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In 'Crashing,' amiable comedian Pete Holmes returns to his early struggles to break into show biz

In 'Crashing,' amiable comedian Pete Holmes returns to his early struggles to break into show biz
Pete Holmes and Artie Lange star in the HBO series "Crashing." (Mary Cybulski / HBO)

In "Crashing," a sweet new series created by and starring Pete Holmes, the comedian plays an earlier version of himself, a bottom-rung aspiring comic whose marriage breaks up when he catches his wife in bed with another man. Executive producer Judd Apatow directed the pilot, which premieres Sunday on HBO and revisits, in a less penetrating but no less loving way, the territory he portrayed in "Funny People," maybe his best film, though certainly not his best loved.

Pete, a big, tall naif, is a clean-living, clean-talking Christian Candide who, but for an all-consuming need to do comedy, might have become a youth pastor. Holmes' own later success retroactively certifies Pete's ambition, but it's hard to argue with soon-to-be-former wife Jess (Lauren Lapkus) that it's killing their marriage. An elementary school teacher, she has been supporting him in the suburbs for an improbable decade, while he spends money on gas and drink-minimums in order to get a chance to play to empty rooms in New York City. His progress has been slow.

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"It's like a wife supporting a guy in medical school," Pete blithely tells Artie Lange, one of the many other comics (notably Sarah Silverman and T.J. Miller) who play versions of themselves through the series. They will lend him a hand or ask for a favor, criticize or encourage him, as broke and clueless, he tries to improvise a life in the big city.

"How is it like that?" Lange replies. "At the end of medical school, you're a doctor. You start at 900 grand a year."

Shows in which comedians play versions of themselves — even shows in which comedians play a version of themselves specifically in New York, and even a show whose hero, Jim Gaffigan, was a clean Catholic comic — have not been in short supply. (Indeed, self-portrayal has become both the default and quality mode for comic-starred sitcoms.) Nevertheless, "Crashing" has its own amiable tone, and Holmes — a nice guy in a state of arrested development — is something a little, not completely, different.

Pete Holmes and Lauren Lapkus star in the HBO series "Crashing."
Pete Holmes and Lauren Lapkus star in the HBO series "Crashing." (Mary Cybulski / HBO)

There is a lot of talk — practical and philosophical — about comedy, and "Crashing" is very good with the details of low-level nightlife. But what most makes the show entertaining are Pete's episodic adventures with characters who will help form him, challenge him and wake him from his self-satisfied sleep into a better sort of happiness. It falls to the excellent Lapkus (a comedian and actress whose credits include "Orange Is the New Black"), sympathetic in a hard-edged way, to deliver the hardest truths.

"Two lines about me maybe having a baby," she says, movingly, having had a glimpse at one of his journals, "and then the next three pages are about how great Doug Stanhope was on 'Louie.' "

The series manages both to question and approve Pete's feeling that comedy is worth this sort of pain — it's worth it for the winners, one might say. In the end, and like other Apatow projects, it mixes the madcap with the poignant, Hollywood structure with details drawn from life. Still, at bottom, it's a fairy-tale journey, with Holmes the homeless Dorothy and Lange, Miller and Silverman as Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man, passing him along as he surfs from couch to couch with an eye on a gig in the Emerald City of his imagination — though "Crashing" is far less dark than "The Wizard of Oz."

"West Village, look at us, standin' on a corner, eatin' street food," he says with hopeful camaraderie to some other scuffling comedians with whom he has gone to pass out fliers in return for a shot at stage time. "We're going to do a set tonight at a club in Manhattan. … Following the dream, we're grinding it out."

Having done this before, they find him odd.

'Crashing'

Where: HBO

When: 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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