Pete Holmes knows a little something about turning personal pain into professional gain.
“Crashing,” the Lexington-bred funnyman’s series for HBO that premieres Sunday night, is a finely textured, darkly hilarious account of what it takes to make it in comedy, as seen through the eyes of a callow comic couch-surfing his way across the New York standup scene after he catches his wife in bed with another man.
It’s also autobiographical.
“My character isn’t even good yet,” admits Holmes, now 37 and a seasoned comedian, of the series’ protagonist, also named Pete, who is a lightly fictionalized version of himself at 26. “The show is delving into the world of starting out as a comedian, getting on the path to trying to become good.”
Or, to put it another way, says Holmes, who co-wrote all eight episodes, “it’s like an origin story for a superhero. Instead of just the story of a superhero who’s very strong and fast and good at fighting crime.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his body of work, it was Holmes’s self-effacing candor in re-creating this coming-of-age tale that brought Judd Apatow, the man behind “Knocked Up” and “Trainwreck,” into the fold.
The veteran producer, who’d previously appeared on Holmes’s “You Made It Weird” podcast and in his short-lived TBS series “The Pete Holmes Show,” was drawn to the distinct honesty of Holmes’s in-show persona, from his strong religious background (Holmes was raised an evangelical Christian) to his fish-out-of-water exposure to the standup scene.
“It’s like a song,” says Apatow, by phone, of the show. “You always appreciate music when you feel like it’s deeply personal; and I personally always like it when people share their stories. The best gift you can give to other people is to share your story. People really connect when they feel you mean it, that it’s not just something you cooked up.”
As in the series, Holmes began trying to break into the New York circuit right around the time his marriage imploded, about a decade ago. And as the first season of “Crashing" depicts, his experiences in the city often depended on which new friend in the standup scene he found himself crashing with at the time. In the show, some of those comics are played by real-life friend T.J. Miller, Artie Lange, and Sarah Silverman.
“The perks of having all the characters be comedians is that it’s believable they’d be funny in pretty much any situation,” says Holmes, noting the changing roster of guest stars throughout “Crashing” brought “vitality and electricity to the show.”
According to Apatow, the comics form an unlikely support system for Holmes. “They’re all night owls and many are dealing with addictions,” he says. “But Pete finds this unlikely grace in them.”
In an episode co-starring Miller, Holmes gains insight into the strange existence of a comic who is entirely, exhaustively committed to his bit. And in a Lange-centric episode (one of several), Holmes heads to an Albany gig with him, tasked with the unexpectedly tricky responsibility of keeping him clean and sober.
“Artie plays himself because he’s very open and honest about his life and his struggles,” says Apatow. “And he’s a great actor, so we feel like there’s something very special with him and Pete on the show.”
For Lange, 49, playing himself after a career partly shaped by drug addiction and depression, represented a satisfying challenge.
‘Things are so much funnier when there’s a struggle to it and things go badly. In the end, it’s the things that you didn’t want to happen that get you where you did want to go.’Pete Holmes of Lexington, who stars in ‘Crashing’
“The first episode I play Artie Lange, it’s surreal,” he says by phone. “It was easy for me to approach it because every instinct I had was mine.”
Though it’s easy to see his character as a role model for Holmes’s protagonist in early episodes of the series, Lange says the greater lesson is showing the young comic how not to act.
“In ‘Crashing,’ Pete’s so at the beginning, and I’m someone who had a little bite of that success, and I threw it away, because of demons and stuff,” he says. “Pete is too much of a fresh fish to understand that, and I slowly get to educate him about it, in a positive way.”
Lange’s role is a microcosm of one idea “Crashing” plays out at length — that the lives of comics are so often marked, and their routines informed, by heartbreak and hardship.
“The show is a bit of a love story, with suffering and loss being an essential part of becoming who you’re intended to be,” Holmes says. “In one episode, I’m breaking up with my wife. In another, I’m setting up ground rules with my family. In another, I’m shedding a childish faith in exchange for, potentially, a more three-dimensional one. All of those things came from the impetus, the inciting incident, of pain.”
Ultimately, it’s their shared love for turning tough times into punch lines that makes Holmes, Apatow, and Lange a creative match.
“Things are so much funnier when there’s a struggle to it and things go badly,” says Holmes. “In the end, it’s the things that you didn’t want to happen that get you where you did want to go.”
In painting a sometimes less-than-favorable self-portrait, Holmes gained perspective on how far he’s come.
“I like playing this Pete, because I sometimes miss this Pete,” he says. “He’s sweeter, to a fault. He’s naïve and very gentle and open. And that’s not to say I’m none of those things now, but as we get older we get wiser and a little more guarded. I look back at this guy, and in playing him, I had to think of me if I trusted everybody more, knew less about myself, and took everything more lightly. It’s like a fun, old house I got to live in again.”
Whether audiences will respond to Holmes’s story of a not-yet-funny comic on the long, winding road to success is a question at the back of everyone’s mind. “We feel very strongly that it works,” says Apatow. But he’s too experienced not to acknowledge the risks in making a comedy as distinctly flavored as “Crashing.”
On the cusp of the series premiere — the show will air after “Girls,” another series Apatow executive produces — Holmes is hopeful, and says he’s never been prouder of a project.
“Judd and I said before it’s like setting off a firework,” he says. “We’re both hopeful and excited that it’ll shoot up into the sky and be beautiful, but you never know until people see it. All we know is we’re going to give it a whirl.”
Starring: Pete Holmes, Lauren Lapkus, George Basil
On: HBO, Sunday at 10:30 p.m.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @i_feldberg.