A quarter of a century ago, standup comedians ruled the broadcast-network airwaves. It seemed like any comic who had a decent, ready-for-TV routine was instantly given their own sitcom. But it was often the case that these stand-ups never actually played stand-ups on their shows. After Roseanne Barr led the charge by playing a blue-collar mom on her hit show “Roseanne,” comics were usually given jobs that appealed to working-class audiences. (Tim Allen as a home-improvement TV host! Steve Harvey as a high-school teacher! Kevin James as a delivery driver!) The only two shows where the comic lead actually played his comic self, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and “Seinfeld,” were more concerned with shattering sitcom conventions than showing the daily ups and downs of a comedian’s life.
After a brief lull in the aughts where stand-ups weren’t locking down the network development deals like they used to, it now looks like we’ve become inundated with programs about stand-ups and their ongoing grind to make a comfortable living with their comedy. Louis C.K. laid the groundwork with his acclaimed, award-winning FX show “Louie,” which he writes, directs and stars as himself, a comedian going through life like it’s a continuous, comic/tragic ride. (It’s worth noting that C.K. tried the traditional, working-class sitcom thing when he did the short-lived “Lucky Louie” on HBO 11 years ago.)
Other comedians soon began showing up with semi-autobiographical shows. Clean comic Jim Gaffigan juggled being a stand-up and a family man on “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” which aired on TV Land before it was canceled last summer. Comedian and podcaster Marc Maron recently finished up his IFC sitcom “Maron,” where he played a comedian and a podcaster. And on the streaming-comedy service Seeso, you can find married comics Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito playing comedians in love on “Take My Wife.”
While those shows are about comedians who’ve already gained some mileage in the comedy biz, a new show premiering at 10:30 p.m. Sunday on HBO features a comic who’s barely out of the garage. Titled “Crashing,” this Judd Apatow-produced dramedy stars Pete Holmes as a wannabe funnyman who struggles to work as a stand-up as his world is crumbling around him. After he catches his wife cheating on him with a boho art teacher, he starts crashing on the couches of his fellow comics (including celebrity comics like Artie Lange and Sarah Silverman), all while being subjected to one humiliating situation after another while working comedy rooms in the Big Apple.
I asked a couple of stand-ups to view some episodes of “Crashing” to see if Holmes (who created the show) brought the awful truth or not. Raleigh comedian Brent Blakeney absolutely loved it. “The way they portrayed that uncertain feeling of jumping head first into show business was awesome,” he says. “Watching a guy like Pete learn the rules of the comedy world really struck a chord with me, because it mirrored how I felt learning them myself. The fact that he lost his wife to his dream is really poignant and relevant to what a lot of people go through. I know I’ve lost friends and relationships with people over comedy.”
Wilmington comic Blaire Postman says she saw a lot of herself in Holmes. “I think what I related to was that even though he is a young, white, dude comic, he’s an outsider because he is so not cool or in the loop,” she says. “He’s a straight-laced Christian who hasn’t experienced much. He’s not even cool in a not-cool way. I started stand-up at 43, so I get that – not considered a cool kid.”
Thanks to comedians like Holmes, C.K. and others boldly showing how brutal (and brutally funny) a comic’s life can be – and proving that audiences would be captivated by it – stand-up comedy is officially an interesting-enough profession to build TV shows around. And there are more shows about stand-ups coming down the line. Showtime just picked up two new shows: “I’m Dying Up Here,” a look at up-and-coming comics in the ’70s produced by Jim Carrey, and “White Famous,” a Jamie Foxx-produced comedy starring “SaturdayNight Live” alum Jay Pharoah as an up-and-coming comic. I’m assuming those shows will also bring both the pain and the funny in equal measures.
“Crashing” premieres at 10:30 p.m. Sunday on HBO with additional air dates throughout the month. The second episode can be streamed starting on Feb. 24.