There’s been a recent surge in TV shows exploring the world of aspiring comedians, but don’t assume that they feel like they’re in competition with each other. In fact, “Crashing” star Jamie Lee is, in her own words, “obsessed” with Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
And she’s not the only cast member of the HBO comedy, executive produced by Judd Apatow and inspired by Pete Holmes’s own stand-up journey, who likes the Golden Globe-winning series about another young comedian, coping with the adultery of a spouse.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Holmes told IndieWire during a sitdown with the cast and producer Oren Brimer at SCAD aTVfest earlier this month. “I haven’t seen all of it, but [‘Mrs. Maisel’] is doing a great job.”
“Crashing” features Holmes as a comic who embarks on a life of couch-surfing after he discovers that his wife is cheating on him; now midway through its second season, Pete has built up some success on stage, but is still floundering in his personal life, especially when it comes to his relationship with fellow comedian Ali (Lee).
Of course, when Pete first finds out that his wife is cheating on him, he goes out and ends up bombing on stage while trying to talk about it — which is the opposite of what happens with Mrs. Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan).
Brimer noted both similarities and differences, saying that “I think it’s so interesting because it’s very similar in story structure to ours — a person finds out they were getting cheated on and they go do standup right away. And that’s where we diverge. We show a potentially more realistic version that’s like, ‘Oh no, it’s terrible. You don’t have an act about it yet so you’re probably not going to do great.’ But for her, it’s all about her emotion and it’s unlocked at that point.”
It was even a direction that Holmes and the writers considered going, with the character’s first big set following his breakup. Holmes didn’t think it was unrealistic that a comedian could have a great moment on stage after an emotional set-back like that. “I’ve had breakups where I go up and talk about it,” he said. “But we really wanted to dig in that Pete stinks, and everything’s going to happen as close to real time as possible. The show’s called–“
Lee jumped in. “‘Crashing,’ not ‘Flourishing.'”
For everyone we spoke to, it was easy to identify with their characters, given their backgrounds in comedy — not just the glamorous aspects, but the more brutal realities for those starting out in the scene.
“People seem pretty happy with it being authentic, which makes me really really happy,” Holmes said.
Fowler agreed, especially regarding one ritual we see Pete perform regularly in each episode — passing out flyers on the street, trying to get bodies into their theaters. “I used to ‘bark’ for The Comic Strip from the Upper East Side, and the barking scenes are — that shit’s real man,” he said.
“It’s visceral,” said Lee.
“You meet a lot of really fucked up weird people and you meet a lot of people who think you’ve cheated them,” Fowler said. “Those scenes to me hit hard because I was in those situations a lot when I first started.”
Added Brimer, “I’ve seen a lot of shows that show people when they’ve already become very successful in stand-up, but I think our show does a good job of showing what it’s like when you aren’t a household name and you aren’t making money at it and you’re just grinding at it.”
Lee, as Ali, represents a part of the New York alt comedy world, which she said was “something I was very familiar with.”
It was a deliberate choice, according to Holmes. “As much as we can use people that are actually stand-up — writers all the way up — I think that’s what hopefully gives the show an authentic feel.”
In fact, much of the action was driven by improv, something which Fowler appreciated. “‘Crashing’ was my first scripted TV gig. And for the first season, I was playing Russell, and I was memorizing my lines for the role and I was so nervous cause I was like ‘Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck I don’t want to ruin the scenes and shit.’ So I get there and Pete and the director are like ‘Okay, so just wing it, do your thing.’ I was like ‘YES!’ Yeah man, that’s all I can do, just be myself. It was the best fucking feeling ever.”
Said Holmes in response, “It’s like a show made by us about us. It’s like the FUBU of shows.”
Lee said that she’d been asked if Ali was essentially a version of herself, which she didn’t necessarily think was true. “I feel like when I watch her on screen she’s so much more confident and self-assured than I was when I was starting out,” she said. “I feel like I would act confidently on stage but it was all an act. With her, I actually believe that she believes in herself, which is a refreshing thing to see on TV.”
“We need more of that,” Holmes said. “We need more women like that. We need lady bosses.”
And for Lee, that includes “Mrs. Maisel,” which she reiterated she found inspiring. “Even though it’s supposed to be the late 1950s, there are so many things that she goes through as a stand-up, as a girl stand-up, that feels so relevant and applicable to what I went through, which is crazy because of the time gap,” she said. “But I watch it and I’m like, I can’t even point to specific moments, but I feel like it hits me in my gut in a very real way. I didn’t expect to feel that, considering it was the 1950s.”
That speaks to why stories about stand-ups continue to be popular year after year. A man or a woman walks to a mic, with one goal: make you laugh. Times may change, but the joy and terror of that moment remain universal.
“Crashing” Season 2 airs Sundays at 10:30 on HBO.