Present-day comedy often has a reputation for being dirty and shallow, as it seems the vast majority of comics take the easy route of swearing and sex jokes to get laughs. This unfortunate trend has occurred despite the fact that it’s often the cleanest comics— like Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Gaffigan— who have the greatest successes both in TV and on tour.
But aside from Gaffigan, who wears his Catholicism on his sleeve as the source for much of his good-natured, family-friendly comedy, there aren’t many comedy stars who embrace Christianity in an open and positive light.
Pete Holmes has been a refreshing exception: a major star in podcasting, onstage and on TV who was raised as an evangelical Christian and has since documented his evolving view of his faith in a way that’s relatable to believers and non-believers alike.
Perhaps his strongest expression of his journey yet can be found in his acclaimed semi-autobiographical HBO series Crashing, in which he looks back on the early days of his career as a struggling standup in New York City. His naturally boyish good looks pay off for the 38-year-old Massachusetts native, as he’s able to realistically portray his late 20s across a broad emotional spectrum when faced with an ever-unpredictable series of crises.
The show launched in January 2017, and focused on Holmes as an aw-shucks, naively happy fellow whose world is turned upside down when he comes home early one day to find that his wife Jessica (played by fellow comic Lauren Lapkus) is cheating with another man.
Pete (the character) takes it all in remarkably good stride, walking out almost immediately when Jessica tells him she can’t take the fact she earns all their money and is tired of his chasing comedy dreams that seem unlikely to ever bear fruit.
Suddenly homeless and forced to reassess his life on a profound level, the rigidly rule-following Pete finds himself forced to sink or swim in the much more lenient outside world of New York City and his far rougher fellow comedians. As a result, the conflict of realizing his high moral standards might be flat-out unrealistic in the modern world leads to moral dilemmas that most young Catholics and other Christians have to contend with on a daily basis as well.
Many of Pete’s eye-opening moments occur through his encounters with established star comedians and celebs ranging from Dr. Oz to Whitney Cummings, but two of this season’s episodes contained particularly interesting fodder for discussion.
In an episode where he encounters famed atheist magician Penn Jillette, Pete is encouraged by Penn to consider the possibility that maybe he doesn’t have all the answers via Christianity when the world has so many other religions with shared moral principles and when anyone ultimately has to realize they won’t really know about the afterlife until the moment their death occurs.
That exchange leads to Pete getting drunk while discussing God and the universe with other comics who normally never give those topics a moment’s thought, and eventually stumbling into a one-night stand that forces him to consider what his moral standards actually are after having only had sex with Jessica (whom he had met when they were 15) before. When the woman he had the fling with kicks him out in shock that he thought their encounter meant something serious to her, he has to contemplate where his values truly lie.
Perhaps the most daring episode yet guest-starred macho-minded funnyman Bill Burr, who takes Pete in for a couple of days when another comic ditches him with no safe place to crash. Burr is an adamant non-believer, yet while golfing with Pete, he makes some surprisingly strong criticisms of the “pro-choice” movement that are utterly daring to hear on an anything-goes, liberal-minded network like HBO.
Burr criticizes “pro-choicers” for being unwilling to “call abortion for what it is.” He says he considers it their right to have an abortion but that it’s dishonest to avoid the blatant fact that it’s ending a baby’s life. These comments have the inspiring ring of truth to them, and come into play in a more prominent way when Burr’s riffing with Pete becomes part of his stage act and thus leads to complaints from a feminist website.
How does Holmes manage to get away with this? Well, he is a really big comedy star, one who has come out the other side of years of questioning and exploring what his beliefs and values are to still embrace most of Christ’s teachings.
But his not-so-secret weapon could very well be his producing and writing partner on the series, comedy powerhouse Judd Apatow. While Apatow is Jewish and perhaps a non-practicing one at that, he is also one of Hollywood’s best-regarded family men and has long slipped in positive moral messages into films that might easily be assumed to be simple R-rated raunchfests.
In his 2004 breakthrough hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow and co-writer/star Steve Carell (a practicing Christian) tackled the over-sexed culture we’re all living in. That film went from making Carell’s title character the source of mockery to being a positive influence on his friends while showing him finding true love with a woman who was willing to wait for sex until marriage and also took swipes at sex in advertising, the hookup culture and Planned Parenthood-type clinics’ cavalier teachings on teen sex.
His next film, 2007’s Knocked Up, built its entire premise around a successful TV producer who refused to consider abortion when she was accidentally impregnated during a drunken one-night stand with a schlubby loser. The film’s key moment came when she told her mother she was determined to have the child then rather than accepting her mom’s advice to have an abortion and “have a real one later,” and the movie wound up showing the beauty of pregnancy and responsibility in shaping the apparent loser’s life into one of standing up like a man.
Apatow’s 2012 film This is 40 showed a longtime married couple surviving numerous challenges, while his 2015 smash Trainwreck (somewhat aptly named) starred Amy Schumer as a drunk and promiscuous woman who winds up renouncing her illicit ways.
Thus, Apatow and Holmes have been able to form a positive and surprising super-team that manages to infuse positive moral values into unexpected areas of daily life. And that makes Crashing a show that any Catholic single should check out and relate to.