There’s a scene in the very first episode of the HBO comedy Crashing where the main character—heartbroken after finding out that his wife is having an affair—is driving in his car to a stand-up comedy gig. He has no following. No career. And now, no spouse.
As he drives into New York City, he listens to a Joel Osteen sermon for encouragement.
The brief scene may seem out of place in a series full of the kind of raunchy humor and references to drugs and sex you’d expect in a comedy produced by Judd Apatow (the mastermind behind Knocked Up, Superbad and The 40-Year-Old Virgin). But, for Pete Holmes, Crashing is all about doing something totally unexpected.
“Judd was very good at finding the balance between comedy and what we were trying to say,” Holmes explains. “He and I both wanted to show what it was like to be an earnest, believing person. Because I do sometimes think that those characters can be caricatures on TV and film. But there’s a huge, rich and complex tapestry of different kinds of believers and people that manifest that in different ways.”
On the network that broke hugely influential comedies playing on themes like celebrity (Entourage), identity (Girls) and sex (Sex and the City and, well, Girls), Crashing is decidedly different.
“In a ‘regular show’ about a guy whose wife leaves … the next scene is them doing drugs or getting drunk or certainly having sex,” Holmes explains. “Judd and I were far more interested in what it’s like for a character who is morally opposed to those ideas, who doesn’t think it’s great to get drunk or do drugs or have sex. That’s what makes it interesting.”
But to understand what makes Pete the character so interesting, you have to look back on the life of the man behind him.
The show—which Holmes calls a story of “a religious guy whose wife leaves him and gets kicked into the deep end of the New York comedy scene”—is a scripted sitcom, but Holmes says he “never really considered it a piece of just straight fiction.”
Like the character, Holmes is divorced. And he also grew up in a devout evangelical household and attended a Christian college.
It was there, while attending Gordon College, that the real Pete Holmes started to develop his skills in comedy.
“They had something called REACH … and that was as close as it came to comedy theater,” Holmes explains. “We did these horrible student-written, preachy sketches where basically 19-year-olds would go and perform for 15-year-olds to drive home the idea that they shouldn’t smoke pot or get an abortion.”
Despite the nature of the material, Holmes loved being onstage. Soon, he met another comedian—who was also a Christian college student—and auditioned for his improv group, one that allowed him to push more boundaries, kind of. He says, light-heartedly, that he would get in trouble for shouting the phrase “you bast**d” during scenes, but it would also draw big laughs from the Christian student audiences.
“It was so salacious, and I’d have to wear a paper bag on my head which we called the bag of shame,” he remembers. “I mean, who needs catharsis and relief more than a bunch of 19-year-old kids who think they’re going to burn forever because they masturbated earlier that day.”
Holmes still remembers his college days fondly, though he no longer agrees with the conservative theology of his youth. “I felt like it was Footloose,” he jokes. “I had to teach the kids how to dance. It was easy to be that kind of rebellious bad boy. I got to be a real rascal, which is a wonderful comedic position.”
But his Christian improv group soon wasn’t enough to satisfy his burgeoning passion for stand-up comedy. Secretly, Holmes would sneak away from his friends to perform for club crowds.
Though his career was just beginning, soon, Holmes’ life—and his faith—would change forever in almost a single moment.
Best Life Now?
Like many Christian college students, Holmes married his campus sweetheart shortly after graduation. And thanks to his new passion for comedy, he even had a career plan mapped out.
“My mom wanted me to be a youth pastor, and when I became a comedian she said it was close enough,” he says, laughing.
Holmes says the two professions basically require the same skill set: “It’s standing in front of strangers, usually being somewhat cheery, and you want everyone to leave a little bit happier and more connected than when they came in.”
Still rooted in the faith and values of his upbringing, he embraced feel-good, pop-theology teachings about prosperity and hope as he fostered his young marriage and career.
“I would listen to Joel [Osteen] on audio all the time,” he remembers, explaining why he wanted an Osteen sermon to be featured on his show.
“He just is a smile. He’s just kind of, ‘God loves you, God wants good for you.’ I kind of look at it like the starter set for spirituality. There’s a thing that loves you, and it wants to meet with you.”
But it was around that same time his own marriage fell apart, and suddenly, that easy message didn’t sync up with his reality.
“My wife left me when I was 28 in real life … and Your Best Life Now had just kind of come out, and I was really, really into it,” he says. He remembers the painful moment when the optimistic fervor of the message collided head-on with his real-life heartbreak.
“I would listen to [Osteen] and then my wife has this affair,” he says, reflecting on the most painful chapter of his life. “So I was spending my days listening to Joel tell me that God has favor for me and God only wants to invite me to the banquet and the bounty and the harvest, and then my wife tells me that she’s been sleeping with another guy.”
He said the theology he’d embraced—of a God who favors those who do right and punishes the immoral—didn’t help in his dark season.
“I remember very vividly when my wife broke the news, and then there were a couple days afterwards trying to listen to Joel on CD, laying on my bed with my earphones in, listening to the same thing that just a week earlier really resonated with me,” he says. “And it just didn’t make sense. There was nowhere for it to land anymore.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but that really started what has become a lifelong pursuit for an understanding of the Divine in everything, including loss and suffering and ugliness,” he says. “Because just that kind of straight prosperity message didn’t make sense to me.”
The Uncynical Comedy
There’s a running bit throughout Crashing that lands no matter what guest comedian happens to be co-starring on the show that night: Pete is unrelentingly earnest, and every one of his new comedy-world friends is a hard-edged cynic.
Artie Lange is a recovering addict who’s convinced he’s about to relapse. T.J. Miller is a jaded workaholic. Dov Davidoff and his team of promotional street “barkers” are foul-mouthed hustlers desperate for an audience.
Even in the face of personal devastation, Pete is unflappable.
In a way, Pete’s real-life personality—and real-life faith—mirrors the TV character’s. When the weight of divorce collapsed in on his surface-level theology, he didn’t abandon God in bitterness. He just rethought his approach to Him.
“I looked at God like Allstate, and I thought because I didn’t smoke, drink, swear, have sex, look at pornography or masturbate that I was in His protection plan,” he says. “So when something ‘bad’ happened to me, it really kind of threw everything to the side.”
Holmes started to “walk around with a certain level of freedom,” essentially forgoing some of his moral code by dating non-Christians, swearing and even experimenting with drugs.
It was around that time he discovered Rob Bell’s controversial book about the afterlife and punishment Love Wins. The book introduced him to a new way of looking at the Bible. Though many disagree with the book’s assertions, Holmes said it was an opportunity to engage with the Bible outside of the context of his upbringing.
“I used to just want so badly to have afterlife insured and make sure I was going to heaven,” he says. “Then someone like Rob comes along, and is like, ‘You’re like you’re asking the wrong questions! You’re thinking about this the completely wrong way!’ It’s far more intoxicating, enlivening and exciting.”
The alternative way of thinking about faith led to more reading and more reframing of his faith and understanding what Christianity looked like outside of the context of his Christian education and Joel Osteen.
Holmes’ career started to pick up as his faith evolved. Holmes began getting higher-profile stand-up gigs and late-night appearances. He also launched a chart-topping podcast, You Made It Weird, that has drawn some of Hollywood’s and comedy’s biggest names: Jon Hamm, Aziz Ansari, Tig Notaro, Ellie Kemper, Andy Samberg.
He also uses his growing platform to talk to some of his new heroes: the thinkers, writers and leaders reshaping his faith. Richard Rohr, Rob Bell and “Science Mike” McHargue have all joined Holmes for conversations on faith, doubt and God.
His faith and comedy now look dramatically different than his days performing sketches with his Christian college comedy troupe.
Embracing the Uncertainty
HBO recently announced it is renewing Crashing for a second season, so audiences will see what becomes of “Pete” months after his divorce. There’s uncertainty on the direction the show will take, but Holmes is OK with uncertainty.
He says lately he’s been thinking about a quote from the poet Maya Angelou. He paraphrased, “Whenever people say, ‘I’m a Christian,’ she says, ‘Already? I’ve been trying my whole life and haven’t gotten there yet.’”
Pete doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers when it comes to faith. But really, that’s what the show about crashing on people’s couches while you figure out your next move is all about: a journey toward answers, looking for God and asking questions—and not getting too comfortable where you’re at.
“I think there’s something really special about that,” he says, referencing Angelou’s idea. “I don’t really feel like I’ve landed anywhere necessarily, but I do look back now at the loss of my inherited traditional faith that maybe was a little more literal and a little less mysterious than it is now. I look at losing that as essential. And that’s one of the things I want to explore on the show.”
Holmes might not know all of the answers, but he sure is enjoying asking the questions.