Stand-up comics' hardscrabble lives - warts and all

Comics (from far left) Dov Davidoff, Jamie Lee and Pete Holmes in Crashing.
Comics (from left) Dov Davidoff, Jamie Lee and Pete Holmes in Crashing.PHOTO: HBO

If you make a television show based on the lives of comedians and starring real comics, there is a good chance the profession is going to have some opinions about it.

That is why Pete Holmes and Judd Apatow heaved a sigh of relief when their peers - including comedy heavy-hitters Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle - gave them a thumbs-up after last year's debut season of Crashing, their comedy series about comedy.

The show, which returns for a second season on Jan 15 (Mondays, HBO, StarHub TV Ch 601, 11.30am and 11.30pm), offers up a warts-and-all look at what it is like to try and get paid to tell jokes for a living.

It is based on Holmes' real experiences trying to break into the world of stand-up comedy and how, penniless, he had to crash on friends' sofas after his wife dumped him.

Holmes, who plays himself on the show, and Apatow, whom he co-produces it with, chat to The Straits Times while filming an episode of the show in New York last year.

They are shooting in the basement of a smelly comedy club: the sort of dive where your shoes stick to the floor for reasons you would rather not investigate, and the kind of place where Holmes performed for little or no money when he first started out.

He and Apatow say they have had an overwhelmingly positive response from other comics to the series' depiction of this hardscrabble existence, which most of them experienced at some point.

Says Holmes, 38: "It always meant a lot to me that comedians really liked it because I feel like we're showing something that you don't often see, which is what it's like coming up - especially coming up in New York, in the specific little micro-climates that we have here."

"And when Judd and I would be doing sets at the Comedy Cellar (club in New York) or something, people mentioned that they liked the show."

"But who secretly hated it?" interjects Apatow, the 50-year-old producer of the comedy series Girls (2012 to 2017), director of the films Knocked Up (2007) and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), and occasional stand-up comedian.

"I have my suspicions," quips Holmes.

"Chris Rock said he liked it the other night," Apatow confirms.

Chapelle had worked at the Boston comedy club featured on Season 1, so watching it took him down memory lane, says Holmes. "We rebuilt (the club) for the show, he said that really freaked him out, but he liked the show."

No comics have offered any criticisms so far, "but I would accept feedback", says Holmes, who also serves as a writer on the show.

"One of the things we do when we prepare a new season is meet with comedians and we kind of spitball and brainstorm to make sure we're getting as many perspectives as possible."

This season, one of the new aspects of stand-up explored is the "alt-comedy" scene, where performances are more free-form and unconventional compared to the traditional club-comedy scene shown in Season 1.

"And also my character, Pete, will start dating, which is very different from watching the end of an established relationship," says Holmes. "We're going to see him looking for solace in other comedians more than hoping (his wife) will come back."

And, he adds with a smile, "there will be more nudity".

As much as viewers enjoyed the first season, however, some were sceptical about how realistic it was, particularly when well-known comics such as Sarah Silverman and T.J. Miller, playing themselves, are seen generously offering up their couches to Pete.

Many figured this - and how much help the character receives from more established comics - was an exaggeration. But Holmes maintains it was not.

"The truth of the stand-up scene is that the whole time (in my career), there have been these little micro-helps from different comedians.

"Bill Burr, who is on this season, was one of those guys. And Jim Gaffigan, T.J. Miller... these were real people that offered me either their couch or work or just emotional and friend support.

"Some people thought that might be false, or something that we turned up the volume on in the first season, but it's true.

"In fact, Amy Schumer was just saying she has a comedian staying on her couch right now. So I was, like, 'See, this is not just something I made up!'"

• Crashing Season 2 will also stream on HBO on StarHub Go and HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2018, with the headline 'Stand-up comics' hardscrabble lives - warts and all'. Print Edition | Subscribe