Since stand-up comics guested on Johnny Carson, their stories have flooded our TV screens. “Seinfeld” took it to another level by making its main character a comedian and thus incorporating his actual stand-up routines into the show. “Louie” followed a similar basic narrative, but the formula was flipped upside down for cable. Now, television is awash with stand-ups playing a slightly altered version of themselves: Pamela Adlon on “Better Things,” Tig Notaro in “One Mississippi,” Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None,” Maria Bamford in “Lady Dynamite” — and that’s just a few of the scripted series. There are specials, live shows, competitions series and more, all, in one way or another, chronicling what it’s like to be a stand-up comedian.
So when a new series pops up on TV — much like a new stand-up at a hot club — it really needs to earn its place. “Crashing,” for all its good intentions and solid character development, never quite finds a distinctive voice through six episodes. Pete Holmes makes for a charming, natural screen presence at a time when we need warm-hearted, pure protagonists, but his journey from opening act to featured comedian has a “been there, done that” vibe underlined by a lack of laughs.
“Crashing” refers to the inciting incident in HBO’s latest half-hour comedy: After Pete (Pete Holmes) walks in on his wife Jess (Lauren Lapkus) cheating on him, he’s forced out of the house and into couch-surfing from apartment to apartment. A long-aspiring comic, Pete uses his domestic misfortune to go seeking fame and fortune as a stand-up. To survive on next-to-no money, he crashes with whatever friends he can find… who happen to be quite a few famous stand-up comedians.
Pete’s issues with his wife aren’t as expendable as that brief summary may lead you to believe. He’s not only a devoted husband who waited for marriage to have sex, he waited because he’s also deeply religious. He doesn’t swear often, never does drugs, and his stand-up material is closer to the PG-variety of broadcast than the hard-R typically found on HBO. “Crashing” utilizes other comics’ less-than-holy material to illustrate the difference between their styles and Pete’s. When Artie Lange volunteers his couch, the former “Howard Stern” co-host more than makes up for any vulgarities you might have missed.
T.J. Miller and Sarah Silverman do their part in making the quota as well, though it should be noted “Crashing” isn’t looking to set the bar for inappropriate content. It embodies the innocent spirit of its creator and star, looking for and often finding the best in everyone who takes part in Pete’s adventure. There are few awkward conversations about paying rent or owing favors. Most comics take pity on Pete, not only offering him a place to stay but also finding him gigs. There’s a fraternal order to the series’ network of comedians that’s admirable, whether it’s true or not, and seeing the likes of Miller and Silverman play off perceptions of themselves is fun.
The only thoroughly unlikable character is Jess, and not for lack of trying. Though she gets plenty of opportunities to speak her mind and even a few scenes where Pete is cast as the guilty party, there’s simply no coming back from her callous behavior. Lapkus doesn’t exactly mine Jess for likability, instead leaning into her self-serving demeanor, so even when she says she cares about Pete and we’re meant to believe her, it’s hard.
The same cannot be said for Pete himself. TV dramas may be more in need of likable lead characters than comedies, but it’s still refreshing to see a comedian who doesn’t think of his or herself as a piece of shit. Pete embraces his positive attitude without embarrassment. He’s humble enough to know he’s not perfect and aware enough to know he’s not doing anything wrong. He’s out there, scraping by as a comic, asking for help, looking for answers, and wearing a smile the whole time. His spirit is infectious; so much so that when he gets on stage (and moves past his jitters) it’s easy to believe how quickly he can get laughs.
Laughs, that is, from an audience in a club, not necessarily the audience watching at home. “Crashing” offers a lot of smiles, a few chuckles, but few deep belly laughs. It’s not designed to deliver an onslaught of jokes (like, say, any traditional sitcom) or build to explosions of laughter (like the surprising revelations on “Louie”). It’s got the vibe of a Louis C.K. joint, but not the sharp edges.
While all this adds up to a perfectly enjoyable experience, “Crashing” never gets off the couch. Pete’s religious background isn’t explored to any real purpose, nor is his style of comedy so disparate it feels essential. He’s a comic with plenty of talent, but stuck in a story that doesn’t stand out.
“Crashing” premieres Sunday, February 19 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.