HBO’s new series “Crashing” finished its first season on Sunday. As with many of the network’s other comedies, I highly enjoyed it. The combination of star/creator Pete Holmes and executive producer Judd Apatow made this look into the stressful world of stand-up comedy heartfelt, awkward and funny, often in the same beat. But it’s the show’s spiritual side that made it resonate.
“Crashing” follows Holmes (playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself) as he tries to make a break in New York’s comedy scene. He performs gigs for beer in small venues late at night, and his dreams of stardom are tempered by the reality that he’s not making any money. As the series opens, his dream costs him his marriage, with Pete’s wife (Lauren Lapkus) engaging in an affair with a hippy art teacher at the elementary school where she teaches. Pete heads to the city to focus on his passion, and ends up sleeping on the couches of more established comics like Artie Lange, T.J. Miller and Sarah Silverman. Very slowly, he begins to get a toehold in the stand-up circuit, whether it’s passing out fliers on the street to get people to attend his act or taking a (disastrous) job as a warm-up comic for Rachael Ray’s talk show.
I’ve long been fascinated by the comedy world, devouring stories about “Saturday Night Live” and the L.A. and New York scenes of the ’70s and ’80s. Stand-up, a career that exists to make others laugh, sounds like the most agonizing, terrifying job in the world, demanding a thick skin, intelligence and perseverance. In what other career does it take 10 years to find your voice? At what other job do you stand in front of people and risk being made fun of? “Crashing” captures that sweaty-palmed, stomach-swimming desperation, the deafening silence of an uncooperative crowd and the bizarre cutthroat camaraderie that exists among comedians. It’s constantly very funny, even if the laughs come between cringes.
But what gives “Crashing” its unique flavor is its depiction of a Christian coming into contact with a world far removed from the sanitized and safe evangelical culture he grew up in.
As in real life, “Crashing’s” Pete comes from a community of faith and was going to be a youth pastor before being bit by the comedy bug. He married young and the only woman he’s slept with was his wife. When he swears, it sounds awkward. He’s never taken drugs and doesn’t drink much more than the occasional Mike’s Hard Lemonade. With his conservative haircut, big smile and button-down plaid shirts, he looks like a teen who wandered into a comedy club while his youth group was doing chalk talks on the street corner. Which makes it even funnier that his first contact on the comedy circuit is the notoriously troubled Lange; the former Stern sidekick’s constant bafflement over Pete’s piety results in some of the series’ biggest laughs.
“Crashing” isn’t a Christian show by any means. This isn’t about Pete evangelizing depraved comedians. It’s not about him encountering a trial and holding onto his faith; at the end of the first season, there’s the sense that his relationship with God has shifted, going from something with set rules and traditions to something a little more abstract and hard to define (again, mirroring Holmes’ real-life faith journey and friendships with progressive Christians like Rob Bell). But this HBO series offers something I haven’t seen on TV before: a lifelike, empathetic and positive portrayal of a Christian in the real world.
“Crashing” is the first show or movie where I’ve seen a Christian I can relate to. Like Pete, I was entrenched in the Christian culture of the ’90s and ’00s. I never wanted to be a youth pastor, but I was a die-hard youth group kid. In college, while my fellow students were out partying, I stayed up late at coffee shops talking theology. I worked for a spell at Family Christian Stores. In episode two, when Pete tries to convince Artie that Jars of Clay “rocks,” I laughed not just because I recognized the reference, but because I had that album (full disclosure: Jars of Clay does rock).
Like Pete, I’ve ventured outside that community. I didn’t go into the comedy scene, but neither did I stay enmeshed solely with the church crowd. I made friends with people whose views on sex and drugs were different than mine. When I worked at a local newspaper, my editor warned the staff prior to my start that I was a Christian, so they should curb their language around me. They didn’t, and I’m glad for that. It built deep friendships, some of which I maintain today and which wouldn’t have been possible with a barrier to authenticity. And while my theology is probably still fairly conservative compared to Holmes’, it’s definitely shifted from my hardcore evangelical days. My thoughts on faith and science, politics and sin have shifted, sometimes radically, and I’m often left with more questions than answers.
“Crashing” is refreshing in that Pete is never portrayed as a judgmental, joyless guy. He’s perplexed about his new friends’ different beliefs and behaviors, and sometimes a bit apprehensive about what this exposure might do to his faith. But what makes Pete such an enjoyable character is his wonder and joy; he’s thrilled to be chasing his dream and having the time of his life meeting fellow comedians. One of the greatest moments in my life was when I realized that the world wasn’t as dangerous and out to get me as my fundamentalist churches had taught. People who didn’t share my beliefs were often nicer than many I met in churches. After two decades of being told to avoid the world, I realized that a Christian could be part of it and enjoy the same things without having to put a “Christian” spin on them. I could laugh at comedy and be moved by a film that had nothing to do with the Bible or Jesus. And doing that didn’t mean I had to sacrifice my faith. In fact, just as Pete’s faith makes him a more rounded, interesting and humorous character, my faith has provided me with a unique lens with which to view the world.
And the show never treats Pete’s faith as a joke. Sure, it’s peculiar and his actions sometimes come off weird. Lange and Silverman get a kick out of learning Pete waited until marriage for sex, but Pete’s at worst looked at as naive, not an outcast. His faith makes him peculiar, but he’s accepted anyway. In fact, the spine of the show shows these decidedly non-religious comedians displaying charitable, Christian behavior by taking care of Pete and welcoming him into their homes. The show might throw some shade at overly conservative Christian communities (there’s a very funny scene in the finale where a pastor turns a counseling session into an avenue for gossip), but it treats Pete’s spiritual journey as respectable and personal, even positive. In fact, the finale finds one person returning to the faith and a very surprising character finding his own kind of joy in it. And besides, who cares if Pete’s beliefs make him peculiar? Christians are strange. We believe a man rose from the dead. Surely our behavior’s looked at weirdly by the world. But the show is never antagonistic.
Now, I’m not going to recommend it for everyone. It’s a Judd Apatow production for HBO. There’s language and a few sexual situations. If it was a movie, it would be R-rated. And I don’t want to oversell it. At the end of the day, Apatow’s religion is comedy; his cathedral is the stand-up stage, and that’s where “Crashing’s” true heart lies. But Holmes’ kind-hearted, funny and relatable spiritual journey is the salt that makes the show unique, and it’s a depiction of Christianity I wish we saw more of in TV and the movies.