I had never heard of Pete Holmes before we started watching Crashing in its first season, and initially, I was not particularly compelled by either him or the show. Oh, fun, another oafish, innocent (read: immature) boy who’s sad because he just has to be a comedian because it’s his dream but no one will take him seriously and his wife is tired of supporting his ass and life is so unfair? Honestly, now that I think about it, I’m not sure why I watched the whole first season. Maybe because Lauren Lapkus is great, maybe because the Schadenfreude was just too damn compelling. Somehow, though, I watched; somehow I was not yet tired of comedies about comedy (how did Louie not ruin me for that?), and it probably helped that a) my husband was into it, too, and b) when it aired there wasn’t much else we both wanted to watch. High praise, I know. And yet, the series has now ended, and I will genuinely miss Pete and his world.
Just after learning that the show would not be returning, we watched what turns out to be Crashing’s final episode, “Mulaney,” in which Pete learns that John Mulaney has personally requested that he, Pete, open for Mulaney at Town Hall. We already know that something’s up when we see Pete excitedly calling everyone he knows as he nearly skips through the Upper West Side (“He requested me by name!”) - we have seen Pete shoot himself in the foot in season finales past, ever a casualty of his overconfidence and his thin skin. This time, even as I gritted my teeth in anticipation of Pete’s inevitable letdown, I also crossed my fingers for his success. He has won me over, I confess, lo these three seasons of understated and excellent television. Crashing has allowed us to see and feel his earnest hopes and his genuine desire to be a good sport and stay positive, even when he is down on his luck and drowning in wounded pride. The show has also impressed us with Pete’s raw talent; goober though he may be, he is genuinely good at what he does. He is funny (Holmes’s actual stand-up, which is only slightly less clean than Pete’s stand-up in the world of the show, is also very very good). He knows how to play to different audiences and win them over, transitioning shockingly easily from the grim and dark scene of The Boston to family-friendly sets in churches, and even a synagogue. Every time I brace myself for one of Pete’s performances, I feel like I’m watching a close family member or a dear friend get up on stage and take a huge risk. It’s both thrilling to see and simultaneously terrifying. Pete’s embarrassment if he flubs this Gentile-in-a-synagogue thing will be my embarrassment. But his triumph is also my triumph. I swell with pride when he totally nails it (“I was honored to get this gig! It came in through an e-mail…well, actually an e-mohel”). Though Pete came to comedy with all the white-guy advantages, of which Crashing is fully conscious, there is nothing about his success in moments like these that feels unearned.
That the series would close with Pete opening for one of the best-regarded comedians of the moment, then, is exhilarating, for Pete and for us. News of the Mulaney gig in the series finale comes via Pete’s hilariously deadpan manager, played by Zach Cherry. Somehow, Cherry doesn’t make the list of recurring cast members on Wikipedia, and the manager character is never, in fact named (“chicken wing man,” according to IMDB?) but his presence is nonetheless essential to the show. Mulaney’s surprise request could have been conveyed to Pete in any number of ways, but the show has him arriving, somewhat confused, at an Italian restaurant with red tablecloths where his manager awaits him, twirling his spaghetti on his fork and wearing a plaid jacket over his black T-shirt. “What is this place?” he asks. “It’s my favorite restaurant,” the manager replies in his usual monotone, adding a totally flat “molto bene“ for good measure. Cherry plays this scene, his last of the series, perfectly. He has always taken himself comically seriously as Pete’s manager, and we’re never quite sure to what extent he’s purposefully playing up that seriousness, which is part of what makes the performance so good. When he tells Pete that John Mulaney wants Pete to open for him, we can see, even in the manager’s completely emotionless face, that he is proud. He, too, has been somewhat won over by Pete. He’s brought Pete to his favorite restaurant to deliver the news in between slurps of soda and bites of spaghetti because he is feeling himself. This truly is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Of course it’s not going to be what we think it is.
Even though we know Mulaney is too good to be true, the show makes us wait a little while longer before the gut punch comes. We watch Pete step out of the subway station in Times Square, cross 7th Avenue in his skinny tie and his blue suit. We watch him stare into the green room mirror and say to himself, out loud, “You belong here.” Oh, this is going to hurt. Pete has wanted to belong here ever since we first met him. One of the central questions the show has confronted is precisely that of belonging. What is comedy now, and who belongs in it? What do we owe guys like Pete, who might be very talented but who might also, in truth, not be talented enough to be essential? The premiere of Season 3 gets right to that question, in the words of Estee Adoram (playing herself), the holder of the Comedy Cellar keys: “who are you, why are you, and why now? I’ve got a lot of white guys up here talking about nothing.” She has a point, and even though Pete is understandably crushed, Crashing isn’t asking us to feel that he’s been denied some kind of rightful place. Later in the season, the rightfully-acclaimed episode “MC, Middle, Headliner” interrogates the why of the white male comedian even more pointedly, when Jason’s (Dov Davidoff) offensively misogynist and frightfully unimaginative set gets him bumped from headlining a series of shows at a corporate comedy club in a New Jersey strip mall. The tantrum Jason throws in response to this indignity provides a striking contrast to the way Pete inhabits white-maleness: where Jason is entitled and aggressive, Pete in his grudging acceptance of the rejections he gets approaches an admirable grace.
He is only slightly less graceful when in the series finale it turns out that he’s the wrong Holmes; John Mulaney’s people have made a mistake, as we all feared. Pete is horrified and crushed; he does not, in fact, belong here. Mulaney for his part completely spins out and demands that his manager start calling other comics on the spot, as if Pete weren’t standing right in front of him. He eventually gets a hold of himself and offers Pete an insincere apology, attached to a thinly-veiled threat of comeuppance if Pete ever talks about his having behaved like a dick. Without making it too obvious or too cute, the show points out to us that Mulaney, for all his fame, is also something of an insecure mess at heart. He needs his show to be perfect. He needs the people to like him, to believe that he’s a nice guy and not the type of guy who would treat a struggling comic like dirt. And he is ultimately forced to swallow his pride and ask Pete to open after all, when it turns out that Ron Funches, Jon Stewart, and Mike Birbiglia (“he’s too big to open for me, but he’s a friend, he might do it as a favor!”) aren’t going to make it. Pete, who is at this point thoroughly shook, walks out onto the stage. He stands there motionless for what feels like far too long, and while I hoped he wouldn’t completely bomb, I braced myself for a long fall from grace.
As the uncomfortable silence yields to a tittle of spontaneous laughter, Pete rises, and he once again crushes it. He both openly flouts Mulaney’s command that he never reveal what happened (he immediately tells the audience what happened), and he simultaneously demonstrates that he still knows his place. He does all this with a pitch-perfect, totally improvised, and yet still wholly plausible opening set. “Brother, if you’re looking for someone to be not as good as John Mulaney, I’m your first call! I am mediocre and forgettable together, like two great tastes!” As Pete kills, Mulaney watches from backstage, horrified at the exposure of his behavior (in Pete’s words, his having “slipped into dick,” which the audience loves). “You are a dick,” agrees Chris Gethard, who is also watching, having arrived moments too late to open in Pete’s stead. “I know, but people don’t know that,” Mulaney replies. His embarrassment is genuine, but so is his growing respect for Pete as he watches.
The midseason “MC, Middle, Headliner” has already shown us a total entitled meltdown in Jason, when someone he’s insulted too many times (the wonderful Jamie Lee as Ali Reissen, another indisputable series MVP) comes along and undercuts his act. After the first night of Jason’s extremely objectionable tirade about the hassle of obtaining consent before having sex (think several minutes of variations on “I mean, what’s more creepy than asking a girl whether it’s okay to kiss her?”), he is demoted to “middle” while Pete is asked to headline. The club’s Yelp score apparently dropped half a star in one night, thanks to Jason, and the manager has notes for everyone. Ali remains stuck at MC, where she’s been instructed to display more enthusiasm in reading the drink specials off the Chuckle Shack’s menu: “Right now, it just feels like you’re pretending to want to read the announcements, and I want you to want to read the announcements, you know?” Also, to “smile more.” Jason unwisely piles on, reminding Ali that in the comedy world, she’s just “tits and teeth.” So when Ali takes the stage right before Jason, after promoting a special deal on a “jack ‘n joke” in a “laugh carafe,” she aims squarely for his shitty anti-consent bit. “You ask questions all goddamn day! You go to McDonalds, you say, 'hi, uh, I don’t want pickles in my burger, can you make sure there are no pickles in my burger? It shouldn’t be daunting to say to a woman, ‘hey, can i put my pickle in your burger?’” She only riffs for 20-30 seconds before bringing Jason up to perform (“you are gonna love him, he’s a delight and a half!”), and of course he falls completely flat. Jason has no ability to laugh at himself, no capacity to improvise and no claim on the audience’s sympathy for any of this. It’s both cathartic because Ali deserves to skewer him and sad because he so clearly can’t handle it.
Mulaney, for his part, transforms into the pro that he is as soon as Pete brings him out to do his show in the wake of mild public embarrassment. “Hello, I’m John Mulaney, you may know me from some of Pete’s stories about me from five seconds ago!” He allows the audience to enjoy Pete’s moment for just a beat longer before marching into his prepared set without missing a step. I love this as an ending for the show. I love the way Mulaney strides out onstage and takes the mic, but first pauses for a private acknowledgment of his opener. He looks into Pete’s eyes, grips his hands and says, with heart and conviction, “you’re not bad!” As many times as Pete has managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, here, he has truly earned the compliment. Mulaney later goes even further out of his way to show his goodwill towards Pete, inviting him to the Cellar and getting him that coveted spot onstage, the one he’s been grasping at since Estee’s dismissal of him at the season’s beginning. This is belonging. He had to earn it, but he did, and here it is.
I don’t think that Crashing is asking us to compare Jason to Mulaney to Pete on the merits of their standup comedy, because that part is already pretty obvious and needs no further discussion, but I do think there is a very intentional mirroring of the two sequences. The camera cuts back and forth between the comic onstage, enjoying a moment of truth-telling, and the comic backstage, panicking as the audience learns that the emperor has no clothes. Mulaney, though, is self-aware in ways that Jason has no capacity to be, and he has enough humility to use that moment to acknowledge Pete’s belonging. Jason, it seems, no longer belongs in the world he thought he owned, but he’ll be damned if he’ll let Ali take the spotlight from him without an embarrassing fight. If there’s any broader lesson we walk away with after the series finale of Crashing, I think it’s that Pete earns his place in that world by recognizing that he doesn’t belong there by default. Yes, he works hard, but the show doesn’t pretend that Ali and other non-male, non-white comics don’t have to work twice as hard to get half as far, and it never reaches for extra brownie points for its attention to that reality. When Ali finally gets to appear on Seth Meyers and the episode airs on TV (“Viewing Party”), Pete shows up to support her without a hint of resentment or jealousy, much as he has openly grappled with both in the past. The show manages to be emotionally realistic about the life of a struggling performer while also allowing itself to show genuine kindness among comics, which is not something we see very much. It may indeed be ‘inessential’ and we may want to give space to other voices in televised comedy, all of which is to the good. But Crashing, if anything, would agree with that take. Its humility and its thoughtfulness make it a really, really good show, and it accomplished a lot with few delusions of grandeur and with many, many laughs.