Comic fame at a serious price

Comedian Pete Holmes (left) plays a version of himself in Crashing.
Comedian Pete Holmes (above) plays a version of himself in Crashing.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

New series Crashing looks at the tough life of struggling comics who face constant humiliation trying to break in

Becoming a comedian is no joke, according to the new series, Crashing.

A look at the hardscrabble life of struggling comics, the show was created by Pete Holmes, who plays a comedian forced to couch-surf with friends when his wife divorces him and leaves him homeless, a character inspired by the actor's life.

Co-written and produced with comedian Judd Apatow - who directed Knocked Up (2007) and Trainwreck (2015) - it airs on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Mondays.

Speaking to reporters in Los Angeles recently, Holmes and Apatow tell The Straits Times that as veterans of the comedy scene themselves, they can vouch for the show's accuracy in depicting the ritual humiliation faced by those trying to break in.

Holmes - whose character Pete is shown regularly bombing on stage, performing for no money and relying on the kindness of other comics to survive - says this sums up the early years of his and many others' careers.

The 37-year-old, who has performed on late-night talk shows and hosts a comedy podcast, says: "I remember I opened for comedian Bill Burr and he says, 'You will do badly for five years.'

"That's when you're grinding it out in the open-mic scene and the 'bringer' shows, where you have to bring the audience with you; or the 'barker' show, where you hand out flyers in exchange for stage time."

Noting that other loosely autobiographical series set in a comic's world, such as Seinfeld (1989-1998) and Louie (2010-now), feature established comedians, he adds: "Judd and I were so excited that there hasn't yet been a show about what it's like in those five raw, very amateur, exposed years of stand-up.

"We jumped at the opportunity to make a show about what it's like way before you're making any money and what it takes to grind out your place in a career and in New York, a city that doesn't want you or need you."

Like the character Pete, Holmes was in this phase of his career when his wife of seven years, Becca, cheated on him and they got a divorce, forcing him to reassess his life.

"For all comedians or anybody pursuing any extraordinary dream, there is a part when you're in the shallow end and then sometimes it takes a crisis - in this case, a divorce - to rattle your cage and push you into the pool.

"That was the time in my life where I was doing comedy, but I hadn't had a taste of what the world was about. That's the point that I was trying to focus on and tell in this story," says the star, who is now engaged to Ms Valerie Chaney, whom he says is a "regular lady" not in show business.

Crashing also features cameos from other comics-turned-actors, including Sarah Silverman (Wreck- It Ralph, 2012) and T.J. Miller (Silicon Valley, 2014-now).

Playing themselves, they help Pete by giving him advice, buying him dinner and letting him sleep on their couches when he has nowhere else to go. Silverman even turns her loft into a sort of halfway house for several failed comedians.

This is pretty true to life, Holmes reveals.

The Silverman subplot "is a dramatisation, but Sarah is the one who will help people - she's the one who tells people they need health insurance and they need to be flossing. That's who she is as a person.

"And I do know of a couple of comedians who have crashed with her. Because it is like a family," he says, noting that it is not uncommon for comics who started out at the same time to lend one another a helping hand.

Another similarity with Holmes' life: As a devout Christian, he performs only "clean" jokes and was naive and "golden retriever-ish" when he began performing.

"I was raised religious and evangelical Christian and lived in sort of a Christian bubble. Then I'm in this - and I say this lovingly - debaucherous, dangerous, off-the- grid world of comedy.

"What Judd and I think is compelling is a story of how you keep your soul in a world that keeps trying to negotiate for pieces of it," he says of his character's arc.

"It's an interesting thing to see how much of your ethics is going to continue into the next phase of your life and what experiences are going to show you about what you're made of."

•Crashing airs on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Mondays at 11.30am and 10.30pm. It is also available on HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602) and HBO on StarHub Go.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'Comic fame at a serious price'. Print Edition | Subscribe