'Crashing' Creator And Star Pete Holmes Discusses Last Night's Timely Episode, "MC, Middle, And Headliner" [Interview]

Pete Holmes is more successful in season 3 of Crashing, but not much happier. The generally happy-go-lucky comedian is playing for churches and getting laughs, but he's not performing like himself, worsening his struggle to find his voice or sense of self in the comedy world. Holmes – the character – hits some professional and personal lows this season.

While the Judd Apatow-produced series often shows the joy and camaraderie in Holmes' standup career, it's usually about failure and not always pleasant. The latest episode in season three, "MC, Middle, and Headliner," tells a story about hate speech, sexual misconduct, and sexism, making the episode almost as much about the time we're in as it is about the characters. In the episode, Pete, Ali (Jamie Lee), and Jason Weber (Dov Davidoff) go perform together at a cheesy comedy club, where Jason Weber – always the least progressive and self-aware character on the show – is confronted about his behavior and the sort of comedian he represents.

It's a substantial episode in the entertaining but weighty third season, which we recently discussed with Holmes.

Does season three of Crashing feel like a slightly different tone to you at all? It's heavier at times. 

It's funny, these things sort of happen organically. Somebody said this — it wasn't me, but I enjoy it — there's the show you imagine, then there's the show you write, then there's the show you shoot, then there's the show you edit, and then there's the show. When we're setting out to do a new season, we can't necessarily say, "I'd love to change the tone." You know what I mean?

I'm with you. The tone is different. I'm not saying it's a silly question. Hopefully, it's an interesting answer. I've learned that you can't really control it that much. I used to think you could, and now I'm just sort of — we ask ourselves, "Well, what happened at this point?" What happened at this point in my career, and how can we use that as a guidepost, for what story we want to tell, and what type of romantic relationship was I in, and then also what's going on, obviously in the climate, and those things sort of dictate the tone way more than any intention that I set necessarily.

Like you said, there's the show you imagine, and then at the end, there's the show. How would you say "MC, Middleman, and Headliner" evolved in that regard?

Well, that's a great question because it's a good example. The way we imagined it was actually pretty innocuous. We have issues with the character, but we enjoy the character, Jason, so much, and he's so different from Pete. But we were like, "How can we get those two together in some sort of situation where there's a power dynamic, and Pete sort of has to be stuck in a car with him. Okay, let's put them on the road." And then Jamie Lee, who's in the room — the writer's room — she said, "Well, what if Ali is there too? I mean, if you want to make us like a pressure cooker, you can take a sort of racist, misogynous guy with Pete and then add a victim of his misogyny, you have yourself a better story." So it wasn't designed that deliberately. It kind of came together like all the ideas do as we kick them around in their editing.

Depicting these issues with Jason, maybe it broadens the discussion more than pointing to specific instances in comedy. Was that your thinking?

Oh, I completely agree. First of all, if consider when we wrote the episode, we didn't know if Louis [C.K.] was going to be coming back to doing standup, for example. Obviously, that's like the biggest sort of Me Too comedian – apart from Cosby. That's the big active one, I suppose. So, when we were writing the episode, we didn't even know what was going to happen with that. But it was more than that. Not only are sort of incapable of being timely and topical enough to tackle these things, I think it's just genuinely more interesting to try and write stories that are fictional and therefore, timeless, and therefore, more easily controlled by us. We can use them as opportunities to sort of say whatever it is we'd like to say without having to adhere to a current event story, a specific current event story. I think there's more power in fiction.

I'm paraphrasing, but at one point Ali tells Jason, "What you did is not comedy, it's hate speech." It's subjective, and everyone's line is different, but for you personally, where is that line that differentiates the two?

When people get offended, I'm like well, welcome to the party. I was raised Christian, you know? I was raised evangelical, so if you want to get offended, let's get offended. I have a master's degree in being offended. So, everybody being like, "Oh, you're too sensitive," I'm like, "This is nothing compared to the world that I grew up in." My world would be upset with the sexual content of your jokes, and the fact that you used the lord's name in vain. So, don't even come at us with how to be offended. I was raised to be offended.

You know, some of that still lingers in there. You can't really fully divorce yourself from some of those values you were raised with, but I don't necessarily identify with them. Meaning, I feel offended sometimes when I watch standup comedy. If I go out and do a set, there's a good chance that I'll watch another comedian. I'll think, not necessarily their words, but oftentimes the message that's behind the words — the sort of belief that their unspokenly advocating, well, sometimes that's offensive.

I'll be like, "Well, that's his ignorance, or that's not funny, or that's ugly." That's really the one the bugs me the most, where I'm like, 'That's just ugly.' You're not really taking the opportunity to get people out of their small way of thinking. You're just sort of reinforcing it. You're just going like, "Yep, that's how it is. People are assholes and let's just talk about it."

So, that can offend me, but that being said, most of my favorite comedians can be offensive. I was just doing another interview where I said I don't necessarily think it's offensive, but I don't agree with Bill Burr's logic often. I think part of the fun of watching someone like Bill Burr is this saying crazy s*** and making it super funny, so much so that it doesn't even matter that you disagree with his point of view or his point. You're just dying laughing despite yourself.

And that is one of my favorite magic tricks in the world is someone who I don't necessarily agree with making me die laughing at them so perfectly articulating their position, and even some of the naughtiness of it. You're just sort of like, "Oh, this is crazy," like, "He really is going there."

He's so good at making an audience comfortable to laugh because he often acknowledges or jokes that he's wrong or he's acting like an idiot, too. He usually makes you feel okay to laugh. 

He's a master. You're absolutely right. Bill knows just when to show you his real side. And not to say that he's not being real, but he knows just when to show you a little vulnerability or a little bit of humility because he's a master. So, I'm a believer that comedians — it's important, not just comedians, but all artists should be able to go into f***ed up and weird places. That's one of the services that we offer is that everybody, even the sweetest nun, has f***ed up thoughts and catharsis can come from all sorts of different mediums, and one of them is standup where you talk about f***ed up things that you thought or felt, and you share them and you sort of exorcize them in that way.

That can be one of the great ways that comedy is used, and honestly, the same is true for show and television. But, I am so very, very, very liberal when it comes to what topics artists can go into. And if artists are allowed to be wrong or f***ed up or whatever, but also sort of on the side of people that get offended, I'm like, that is one of the ways that you can interact with this content is by being offended. And let's use that, let's work with it, and let's talk about it, and let's kind of use it as the curriculum. "Okay, I was offended." Let's talk about why we were offended, and let's explore what's at the root of that, and where am I valid, and where are they valid, and let's try and find a middle way which, obviously, is more complicated than it sounds.

So, Jason Webber goes through this when an audience doesn't laugh, and his immediate reaction is, "Oh, it's a joke, or you're being too politically correct," like that's the only reason why his material tanked. When comedians have that knee-jerk response on stage, what do you make of it?

You know, I understand somebody's impulse to want to judge the audience because the truth is probably they told that joke a thousand times, and eight hundred of the times it's worked, and two hundred of the times it hasn't. So the human mind looks for a pattern, and it goes, "Okay, well, it's probably the audience." But it's probably, "What type of audience is this?" As Jason would say, "Are they too politically correct?" So, that's just something we do; I do that. I do it the other way. I'll tell what I consider a subtle joke or like an evolved joke, and the audience won't laugh. I'll totally do the same thing going the other way. I'll just go like, "They weren't smart enough." You know what I mean? Or I'll be like, "They weren't politically correct enough." I'll have the problems going the other way. I'll be like, "Oh, they don't even know who Elizabeth Warren is," or whatever it is. Even though I've never said Elizabeth Warren on stage, that was the example that I gave.

[Laughs] I do like that you see two very different reactions to Jason's performance. He kills with the crowd on night one before he bombs. What's that experience like when jokes work one night and then maybe miss with another crowd? Is it ever confusing?

Well, I guess that's the job. We are sort of like a yes machine. All people are. So, comedians will do a show, and you can have that experience like it happens to Jason in one night where a joke works and then the late show it doesn't work. What I think is more interesting about what's happening on Crashing is, it doesn't work because one of the members of that group, Ali, raises her voice and speaks out and reminds the world that she's a person and has feelings, and that these issues matter to her, and that they should matter to us. So then, there's something allegorical happening there, where it's like in our world some people spoke up and the cultural consciousness shifted.

So, we wanted to tell that sort of in the small scale. Meaning could we see — because you're right on the money, the point is that Jason does very will with his life. He's supposed to kill. You're supposed to watch at home and be like, "I just thought that was funny; a little edgy, but it was funny."

And then after Ali reminds people that, and it sounds silly, but reminds the audience that women are human beings – "You should let me f*** up" – and reminds them that these issues aren't jokes to her. Then the lens with which the see Jason through changes, and that's why he does poorly. The same way that you see these little shifts all the time. When I was growing up, people said, the r-word all the time, and you see that go out almost out of style. Or people said the f-word. I don't mean f***, I mean the mean one. You know what I'm saying? It's like we're having one of these shifts happen now in terms of women's rights, and sexuality, and privilege and power positions and all that stuff. So we wanted to see if we could pull that off on a small scale on one night in a comedy club. You saw – at least it got through to you makes me happy.

Absolutely. It doesn't try to provide any bigger answers or simple solutions, either, but shows the reality and maybe starts a conversation.

And my character basically keeps his mouth shut which, on one hand, is good because he's not trying to fight Ali's fight for her, but on the other hand, he's just sort of doing what a lot of us do which is kind of keeping your mouth shut until we have more information to figure it out a little bit better.

And he's avoiding confrontation.

Dude, yeah. No, he's first and foremost avoiding confrontation.

There's a long shot of Jason where you can really feel the silence and repulsion in the audience, and it's excruciating. What conversations do you usually have with DPs or directors how to properly get the light and atmosphere of a comedy club or theater?

Well, we really wanted you to feel Jason's pain in that moment. So, Oren Brimer, the [episode's] director, worked on conveying that vulnerable feeling when we were shooting that with the wide shots, and there isn't even a cameraman up near Jason. So he's up there, and he's doing his best and bombing. There's bombing for real. You feel it; it's actually viscerally uncomfortable.

And now, there's not even a camera guy up on stage with him or near him. It was one of the most uncomfortable things we've shot. We were all covering our face with our hands and stuff. So, the way that you shoot it changes the performance, and it's all right. You see standup on t.v. done wrong so, so often, and it's because they're shooting it sort of beautifully. But really, if anybody has gone to a comedy show, your seats are f***ing weird, they're off to the side, you can't really see. We want to capture that realism because there's a reason you don't see bombs on t.v. It transcends the lens, and nobody wants that. But on crashing, that's exactly what we want.

A lot of shows or movies about comedians, for whatever reason when they show standup, it's rarely funny or replicates experiencing standup at a comedy club. What's the trick to making those scenes work as well as they do? Is it as simple as just writing funny material? 

I don't think so. I think you're right that it has a lot to do with how it's shot. Rodney, our DP this season and Sam, our DP the second season, all were sort of following Judd's orders. If you watch the pilot, the way that their shooting it, it's not, like I said, it's not very beautiful. There's not over-the-shoulder comic's perspective, just capturing the perfect audience with the performer and all that. We're trying to show that it is high wire act that it is. I don't even like talking about this because I'm a comedian, you try to put it out of your mind. You're on stage under lights. There's nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. It's literally recreating the sensation of being cornered by a group of people. So the way that you shoot it from a distance or the way that you edit it – you don't punch it up, you don't pace it up – you let it play like it played in the room. I think those things combined sort of give the sense of being in an actual club which I agree with you is way funnier than watching standup on t.v.

In the new episode, you have Blue Oyster Cult's "The Reaper," but there's a lot of great song picks this season, like Tom Petty's "Time to Move On" and SZA's "Drew Barrymore." How do these choices usually happen? What's your collaboration like with your music supervisor? 

Well, "Time to Move On," and some of them... "Time to Move On" is my favorite song.

It's a beautiful song.

Exactly. I love it. Especially, not that his death should enhance his art, but now that I hear it, it has this added meaning. Occasionally, I will have the thrill of scoring. Literally, scoring the music, something like that. Ninety-nine percent of the time it's our wonderful music supervisor, or it's Judd, or it's one of our producers, Michael Lewin. These guys scour hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of sound. So, when you're hearing "Time to Move On," for example, that was probably after we tried 75 other things and have these meetings where you just watch the scene over and over and over and over with different music. And then sometimes out of desperation, you're just like, "Well, could we try this song, like my favorite son?" Do you think they would give it to us? Do you think they would give us a price that we could afford? With the Paul McCartney song we got, how did we do that?" At a certain point, the cache of Judd's name or HBO I have to imagine is helping. I'm happy to say that it's other people. It's almost never me, but it's other people working very, very painstakingly to find that perfect song.


Crashing season three is currently airing on HBO on Sundays at 10 pm.