Comedy nerds would be salivating at the scene: John Mulaney and Pete Holmes are joking around in the crowd while Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale are killing it on the Rififi stage. Only this isn’t 2004, and this isn’t the East Village. It’s a hot summer afternoon in Greenpoint in 2017.
These alt-comedy icons have gathered for filming the second season of Holmes’ autobiographically-inspired HBO comedy Crashing. While season one chronicled Holmes’ character’s journey battling for stage time in the traditional comedy club scene, season two shifts to the weirder, wilder alt-comedy scene, including the legendary Rififi nightclub.
“One of the first stand up videos I have … it’s at Rififi.” Holmes said. “It’s where we met everybody, it was insane. When like Kumail [Nanjiani] came to town from Chicago, I would work really hard to get him up at Rififi. That was the place.”
It’s not so simple as hanging a sign behind the stage. Production designer Amy Williams and the Crashing team have slavishly recreated Rififi, down to the mix of mismatched chairs, scratched up glass on the DJ booth and the weathered velvet upholstery.
Holmes’ friend and frequent collaborator, writer-producer-director Oren Brimer, shared in the déjà vu. “It was my comedy upbringing,” he said. “When I step back into Rififi, I’m like ‘Oh yeah, there was a booth right there that I totally forgot about,’ and ‘I totally forgot that’s where the comedians would hang out. That’s where the booker would sit and then you would go offstage and hangout with them right after you got off there.’ It’s weird to see the contradiction between your memory and reality.”
Rififi, of course, isn’t the only comedy touchstone Crashing is paying homage to in season two. Under the same roof as the expertly resurrected Rififi is the Boston Comedy Club – another long-gone New York institution where Holmes’ character was seen flop-sweating on stage in season one. Walking around the Boston Comedy Club set, resurrected in the same building as the born again Rififi, the attention to detail is astounding. Everything from the tabletops to the upholstery to the placards sporting the nightly specials looks perfectly weathered. Even the stack of flyers has names written on the back for the comics barking for stage time. There are currently operating comedy clubs that feel less lived in than this set.
“The first season where we’re in here for the first time, I felt like I had seen a ghost,” Holmes said of the Boston set.
The scene we observed filming focused on another familiar comedy rite of passage: hustling to multiple shows in one night. In the scene, a fellow comedian (played by Jamie Lee) is getting bumped at Rififi by John Mulaney. The problem is she needs to wrap this show early so she can make it to her spot on Whiplash, another beloved comedy show still running at UCB. (Crashing is sort of bending the timeline a bit to bring Whiplash, which had its first show in 2008, and Rififi, which closed that same year, into the same universe.)
Holmes’ character is attempting to convince Mulaney to switch spots, humiliating himself (and Lee’s character) in the process. To be completely honest, I’d watch 30 minutes of Mulaney and Holmes running this scene over and over. Mulaney especially colors each take with a different point of view; he’s alternately understanding, annoyed, aggressive and so on, all the while peppering in his signature style of deftly deployed pop culture references from Suge Knight to Mr. T to Bela Karolyi. They’re clearly having a blast, but director Jude Weng keeps everything moving along.
“When I direct a show I always say – it sounds so nerdy – my job is to be a scholar and a fan of the show,” Weng explained. “So the scholar part of me breaks it down into a very directable, digestible, efficient day; the fan in me, I can’t wait to get those fucking fun runs. That’s my favorite part too, because they will do so much more magic than you can possibly imagine.”
The energy stays high as Mulaney films the actual stand-up part of his appearance, and it’s every bit as brilliant. Who knows how much will actually make the cut of the episode, but for the cast and crew watching on set and on monitors, it’s hard to stifle gut-busting laughter. Lee is just as hilarious as she crushes an incredible impression of someone without object permanence getting titty-fucked. Then Mirman and Tisdale take the stage, and, for someone who loves comedy, but only ever knew Rififi in legend and rhapsodic New York Mag oral histories, it’s thrilling.
“To rebuild [Rififi] is really, it’s not a proud moment, I am proud, but that’s not the majority of the feeling,” Holmes said. “The majority of the feeling is like how do we get to do this? How do we get to see this place again? It’s like reliving your wedding or something. This is exactly what it was like and this is the same suit and this is the same cake. A lot of good memories.”