On HBO’s Crashing, we see the dark side of comedy through the dorky, Christian eyes of comedian Pete Holmes.
This might sound like a weakness for someone trying to succeed in the Gomorrah of show business, but it often turns out to be a strength for Holmes’ character, who, while flawed, has at least some kind of moral compass, which is more than some comedians can say.
As Holmes continues to navigate a slow crawl toward fame in Season 3, he is confronted with big egos, complicated hierarchies, and various forms of bad behaviour, all of which come to a head in the most recent episode of Crashing.
In "MC, Middle, Headliner,” Holmes gets booked for a mall gig in New Jersey with a fictitious old-school headliner named Jason Weber (played by Dov Davidoff) who is eager to teach Pete the lessons of “real comedy,” which apparently boil down to hitting on waitresses, treating female comics like opponents, and having an act comprised mainly of dick jokes for the sake of dick jokes.
When Jason bombs, cognitive dissonance leads him to conclude that it’s just “a shitty time to be a straight white guy,” blaming women and other minorities for imposing political correctness onto the “realness” of his act. Like other themes explored in this season of Crashing, sexism and misogyny in comedy are given an unflinching reexamination, one that—hopefully—reflects a deeper change within the subculture of stand-up.
We spoke to Holmes about this change, casting his comedian ex-girlfriend as his comedian ex-girlfriend on the show, and how his Christian faith enabled him to steer clear of the wickedness and trespass of comedy.
VICE: Misogyny in comedy is a very sensitive topic, right. Why even kick that hornet’s nest in the new season of Crashing?
Pete Holmes: I think we sort of have to. I don’t think we’re obliged to do it, but it if you’re doing a show about what it’s like to be a comedian in 2018 and you don’t address the climate of sex and gender, it’s like doing Game of Thrones and you don’t do anything about dragons.
The dragons are important.
The dragons are important and they’re trying to fuck comedy club waitresses.
Waitresses have always been targets for creepy showbiz guys. Do you think the threat is particularly worse in comedy clubs?
I would put Sinatra against a comedian any day. I think it’s anything that’s at night, where egos are being inflated in careers that attract narcissists and megalomaniacs and where booze is served. In nightclub settings, where often these clubs hire—and I’m not implying that it’s their fault—but it’s an environment where booze is being served and they’re attractive people on the staff serving megalomaniacs. You’re gonna get at least the threat of this kind of behaviour. I don’t know if comedians are worse. I’m sure rock stars are fucking plagued with stuff like this as well. I think that’s because narcissists and megalomaniacs just tend to act inappropriately and our field has both of those in high numbers.
When did you realize that sexism and misogyny were problems in comedy?
Frankly, when I was starting, I was surrounded by people like Jason, the character on the show who isn’t evolving. When I started, it was very normal for comedians to behave inappropriately. It was sort of a celebrated loveable scamp mentality, of, like, “Oh, the headliner’s drunk and hitting on the staff again…”
Can you give any specific examples?
I remember seeing comedians whose closing joke was bringing women on stage and taking photographs with them. If there was a bachelorette party or something, they’d be like, “Which one of you is getting married?” And then they’d invite them onstage and take photos of them bending them over and doing sexual positions and the crowd’s going nuts! I didn’t come from that world. I thought it was inappropriate on numerous levels—as it is.
Thankfully, as a society, we’re becoming a little more woke to these power dynamics, like the performer on stage brings girl up on stage, she feels pressured and uncomfortable, but he uses his status and position under the microphone to do these lewd photograph. I would see that stuff everywhere!
I assume there’s a different set of expectations for female comics in this environment.
The other thing we cover in the episode is female comedians, like any other minority group, any group that’s not straight white men, are treated differently by clubs, obviously. I’d like to say that people are better about it, and certain clubs are, but when I was coming up—and [actor and writer] Jamie Lee and [writer] Vanessa Ramos spoke about this on the staff, we all kind of swapped out stories—the reality is that clubs kind of have these codes. That’s what we show in the show. “Smile more” is code for “Be more of a bubbly, fun waitress, or something.” They’re not allowed to be dark or just be a comedian. They’re expected to entertain the audience in a different way sometimes when they’re women.
Do you think that your Christian faith allowed you to see that darkness more clearly than other comedians at the time?
That’s absolutely right. I think that’s a great question. The way things are now—obviously Christians, as a group, are not always great about abuse and sex, so it’s not like they’re exempt from the conversation—but I grew up fearing sex and fearing women, or fearing being disrespectful to them in a way that was really reinforced by my faith. So, when I saw the headliner who brought the girls up and took inappropriate sexy photos as his closer, my Christian radar is what encouraged me to be uncomfortable with that. It’s been interesting to watch the culture catch up to some of those very basic values I was raised with.
The culture is catching up with ancient values.
That’s right. We’re going back to Leave It to Beaver. It’s like, “Be nice to a person and don’t grope women onstage for a laugh!” But, when you’re in comedy, and I think one of the reasons why there are are a lot of troubled cases, is comedy was this rock n’ roll place for misfits and booze and drugs and that also included girls. People threw “girls” in there like it was a commodity for you to enjoy. But being raised in the church, I wasn’t drawn to it for that. A lot of my crop of standups, we were all doing it because we wanted to do comedy. We loved and were obsessed with comedy. We were never trying to score cocaine or meet porn stars or anything like that. We were nerds! We were dorks! It’s very interesting to see that dorkiness become lauded as good behaviour—which it is. It’s weird.
Dorks can go to the other extreme when they start getting attention from women though.
That’s absolutely true. That’s why it’s tricky. Dorks are not exempt from bad behaviour. That’s why I didn’t want to exempt Christians from bad behaviour and comedians are not the only ones behaving badly. It’s really hard. The brain really wants to find patterns, so we can eradicate the problem. But it’s a little more subtle than the brain would like. There’s scumbag dorks and sleeper dorks taking it out on people. They’re mad that they weren’t laid in high school, they’re not humbled by it. They didn’t develop a different worldview. They’re angry about it and then they act just as bad as the so-called “rock n’ roll” guys. So, yeah, you can’t build a wall around comedy and just ask people five questions and stop this. I don’t think it’s that simple unfortunately.
The Jason character played by Dov Davidoff is a great caricature of the old-school, hard-living, misogynist comic who can’t really adapt to the current cultural climate. What was his purpose as a character in this episode?
The basic idea was, “What would it be like if Pete went on the road with Jason?” To me, Jason represents a lot of what I saw coming up. A tougher on-stage persona that doesn’t even have to be funny. It’s just, “I’ll go up and say some salacious stuff and shock people!” Jason always says, “I’m too real for TV!” He just thinks it’s his realness that’s keeping him from succeeding more. But there are some very, very real comedians who are hilarious and even people who disagree with them love them.
In the scenes where Jason is berating Ali and calling her a cunt, your character doesn’t jump in to defend her. At first, I wondered why Pete wasn’t doing anything, but then I thought maybe that would have been patronizing, because she handles the situation on her own, probably way better than Pete would have. Was that intentional?
I love your questions. You’re a good viewer. I love it. That was entirely intentional. It was hard, because we improvise so much on the show, for me to not interject. There was an interjection in the script and I said to Jason, which is something I would say, like, “Jason, I think what she’s trying to say is…” and she says, “I got it, Pete” and she yells at me. But the idea is that she does have it. She doesn’t need Pete to interject. You can also look at it a different way. Pete is doing what a lot of people do and he keeps his mouth shut. Obviously, that’s not great, but Ali is more than capable of taking care of herself, which was super fun to watch.
I think that’s more rewarding than you just being the good guy. Plus, your character is afraid of confrontation anyway, so it makes more sense anyway.
This episode touches on important issues surrounding sexism, but it was also written by three guys and directed by one. Do you think there’s an issue there?
I love talking about this, because it’s important to know how TV, especially our show, is made. There’s a writer’s room and credit is given to people for writing scripts. I don’t want to say it’s arbitrary, but it doesn’t mean that the rest of the room didn’t work on it. The whole room wrote the outline, the whole room broke the story, and the people who happened to be up to write for that episode happened to be men. While I completely understand and it’s totally valid to notice, as others have, that three men wrote this episode, that’s not really indicative of our process, it’s far more organic.
That being said, I completely understand. Looking back, I definitely would have done it differently and said, “Let’s get Jamie on this one,” just so people can see just a bit of that conscious effort that we’re advocating. That wasn’t the best call [ laughs]. It wasn’t the best optics. The reality was that women were heavily involved every step of the way. In improvising the key moments, those actresses were women and they were as creative as the men who were credited.
Why did you cast your comedian ex-girlfriend as your comedian ex-girlfriend on the show?
Because my comedian ex-girlfriend happens to be the best person to play—the most hilarious and talented person—to play my comedian ex-girlfriend. It wasn’t a press piece and it wasn’t because I can’t act with some stranger. Jamie is a writer on the show, she’s incredibly talented. She auditioned and when Judd watched it he said, this was his quote, “You can see why it would work and you can see why it really won’t work.” [ laughs] When you’re casting, you’re really looking for that thing behind the thing, that says something more than the words is coming through and Jamie had that in spades.
There’s also a more benign threat to Ali in this episode in the form of corporate comedy club staff who tell her to smile more and calls her beautiful before going on stage.
All my friends who aren’t straight white males have informed me that there are different codes in show business. My black friends say that more energy can also mean, quote, “Act blacker.” I can’t speak to that experience, but I was very interested to learn that there are ways you can say something offensive to someone’s face, as long as you use a certain vernacular. Women aren’t always encouraged to be their dynamic selves, they’re expected to be flight attendants to a certain extent and smile and be something beautiful. The idea of saying “the handsome Pete Holmes” is preposterous.
Any advice for young comics trying to navigate these strange waters?
The beautiful thing about stand-up advice is that it applies to anybody, any gender, any race, any age. The best thing you can do—everybody will tell you—is get on stage as much as you can. I would add to that, get on stage as much as you can, with the people you admire. When you start in comedy, you’re sort of forging a class, like a freshman or sophomore class. You need to make sure that the people to your left and your right are people you think are funny and that you respect and admire their dreams and their ambition, because it’s going to rub off on you. When I started I was very deliberate about making friends with people like John Mulaney who were really funny and wanted to go up and do as many open mics as I did. You form these alliances and then you get up on stage as much as you can and the rest kind of takes care of itself. The audience will give you everything else that you need.
The Comedy Cellar is kind of its own character on Crashing and you’re also dealing with very contemporary issues. There are so many cameos by well-known comedians. Any chance Louis C.K. will be making an appearance?
I don’t think so. That’s not the plan. I don’t think that’s what we would use the show for. No. I like what we did, which was to create a fictional situation that spoke to the themes that existed before two splashy, very interesting stories broke. Unfortunately, it’s continuing even after those stories broke. We’re writing these scripts six months in advance. When we wrote them, we didn’t even know if Louis was even going to come back to stand-up, for example. So, we can’t be topical in that way and we don’t even want to go at things that literally and that directly. I’m more about telling a story that addresses those themes in a way that’s a little bit more timeless and, at the same time, impossibly timely.
Do you worry that being so topical will date the show?
No, I think that’s the advantage of fiction. These themes are older than Louis or any other story right now and, unfortunately, we have to be on our guard to make sure they don’t keep happening. By making it about Jason Weber, a comedian who doesn’t exist, but represents a certain attitude, it would have the opposite effect and make the show timeless.
You’re making a lot of big creative decisions as executive producer and creator of this show and earlier you alluded to the privilege that comes along with that. Is there a healthy way for men to exert their power and privilege in comedy?
That’s a good question. I hope that there is. There’s little things that people can do when it comes to the people you hire and the stories you write. I don’t know if I’m an authority on that, but hopefully where change comes from is the people who have the privilege start using that privilege against their own interests and for the interest of the greater good. I’m an optimist so I think that is quite possible.
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