For Better or Worse, ‘Crashing’s Pete Holmes is The Embodiment of The Nice Guy

The ’nice guy' shtick works for the career plot in this new Judd Apatow-produced show, but falls flat when it comes to Pete’s relationships with women.

In the opening scene of Crashing, which premiered on Sunday on HBO, Pete (Pete Holmes) and his wife, Jess (Lauren Lapkus), are cooking dinner when she starts to get frisky and suggests they have sex on the floor.

“Sure,” Pete says. “I have onion hands, though. Nurse, give me 15 CCs of liquid Dawn!”

Jess politely requests that he not do a “bit” just then. “Bite my neck. Do something crazy,” she pants.

“I don’t want to bite your neck,” Pete replies amiably. “You’re my best friend.”

The spontaneous floor sex does not go well, and not because of Pete’s onion hands. Inspired by Holmes’s own divorce nearly a decade ago, and executive produced by Judd Apatow, Crashing tells two interweaving stories — one about a would-be standup comic trying to make it in the big city, and one about the demise of said comic’s ten-year marriage.

As a show about a 32-year-old pressing the reset button and going for that long-shot show biz career, Crashing is breezy and charming. But the decision to tie Pete’s career ambitions in with the demise of his marriage means the show ends up conflating the character’s sexual appeal with his ability to be funny. The “but I’m a nice guy” shtick works for the career plot — Pete’s a fish out of water, a genuinely pleasant guy in a sea of aggressive, hostile aspiring comics — but falls flat when it comes to Pete’s relationships with women.

Pete is not the typical hero of an inside-baseball show about comedy. He’s not a knowing wise guy or a beleaguered asshole; he’s a “clean,” Christian comic who got married at age 22, to a woman he met years earlier at summer camp, and who waited until the wedding night to have sex. In college, he studied to be a youth pastor.

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For years, Pete’s wife, a teacher, has supported his fledgling comedy career while he makes regular trips from upstate New York to perform in sparsely-attended basement clubs. As Jess says in the pilot, “It’s not really work — you go do shows that don’t pay you and you have to buy two drinks in order to do them.” When Pete comes home early to discover Jess with another man, Leif (George Basil) — and Jess announces she’s leaving him and moving to Tampa with her new guy — Pete is pushed to confront his dream head-on. Effectively homeless, he hightails it to New York City and spends the show’s first season bouncing from one couch to the next.

Crashing is as its best when it focuses on the world of aspiring standup comics — not the Louis C.K.s and the Chris Rocks, but the poor schmucks who spend hours “barking” on street corners (i.e., handing out flyers) in exchange for a few minutes of stage time. The show presents an appealingly diverse cross-section of these struggling comedians — sure, there are people more deserving of your sympathy, but like MTV’s Loosely Exactly Nicole, it’s a sweet take on the quest for artistic fulfillment and professional success.

Although slightly older and far more cheerful than his counterparts, Pete finds his people among this raggedy group, which includes real-life up-and-comers Aparna Nancherla and Jermaine Fowler. Big-name comics like Sarah Silverman, Artie Lange, and T.J. Miller appear throughout the series as themselves, dispensing career and general life advice. (Silverman, who appears in the sixth and best episode so far, tells him to floss: “Death creeps in through the gums.”)

The show definitely nails the atmosphere of a low-rent comedy club; the scene is not glamorized. If anything, Crashing glorifies the grind, the ruthless competition that breeds aggression. The show seems to suggest that Pete needs to get over his nice-guy shtick in order to win over women; Jess is the only person he’s had sex with. But Pete’s sunny disposition serves him pretty well in the comedy world ­— in one episode, Sarah Silverman helps the excessively friendly comic get a job as a warm-up comic for Rachael Ray, and he begins to see a path toward a real career in comedy.

While Pete’s career stumbles are full of insights about the joys and challenges of getting your foot in the door, his relationship troubles are familiar and formulaic. Of course Jess’s new guy has a ponytail and introduces her to tantric sex — like Tim Robbins’ neighbor character from High Fidelity or Hank Azaria in Along Came Polly, Leif is a fairly typical “other man.” He’s sexier than nice-guy Pete but there’s something ridiculous about him, which renders the woman’s attraction to him ridiculous by association.

As Crashing’s opening scene demonstrates, the material surrounding Pete’s marriage is full of clichés, and it does a real disservice to Lapkus, a terrific comedian who deserves far better — and funnier — material than she’s given here. For the most part, she’s your typical Apatavian humorless bitch. Jess has supported Pete financially for years, but she doesn’t believe in him — not because of his material, which is hit-or-miss, but because of her waning attraction to him. “I’d be able to support you more,” she explains, “if I were really in love with you.”

If only he were funnier, maybe women would fuck him — it’s a familiar argument about the motivations of (male) comedians, and one that Crashing would be better served without.