Pete Holmes illuminates comic authenticity in HBO’s ‘Crashing’

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There’s no such thing as a gloomy or raging Pete Holmes set — he’s been blessed with a face fit for wonky facial expressions, a Batman parody and an occasionally too-loud laugh that would be downright piercing if it weren’t so hilariously genuine. Holmes’ most recent stand-up special, “Faces and Sounds,” captures the comedian’s knack for beaming, goofy antics. His newest project, HBO’s “Crashing,” features the Pete Holmes that we know, only less seasoned and exhibiting “aw”-worthy naiveté.

Boasting Judd Apatow as a producer and guest stars such as Sarah Silverman and Artie Lange, “Crashing” features a fictionalized version of Holmes as he navigates the New York City comedy scene post-divorce. He was utterly dependent on his wife Jess (Lauren Lapkus) as he pursued stand-up, and now must fend for himself, crashing on comedian’s couches along the way. There’s not a cynical bone in Pete’s body yet, and he’s oftentimes an annoyingly decent guy, but goodness knows it’s hard to be chipper when your heart’s been broken.

The inclusion of the divorce in the script was autobiographical for Holmes, who himself went through a divorce as he honed his act. The comedian says the huge lifestyle adjustment posed quite a bump in the road professionally — aside from the obvious personal blow. After all, the best stand-ups expose themselves emotionally, beneath a spotlight, no less. “I remember someone yelling out, ‘are you single?’ ” Holmes said in a phone interview. “(After a divorce), that seems like such a dirty admission.”

Holmes plays this version of himself with admirable restraint — oftentimes, the comedian is physically animated or grinningly self-deprecating. In “Crashing,” he reverts back to his days as an inexperienced comic, in all of their painfully cringey glory. We almost don’t want him to perform his five minutes for the sake of secondhand embarrassment.

But it’s just another night in the life of a budding comic, which happens to be the reason “Crashing” is so darn appealing. While other shows about comics (“Louie,” “Maron,” e.g.) feature stand-ups who are already successful, through “Crashing,” we get to see stand-up as we’ve never seen it on screen before: as the immensely disheartening, sometimes identity-revealing struggle that it can be.

While the “Crashing” Pete Holmes hasn’t reached the point of baring his personal wounds onstage just yet, we certainly see him searching for an identity as a comic amidst his major life changes. After his parents see him perform at a dingy club, even his smothering mother suggests that he find a point of view — what people want to see is the real Pete Holmes, not a generic, tryhard open mic-er.

It seems that the innate craving for authenticity in pop culture is a product of the times. “Now, in the age of social media, we demand even more honesty,” Holmes said. “How many people share their hopes and dreams on Facebook? People are kind of performing their own lives.”

Of course, in Holmes’ case, he literally is performing a variation of his own life on “Crashing.” But as it turns out, people’s bullshit threshold is very low, especially when it comes to comedy.

Holmes learned to be more open onstage over the years, but he says he truly learned the value of authenticity in performance — a lesson his naive screen counterpart is still getting the hang of — from his weekly “WTF”-esque podcast, “You Made It Weird.” It was trial and error at first. “How honest could I be and still have people not hate me?” Holmes said. Once he discovered that being genuine is the biggest crowd-pleaser of all, he stuck to it. His willingness to reach the deeper parts of himself in his podcast must have, in part, summoned Holmes’ idea to create a semi-autobiographical television show.

Thankfully, “Crashing” doesn’t lean too heavily on the underlying themes of identity. Rather, the show simply screams Pete Holmes — it’s funny without being really dirty, profound without being preachy, optimistic without providing false hope. We see a wild TJ Miller toast to the philosophical tendencies of comedians, budding talents fight for stage time and an ever-cheerful Pete Holmes evolve as a comic.

The show mirrors its leading man’s offscreen evolution. Now, the real Pete Holmes accepts that he’s the bubbly, awkward guy — and yes, the one with the laugh.

“Crashing” premieres on HBO on Feb. 19 at 10:30pm. Pete Holmes will be in San Francisco with Judd Apatow and Artie Lange on Feb. 22 at the Herbst Theatre for “The Crashing Comedy Tour.”

Danielle Gutierrez covers comedy. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @dmariegutierrez.