In the Divine Comedy, the famous Italian poet Dante Alighieri imagines a journey through the afterlife that takes him through Hell, Purgatory, and finally, Paradise. In this dramatic journey he is not alone, as he navigates the horrors and dangers of Hell and Purgatory with the help of the Roman poet Virgil, and is guided in Heaven by his muse Beatrice (according to Dante, Virgil was a pagan, and was not allowed to enter Heaven). The new HBO comedy Crashing, produced by Judd Apatow, follows a very similar template, although instead of Dante we have the comedian Pete Holmes. Hell, Purgatory, and possibly Heaven are all in New York City, and Virgil and Beatrice have been replaced by a wide range of funny comedians albeit with less classical training and questionable moral views about life. There is also more cursing and nudity than in the Divine Comedy, but we should not hold this against Dante, since he was writing poetry in early 13th century Florence, and not a TV show for HBO.
The show begins with our main protagonist, comedian Pete Holmes (he follows a long-established tradition in comedy of blurring fiction and reality by using his real name in the show), who is struggling to break into the comedy world of New York City. He is a Christian who married a woman whom he met in Christian camp at a very young age and has not had any sexual experiences with other women (he doesn’t even know what to do when his wife asks him to be more sexually spontaneous and adventurous). His Christian faith is made explicit in the first episode when we are shown Pete driving around while listening to audiobooks by the preacher and televangelist Joel Osteen. The first impression is that he is, overall, what we would generally define as a “good person.” His life, though, is about to be turned upside down when he catches his wife sleeping with another man. If we are to follow the Divine Comedy analogy, this is the moment when Pete enters Hell: he has to leave the house and has nowhere to sleep (he sleeps the first night sitting up while aimlessly riding the NYC subway), he doesn’t have a job and therefore has no money, and his life was so centered on his wife, that he has no real friends.
After bombing miserably that same night trying to incorporate his painful experience into his set (that’s what comedians do, right?), the comedian Artie Lange (best known for working with Howard Stern) takes him reluctantly under his wing. Artie is no Virgil, the personification of classical knowledge and the voice of reason, but he has gone through his own hell and knows one or two things about life and comedy. Other comedians (TJ Miller, Sarah Silverman) will take his place as Virgil-like guides throughout the show and help Pete navigate his way through life and comedy.
The message of the show seems to be that the only way to Paradise (whatever or wherever that is) is through Hell, and that we cannot do this alone. We all need friends and companions to navigate this “divine comedy” we call life. And if life does not provide the guidance and wisdom of Virgil for you, the unlikely insights of comedians such Artie Lang and TJ Miller will do. The tone of the show reminds me of the Woody Allen joke in Annie Hall:
“There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”
Annie Hall reflects the famously pessimistic outlook on existence of Woody Allen, where humor simply has the role of alleviating the pain and meaningless of existence (crying and laughing may be ultimately equally meaningless, but if we have to choose one, why not the first?). Crashing, on the contrary, seems to have a more hopeful and optimistic view of human nature and life in general, and sees humor as the ultimate redeemer. When religion fails him, Holmes will find salvation through comedy.