For Whom The Bell Drolls - Grown-up comedies in TV's Golden Age

A dark comedy with a devastating streak of sincerity, Judd Apatow's Crashing is one of a generation of new sitcoms that mingle laughs with slice-of-life veracity. You'll giggle but maybe you'll cry too.

The flailing man-child is an overplayed sitcom trope. But in Crashing, the new series from bromantic comedy doyen Judd Apatow, there’s a twist on the dude-at-sea stereotype.

Pete is a struggling New York stand-up who has just discovered his wife in bed with a surfer hippy with annoying hair and a line in zen-patter that would make you want to slap him even if he wasn’t sleeping with your missus. Some larfs are squeezed from the betrayal – but not as many as might be anticipated. Pete is genuinely hurt and Crashing, just debuted on Sky Atlantic, takes the time to acknowledge his pain.

This is a chuckle-fest with a raw ache at its centre and with good reason. “Pete” is real life stand-up and cult podcast host Pete Holmes (You Made It Weird With Pete Holmes has a listenership in the millions). As with his onscreen character, he was raised in a strict Christian household, met his future wife at bible camp and was duly devastated when, after several years of marriage, she left him for a bad boy. Crashing is his life relayed through a comedic sensibility. So it’s funny but with a knife-twist.

“I’m not religious anymore, but I was raised religious,” Holmes told reporters last month. “I was married when I was 22, and then my wife cheated on me.

“That’s all true. The show is obviously a fictionalisation of that. The characters are different, the situation is different, but everything is based on a true emotion or something that’s like, this is how that really felt, and this is what I would have said, and this is what you would have said….

“I always wanted to do something about what it’s like to get divorced, especially when it’s a young marriage to start with.”

Apatow is best known for high-concept, low-brow big screen comedies such as The 40 Year Old Virgin (aka nerds have feelings too), Knocked Up (pregnancy is funny, until it isn’t) This Is 40 (yes, middle age is a pain).

However, he found early success on the small screen with the cult high school caper Freaks and Geeks and has served as mid-wife to Girls, the opinion dividing Lena Dunham dram-edy (you may think it’s an achingly hilarious portrait of millennials adrift – some of us will feel it’s a snowflake whinge-fest bought to you by a coterie of Manhattan trustafarians. Let’s have an ill-tempered exchange about it on social media sometime).

Crashing is different and arguably has more in common with shows such Louis CK’s Louie and even Seinfeld, both of which similarly observed the travails of the working stiffs of the comedy business.

As with Louie, the new series ropes in some heavyweight cameos – the first episode features Howard Stern’s self-destructive former side kick Artie Lange – essentially a coke habit in human form. Sarah Silverman later plays a rival “barker” vying with Burns for the same street corner from which to hand-out flyers.

“There are elements of comedy that can be competitive and back stab-y, but one of the underreported sides is that we love each other and help each other, kind of like a messed up extended family,” Holmes said to Entertainment Weekly. “I’ve helped people in the way Artie helped me on the show, and I’ve been helped by people, some of whom are on the show. Like [Silicon Valley star] TJ Miller. He was shooting a movie right after my wife left me, and I went and lived with him at a hotel in Pittsburgh for a week, just because he didn’t want me to be alone.”

Funny-but-not-really is a fast-expanding genre. Misanthropic comedy has always been with us – see The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm. However, in addition to sharing DNA with Louis CK, Crashing may remind viewers of the acerbic Sharon Horgan hit Catastrophe.

This chronicling of a couple with young children muddling through in middle class London is fascinated, nay obsessed, with the minutiae of the daily grind and shares Crashing’s grittiness and determination not to flinch. Behold the anti-rom com… television that finds hilarity in truth and pain.

“We didn’t feel we had seen a marriage represented in a sitcom in a way that we found wholly satisfactory,” Catastrophe co-star Rob Delaney said at the launch of series three (airing Tuesdays on Channel 4). “So we wanted to make one.”

This commitment to portraying real life as truthfully as possible continues with the new season, during which Delaney’s recovering alcoholic tumbles off the wagon. Even as the chortles flow, the bleakness is not shied away from.

“The good thing about alcoholism is that it only ever gets worse. We thought the longer we leave it the more catastrophic the outcome. We didn’t necessarily think we’d have it as a thing that we’d use, we just wanted to have it bubbling under in an ominous way, and then we found a great opportunity for it. We wanted to make things difficult for them as time goes on and you develop new habits. One great thing about getting older is that you can always be developing new bad habits.”

Tellingly, it was a career setback that convinced Pete Holmes to pitch his idea for Crashing to Apatow. He’d just had a talk show cancelled and didn’t know what to do with his angst. Rather than lose himself in booze, strippers etc, he reached out to Apatow, determined to kickstart a new phase of his career.

“I said, “Oh, your life is too sad.”, the producer would recall to Vogue (he was so enthused by what Holmes has shepherded to the screen he has himself directed several episodes). “But then he came in later [in 2014] and formally pitched this idea of a comedian who is going through a divorce and has no money — all he has is the comedy community. So he has to sleep on different people’s couches while he tries to get better at it because he’s not good enough to pay his bills. I thought that was great.”

One twist is that Crashing is open-minded about Pete’s religious beliefs. He’s a sweet guy who takes his humiliations humbly and with a sense of perspective. He is, in other words, that rarest of television characters – a victim who does not lash out or spiral into self-destruction. This was an important departure says Homes who reports that his faith – which he has now partly renounced – helped him process his anger and confusion after his wife left.

“It’s a huge part of why I think the show works,” Holmes told Vogue. “Pete’s wife leaves him, and the next scene is not him getting drunk, or trying to meet girls at a bar, or having some anonymous sex.

“He’s a guy who never expected this to happen to him, and he doesn’t have the tools to cope with it. A lot of that has to do with how he understands religion and god. I don’t think it will ever be super overt, but the show is about breaking up with his wife – and breaking up with his traditional understanding of God.”

Crashing airs on Sky Atlantic on Tuesdays at 10.10 pm. Awkwardly, Catastrophe goes out 10 minutes earlier on Channel 4 the same night. That’s why TV-on-demand exists, people.

 

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