How comedian Pete Holmes used his divorce to create HBO's next big comedy show

The best way to gauge Hollywood success is to look at what someone has lined up next, and with Judd Apatow’s “Girls” coming to a close on HBO, it’s time for the producer to show what he’s got for an encore. Enter popular stand-up comedian Pete Holmes.

The 37-year-old best known for his comedy specials and Nerdist podcast, “You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes,” has a style that couldn’t be further from “Girls” creator/star Lena Dunham, but one thing the two have in common is exploring destructive relationships from their past. With Apatow’s guidance, Holmes looks to be the next to find mainstream fame thanks to opening up his soul.

“Crashing” (premiering Sunday on HBO) is loosely based on Holmes’ real divorce from his wife while he was trying to get his career in comedy off the ground in his late 20s. Holmes plays a fictional version of himself, who after learning that his wife (played by Lauren Lapkus) has been cheating on him and wants a divorce, dedicates his life to stand-up. Dealing with all the growing pains of making a mark in the New York City comedy scene, he ends every episode crashing on the couches of the comics he encounters, including major players like Artie Lang and T.J. Miller.   

Business Insider talked to Holmes about getting the attention of Apatow (who along with producing “Crashing” also directed the pilot), how truthfully the show depicts life as a comic, and how he thinks his ex-wife will react to the show.

Jason Guerrasio: It sounds like you planted the seed for “Crashing” when Judd came on your old TBS talk show, right?

Pete Holmes: Yeah. It’s a very surreal thing. Judd a couple years ago did a sketch on my talk show “The Pete Holmes Show” where I pitched him bad movies. But I knew we would probably improvise too, because when you do stuff with Judd Apatow that’s what you do. So we were doing it and half way through we started improvising and he asked me what my actual movie idea is and I swear to you he did it to put me on my heels. But he was like, “Really, what is your story?” and I was like, “Well, I grew up religious, I married the first girl I ever dated, she left me when I was 28, and I just fell face-first into the New York comedy scene because I had nowhere else to go.” And he said, “That’s too sad, nobody wants to watch that.”

But I don’t think Judd or I consider that the actual real pitch. It might have planted the seed. Six months later my talk show was canceled and I had the idea for this show. I love doing silly things, but I thought what is the story I can tell better than anybody and I realised it was my story. I called my manager, who knows Judd, and I tried to see if he had any free time to meet me and they said Judd had 15 minutes on Friday morning, in New York. I was in LA. So I flew the next day to New York, got a hotel, woke up at like five in the morning the next day, I didn’t want to miss it. I went to the set of “Trainwreck” and we talked for 10 minutes and for the last five minutes I told him about the show. But the major thing that I changed was in every episode I would be staying with a different comedian. There’s this troubadour lifestyle of a comedian. In real life, T.J. Miller is one of my best friends and I’ll maybe see him for two or three days in a row and then I won’t see him for four months. That’s just how our lives are. So I’m excited at the possibility of representing that kind of vibe and also showing comedy in a new way.

Crashing Arties Lang Mary Cybulski HBOMary Cybulski/HBOArtie Lang gives Pete Holmes his couch in the ‘Crashing’ pilot.

Guerrasio: That was the big question I had after watching the first few episodes: Are more established comics as giving of their time to young comics as you portray them to be on this show?
Holmes: Yes. But a key point here is this is through my experience. I think there are social climbers or back-stabbers or just people who put themselves before everyone else, there are those out there. But it all comes down to which scene you’re in and who you end up befriending. People like Bill Burr and Jim Gaffigan and Zach Galifianakis and Sarah Silverman, they were all amazing and helpful to me. I remember writing Bill Burr an email and I was just like, “Hey man, I’m moving to New York, we met this one time, and if you have any advice let me know.” He wrote me, if you printed it out, like a three-page reply of what I should do. So I try when people write me on Facebook to pay that forward. So when Artie Lang in the pilot says, “Hey, I’ll buy you a slice of pizza,” that straight-up happens. When my wife left me, in real life, T.J. Miller was like, “I’m shooting a movie in Pittsburgh, I’ll fly you out and get you a hotel room,” and I spent a week with him. We would go out and do shows together at night. All that time I would have been moping and listening to Radiohead, he was like, “Let’s do this.” And this was a guy who was working, it wasn’t like he was on vacation. Now I’m sure there’s someone out there writing a show about how nobody helps anybody, but who wants to watch that? [Laughs]

Guerrasio: But you show the other side of the coin, too. In the pilot your character goes to a club and he’s told to go onstage since another comic is a no-show. But then the comic shows up afterward and isn’t happy that you took his spot.  

Holmes: I mean, this goes against what I was saying, but there would be guys when I was coming up who would be mean to people, and this is a quote, “Because if you quit there’s one less person in my way.” It’s very rare, but they existed. But going on because someone didn’t show, I’ve had that happen. That was another thing I was really excited to show in this. When a comedian is at a club and what, say, your father thinks is a big opportunity — someone isn’t there and they need you to go on — but the truth is you don’t want to go on. [Laughs] And it’s not because your wife just left you, it’s because you know you’re not good enough yet. And that stuff would happen. There were moments when I would be like, “I’m not ready for this,” and you go up and you are awful.

Pete Holmes Judd Apatow Michael Buckner GettyMichael Buckner/Getty(L-R) Pete Holmes and Judd Apatow.

Guerrasio: What’s it like going through the process of getting Judd to take your project? Because he’s constantly hearing pitches, how do you become the standout?
Holmes: I wish I could tell you names, but to spare anyone who is sensitive about it I’ll keep it vague. I remember when we were scouting for the pilot Judd would mention that around the same time I was talking to him some of my comedy heroes were also pitching him. The names were insane. And it was there that it became real that “Holy s—, I did really get the golden ticket.” And golden ticket isn’t fame or fortune, it’s just the opportunity.

But in getting to know Judd now I’ve realised it’s not the pitch that gets him. The real thing is when he says, “Go write it.” The first thing he said to me was “Go write 20 pages about everything you remember from that time in your life. Every embarrassing story, every detail.” And I sent it to him the next day. And then he said, “Write the pilot.” And I sent it to him two days later. He liked it, but even that didn’t convince him. He said, “Write another episode.” And I did. I wrote five full episodes and then we pitched it.

Guerrasio: Did you feel at all that you had to notify your ex-wife that you were making this?

Holmes: My ex and I haven’t spoken since we split, which was almost 10 years ago. She’s off and happy and I’m off and happy. The reaching out, there wasn’t really one. But what there is, I’ve always joked that if this had been a movie that was literally about my divorce, a recreation, you would have been rooting for my wife to get out of the relationship. [Laughs] So “Crashing” is fictional. Lauren Lapkus really informed the character quite a bit and we improvised a lot. I doubt my ex will watch it, I don’t know, but if she does I was very, very careful to make her very sympathetic. You see that she needs to get out for reasons that have nothing to do with Pete being a bad person. She’s in that interesting conundrum of “This is a good person and I love this person as a friend, but I need something else.” So all of the real therapy I’ve had and what I say on my podcast — which can be like therapy — that had gone into the show and the way that it manifested was trying to write the story from the other person’s perspective.

Guerrasio: And I don’t want to give anything way, but Lauren as your wife in episode five really shines.

Holmes: And that scene in that episode that you’re referring to, I have to say, would be fun for my ex-wife to see. [Laughs] She never said anything that Lauren says, but she would go, “There it is.”

Guerrasio: You are not a political comic, but has your comedy changed at all since the election?

Holmes: I have never been political, which for a straight white man that’s kind of a byproduct of privilege growing up that I was kind of like, “Who cares who the president is, everything is coming up privilege.” [Laughs] But now things are so scary and crazy and I have to say I’m not a fan of Trump at all. I don’t agree with him in any way. I did a show in Ohio the day after the election, and I didn’t have any Trump jokes, I barely have any right now, but I mentioned that I knew this is a tense time in the country and if it’s ok with you I would just like to not think about it. I think about it all day, so for one hour we can just make faces and do silly sounds and just laugh. Don’t get me wrong, if George Carlin were alive, how great would it be to go see what he would say? But sometimes pure silliness can be what the doctor ordered. So now I say, “Look, I know what’s going on, but let’s talk about diarrhoea.”


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