be aware that this resurrection is something special, from the massive, gruff crew guys to the makeup artists, all of whom mill around with a bunch of people eating watermelon and a few other journalists, who, like me, are wondering whether the polite invitation to take a Diet Coke is okay to follow up on.
The three camera setup inside Rififi allows for any off-the-cuff conversation to be recorded simultaneously, and boy are they about to take advantage of it. As Jaime and Pete rehearse with director Jude Weng (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fresh Off the Boat), Pete puts down his comically tiny cup of espresso but still laughs, shouts and giggles his way through the scene—the rehearsal is just to make sure everyone’s on the same page, the real acting will come in later. Jude asks Pete to let his look linger as Jamie walks away. When the moment comes, Jamie’s petulant exit immediately makes Pete roar with laughter. “I’m sorry,” he says. “We’re dear friends.”
In between takes, the set roars back to life as faces are powdered and lights adjusted. When the camera rolls, however, it is so quiet my pen-click echoes embarrassingly throughout the entire room. This level of focus is particularly warranted, however, as it appears no two takes are going to be remotely the same. By the second take—which sees Pete more unctuous towards Mulaney, and Mulaney more aggressive towards Pete—their dialogue quickly escalates to a fully improvised Battle of Bits. Mulaney and Pete are riffing with the confidence of old friends, keeping anything that works well for reuse in subsequent takes. Pete will find several different ways to compare meeting Mulaney to meeting a Comedy-Kennedy over the course of the shoot, sneaking a new iteration of the joke into every other take. It’s pretty clear that Pete cannot contain his enthusiasm for any of this, and why would he want to? It translates realistically into a puppy dog adoration for the world TV Pete is just beginning to explore, even if real-life Pete is a seasoned veteran who, after cutting his teeth on the first season, now makes micro-adjustments that give Jude options and move the shoot along speedily despite all the improvisation and general tomfoolery.
By the third take Mulaney has gone full George St. Geegland, snapping at Pete immediately for daring to approach him, comparing him to Béla Károlyi, chastising him for not getting the reference, and just generally being a massive dick. It goes without saying that the entire set, Pete included, is barely holding it together throughout all of this. Several people crowded around the monitors are clasping their hands to their mouths in order to stifle any laughter that might ruin a take. Mulaney, on the other hand, is a stone wall. If watching TV being made is usually pretty repetitive and boring, as we have been told, you wouldn’t know from watching Pete and Mulaney, who changes tactics abruptly in the fourth take, becoming all smiles. Still, he is no less unsettling, a creepy ventriloquist doll-boy who quietly turns malevolent as he tears Pete’s request apart.
Each improvisation is interrupted at some point by Jamie, mortified at Pete’s unprofessional initiative. Jude decides to underline this angle. Pete is like a child who should not cross the street, she tells Jamie. “Treat him like that.”
Later in the afternoon, the Rififi extras, who have up to this point been silently laughing at a comedy show that isn’t happening, finally get to activate. Pete instructs them to be “real, but…better” as an audience for Mulaney’s stand up. Jude also tells them to pretend that Mulaney is crushing (which, all due credit to Jude, is hardly necessary). As Mulaney wraps up his set, Bobby and Eugene hop onstage to host their first Invite Them Up in nine years. Bobby coaches the audience on how to behave like regulars when it comes to the “30 Seconds of Stand Up” segment, a long-running feature of their shows that speaks for itself. As the crowd chants on either side of Eugene’s brief set, it’s as if the club really has picked up exactly where it left off. It’s not just eerie to watch, even as someone who wasn’t around to see an actual Rififi show during its day. It’s completely bizarre. We’re watching people watch a totally fake live performance that is indistinguishable from the real thing—for both the performers and fake audience— as it is fully interrupted by logistical necessity, only to resume, full-energy, on command. As if nothing happened. Either Jude or one of the performers will take things back, but even as the audience laughs at jokes they just laughed at two seconds ago, there is no uncanny valley sense that we are watching anything fake, because, given the level of giddiness and play on set, we are not.
As Bobby and Eugene take the stage again to congratulate Jamie’s character on her performance and encourage the audience to come back again, Jude yells “cut!” Bobby winks at the audience and mutters into the microphone: “What a great crowd.”
Crashing’s first season is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and HBO Go.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.