Over the last decade, comedian Pete Holmes has launched a beloved podcast (You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes), a cult TV talk show (The Pete Holmes Show), a more successful TV show (on HBO), three comedy albums and four stand-up specials, including this year's Dirty Clean. The fictional "Pete Holmes" character he plays on HBO's Crashing—whose third season will premiere this Sunday, January 20th—has done... none of that.
The autobiographical comedy started out by drawing directly from Holmes' real life, including his divorce from his first wife, his dogged pursuit of a career in comedy in NYC, and his conflicted (but often positive) relationship with his religious upbringing. During the first two seasons, Holmes frequently crashed on the couches of more established comedians, including Artie Lange and Sarah Silverman, as he struggled to get a foothold into the NYC comedy world.
Now, the character has finally grown into a recognizable working comedian, and season three sees him taking his act on the road as part of a Christian comedy tour. He spends time at the Comedy Cellar, he crosses paths with the likes of Ray Romano, Amy Schumer and a hilarious John Mulaney, and he has his first serious post-divorce relationship with a non-comedian, which makes him re-examine some of his assumptions about himself and his life.
We sat down with Holmes and actress Madeline Wise, who plays the aforementioned girlfriend Kat, to talk about the upcoming season. We ended up chatting about how comedians have different versions of themselves, the solidarity found within comedy clubs, the shift in consciousness in the comedy world, and Louis C.K.
First off, I want to thank you so much for exposing John Mulaney for the villain that he is. [Laughs]
Pete Holmes: Oh, he is.
Madeline Wise: The world needs to know... though I've never met him.
You weren't on set during that episode? [Mulaney appears in the final episode of the season as a heightened version of himself]
Madeline: Nope. I saw him at the gym one time!
Pete: Well, it's funny, one of the things we're talking about in the show is different versions of yourself. And as for Mulaney, we sort of turned the heat up on him quite a bit, but all comedians have a version of themselves on stage and then we have who we are off stage.
Actually, John has a funny joke about this, about how who you are with your parents is another person sometimes. And then the whole season is about Kat, who is just who she is wherever she is and with whomever she is. And I think that's a really interesting lesson for my character to be learning. When I watch John and the way that we show that he's grumpy in his dressing room and then very sweet on stage, I'm like, "Yeah, that's our job, that's part of what we do." We sequester a certain feeling. It's not that it's false on stage, but we save it for when we're on stage, and then... that's not normal. [Laughs] So, obviously, the season is about Pete dating his first non-comedian, especially like a sex-positive, intellectual, sort of brassy woman. I don't know what I mean by brassy, I just mean like...
Madeline: You love saying brassy.
Pete: I do love saying brassy. I just mean like, self-assured and confident without the nightly adrenaline boost of stand-up.
Madeline: I feel like brassy is like a younger version of broad.
Pete: If I could say broad, if it were socially acceptable, I'd say broad. She's a broad.
Madeline: You don't think it's socially acceptable? Because of the bodies? Why?
Pete: Well, probably. I thought broad just meant broad, like you're big and powerful, you're broad—
Like one's broad shouldered.
Pete: Yeah, you're just broad. But that's not what it means. It's just a derogatory word for a woman, because it's the broad side of a cow or something. It's a butcher term.
Madeline: Oh my God. Well, I didn't know that.
Pete: Yeah, neither did I. But there's a lot of words like that... don't look up the etymology of picnic. [I think Pete was referring to a now-debunked myth that the word "picnic" originated with crowds gathering to witness lynchings.]
Madeline: Well, now obviously I'm going to look it up. You demon.
How familiar were you with the show, and with Pete's comedy, before you joined the cast?
Madeline: I was, admittedly, not at all familiar. I had seen the posters on the subway, so I knew what your face looked like.
Pete: So you ride the subway.
Madeline:Interesting. No, but...I'm not a podcast person because I have a really hard time multitasking. I can't listen to a podcast and do anything else, I have to put myself in a sensory deprivation chamber if I do, so I can't listen to podcasts. But I have so many friends who do and who all were like, "I love his podcast." And I have since listened to some of it. It's very good. Congratulations. And so, I didn't like know—
Pete: I was waiting for a congratulations.
Madeline: It's fine. I didn't know the show at all, and then I got the audition and I watched a couple episodes and thought it was great. But I was unfamiliar with Pete's comedy. And also, largely, I really did not have much overlap with the comedy world, which I guess is funny because I have ended up being friends with a number of people who are comedians and who work in comedy. I have a number of friends who write for SNL and who are stand-ups, but I just don't go see comedy very much. I'm down to do it more. I've realized that it's really fun. It's so great, it's so pure. You just go and sit in a room where people just make you laugh.
Pete: Hopefully. I hope you're not saying that for my benefit.
Pete: I've never performed for an audience where I haven't looked at them and gone, "What are you doing here?" [Laughs]
Madeline: "Why are you here?" I mean, it is a weird idea, because I also feel like I'm of two minds about it, because it's also like, "Don't you guys just have friends who are funny that you can hang out with for free who can make you laugh?"
Pete: Seinfeld used to have a joke about that where he was like, [Mild Seinfeld Impression] "If you were funny, you wouldn't need us!" And I actually disagree now, I think a lot of really, really funny people like stand-up. In fact, I think there's certain stand-up that you have to be funny in order to even understand, whereas even in the '80s when he was coming up it was like, [Extreme Seinfeld Impression] "You're a plumber and you got to come to me?" I don't think that's true anymore. I don't know if it was ever true. It's like a meeting of similar minds. It's like a solidarity meeting.
You go to be like, "Oh, I thought it was just me that thought that was annoying or scary or whatever." So I'm joking when I say I don't know why they're there, but I get it. If I didn't do comedy, and often I'll take some weeks off, I'm not going out to shows. And even when I do shows, I don't like watching the other people.
Madeline: Is that because you feel competitive with them?
Pete: Well, there is an element of it that riles me up, like it makes me want to perform, but there's more of a...I think a lot of comedians feel this way: a very high percentage of it isn't for me. And it shouldn't be. In fact, some of it does offend me, but that's okay. And I'm not even talking about like the big hitters of offensive comedy, I watch a lot of comedy and I'm like, "Dude, my biggest complaint is you're just reflecting back the values that we already have."
Madeline: That's true, it's like an echo chamber.
Pete:Isn't sex great? Isn't eating great? That's a big one.
Madeline: Neither of those things are actually that great. I've tried both at least once.
Pete: Have you done them together?
It's the Costanza method, yeah.
Pete:[Admiringly] Ah the Costanza!
Combining your two favorite things.
Jaboukie Young-White, Pete Holmes and Zach Cherry (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)
Pete: But there's a lot going on in comedy where you're like, even if they're not saying it [outright], there might be an undercurrent of something that just gives me the willies even if what they're saying isn't necessarily...This is a long way of saying I understand. [Laughs] And when people are offended by comedy, I understand. I am a comedian, and I don't understand the posturing of, "Get over it!" My feeling is, it's your right to be offended. So many things offend me, the only difference is I don't necessarily think all of it needs to be like shut down or thrown away.
Well, that is kind of the crux of a lot of comedy conversations happening right now—where do you draw the line on the comedy club as a safe space for expression versus are certain comedians propagating really toxic, hateful ideas. And it's not always an easy conversation, but what I'm curious about the way...
Madeline: I kind of feel like sometimes it is an easy conversation though. Like we were just talking about Louis in the other room...
Madeline: Have you heard of him?
Madeline: Louis, yeah. He's kind of like—
Pete: He's French?
Madeline: No, he's American.
Pete:[French accent] Louie?
Madeline: Louis. But we were talking about the stuff that's been in the news recently, and it's like very simple to just say, "First of all, those jokes aren't funny, and second of all, they're almost hate speech." And it doesn't feel complicated to be like, "That sucks."
Pete: I think the safest thing to do, the easiest solution for me, and this is just a phenomenon in comedy, is I don't just go to music shows, I go and see Radiohead because I like Radiohead. So a big solution...and I'm not trying to fix anybody's problems, I'm just saying: go see the comedians that you know you like, you know what I'm saying? That's what I do.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't marshal or have some sort of standard for the grab bag shows, but it just occurred to me while we were talking, I thought, "That is what I do." When Jake Johannsen's in town, I go see Jake Johannsen. When Brian Regan's in town, I go see Brian Regan. It's not every day that I'm going to a comedy club. But that is kind of skirting the issue, and that's not what I mean to do.
Well, the other aspect to this is, what is the responsibility of the gatekeepers? Does the Comedy Cellar, to pick one famous example, have to give audiences a head's up? Or as you're saying, is there a difference between Louis C.K. being announced as playing a mall in Albany—which he apparently did last week—vs. him popping up at one of the Wednesday night grab bag sets, where there's five other comedians you want to see, or you're excited because of the Cellar's reputation for getting the best comedians.
Pete: But if you're Louis you can draw, even at this point if he wanted to work, he could easily draw people to come and see him.
He's going to get a whole new crowd now.
Pete: Oh, I know.
It's very weird what's happened with him. It really does seem like a heel turn, where he's discarded the thoughtfulness and empathy he used to put into his comedy and has now embraced every shallow, self-pitying observation that he has, given in to his least thoughtful self. And I wonder...I don't know him, I don't know if you know him, but I wonder just how self-conscious the change is.
Pete: When this all happened, maybe you were the same, I was like, "This fuckin' sucks, it's heartbreaking, obviously first and foremost for the people it happened to." And then I was like, "I bet you in like three to four years or whatever, Louis will come out with an hour just about this." And I was like, even if he wasn't the guy it was about, Louis is the type of comedian that I would look to to do material about this that would help us laugh and heal and process. And the fact that he's not is baffling.
The best thing I heard anybody say, I think it was Paul F. Tomkins, it was like, "Richard Pryor lit himself on fire, and when he came back he had the common sense to know he had to talk about it. We were all talking about Richard Pryor lighting himself on fire, do some bits about it." And the fact that he's back and not only not addressing it, but instead doubling down on some of his darker and uglier impulses is also disappointing. Because he's a hilarious comedian, there's evidence to that fact, and now we're all feeling the betrayal of like, "What?"
Yeah. Okay, I know we have to wrap up soon, we got off topic there...
Pete: No I mean, it bears discussion. And in episode four of our show...
Right! I wanted to bring that up before we ended.
Pete: We couldn't directly address what was going on because it takes so long to make TV. We could maybe make an Instagram story about what's going on.
You were filming this season last summer, before Louis' comeback.
Pete: Yeah that's right, he hadn't come back. But you know, when I was coming up, there was a lot of comedy—like the comedy that Jason, the character, does on our show—that was most of it. That's what a lot of Crashing to me is about, that there were guys like me and guys like Mulaney or Brian Regan that were coming up in the comedy world, and we just like a cleaner, gentler style, and we had to watch a lot of that stuff that just isn't for me. I'm not saying you don't have a right to do it, just what he's doing isn't for me.
And we wanted to tell the story of what happens when an enlightened, intelligent woman, Jamie Lee's character, blows the whistle on it, and how that changes the audience. How the audience is sort of like an allegory for the country right now, in that when someone speaks up and does so with intelligence and force and power, people can change. Even in the course of a weekend at a comedy club, you can see change. And that's the bright side of this, that I think we are seeing a shift in consciousness, and hopefully in comedy. Not everybody is seizing the opportunity, and that's a shame, but hopefully, a lot of people are.
Why do you think certain comedians, and audience members too, are so stubborn or sort of disinterested in changing with the times with these things? It's an opportunity for...
Pete: I completely agree. It's how you greet change that says a lot about you as a person. And I don't think it's unique to comedians, a lot of people have a real need in themselves that no one should tell them what to do. I think you see that a lot in comedy. But I see it in my father and he's an oil man, you know what I'm saying? I mean, he delivers oil, he's not like a tycoon. [Laughs]
Madeline: Like an oil baron.
Pete: He's an oil baron.
I was imagining like Daniel Plainview...
Pete:[Laughs] Oh my God, my favorite movie.
...oil just dripping down from his impressive mustache.
Pete: I'm not just trying to end this on a positive note, but I think the majority of people are going, "Oh, we were wrong." I even listen to old episodes of my podcast and I was like, "Oh, I was wrong." It's beautiful, move with it, roll with it, take the ball, carry it further. And the fuckin' stupidest thing we could be doing right now is going, "That's the ABC's of me, baby," and just digging your flag in. "Go fuck yourself!" [Laughs]
There you go right there.
Pete: There's your happy ending.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length)