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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pete Davidson
Pete Davidson
Screenshot: Netflix
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Pete Davidson got some bad publicity last year for cellphone footage of him railing against some college students for not finding him funny, for using an ableist slur against said students, and then adopting a Pentagon-style security protocol—complete with threatened $1 million penalty—for any future audience member who’d leak (or give interviews about, or criticize) his stand-up sets. Such draconian secrecy has increasingly become a thing in stand-up circles (million buck payouts notwithstanding), especially in the walk-up to a comic’s new streaming special, although, for Saturday Night Live’s affable stoner problem child, the measures smack something of overkill.

Davidson’s first stand-up special was four years ago, a shaggy, unshaped set that coasted by on the comedian’s undeniable—if ragged—charisma. Alive From New York sees the 2020 Pete graduating from Comedy Central to a lucrative Netflix deal, but his act hasn’t made much of a leap with him. Pete’s still Pete, right down to his nearly verbatim transition to some show-closing jokes about his late fireman father, who died in the World Trade Center terrorist attack, “We’ll do some 9/11 jokes and then we’ll get the fuck outta here.” There, the intimacy of Davidson’s material rubs up against his almost sheepish delivery to produce some resonant tones, even if the stories he relates hearing from his father’s “garbage people” Staten Island friends turned out to be a lot more distressingly candid than the cleaned up tales of heroism the 7-year-old Pete got back in 2001.

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Davidson has spoken recently about his discomfort with how Saturday Night Live has parlayed his perpetual tabloid notoriety into a running on-air joke, but, as the comic himself admits in the special, “I’m very limited on SNL.” He’s referring to how he’s used on the sketch show as much as his comic range, but Pete Alive From New York and Pete “live, from New York!” remain largely indistinguishable. Davidson’s always himself, a slouchy mix of humblebrag and just grateful to be here that tilts far enough into rawness to just miss at being biting or incisive. Alive From New York runs only 49 minutes, but it still feels both as thin and padded as the marginally spiffed-up Davidson in his T-shirt, suit jacket, too-short dress pants, and sneakers.

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Beleaguered by the celebrity he portrays himself as having fallen ass-backward into, Davidson’s most compelling material yet relies on his proximity to the scandals and controversies he more-or-less accidentally courts. The extended pre-title bit about the time that since-disgraced fellow stand-up (and venue security paranoiac) Louis CK went to Lorne Michaels to try to have Davidson fired from Saturday Night Live lives and breathes in Davidson’s lingering bewilderment that the then-revered comedian would be offended by Pete smoking weed in 30 Rock—and his delayed schadenfreude once CK’s far worse transgressions came to light. Still, as with his later stretch about ex-fiancé Ariana Grande, the hangdog name-dropping is far more interesting than what Davidson manages to craft out of it.

There’s an essential element of “Who, me?” victimhood to Davidson’s tales of proximity to fame that can be invigorating when twisting the knife on someone like Louis CK who’s actually wronged him (and, you know, others), but that sours when talking about an ex. Davidson goes out of his way to praise Grande’s intelligence, although he turns it around to suggest that the singer’s post-breakup talk about his supposed Big Dick Energy was all a nefarious scheme to sabotage any future relationships. (Throughout the Grande material, Davidson strays closest to boorish bro-comedy, playing the “If she says it, it’s okay, but—” game.) Describing his current living arrangement with his mom/roommate, Davidson portrays himself as the arrested slacker explorer, doing mushrooms with his “trash” buddies in his mother’s basement, his travel bags brimming with fresh tales of improbable celebrity hook-ups and smash-ups. It’s the sort of unique position a more disciplined comic would mine for greater return (something perhaps promised by Judd Apatow’s upcoming Davidson-starring semi-autobiographical movie), but, then, discipline isn’t really Davidson’s brand.

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Other than the fame-adjacent material (including the death threats he received after joking about war-wounded GOP Congressman Dan Crenshaw on Weekend Update), Davidson’s set list is, again, nearly identical to his earlier special. Drugs, sex, masturbation, defecation. Transitions are minimal, and Davidson’s response to the intermittent dead spots in his audience’s response to his hazy joke constructions and half-realized digressions is often a shrug and an unconcerned snort. For a guy whose perpetual adolescence is playing out amongst TMZ cameras and entertainment luminaries, the potential comic frisson isn’t yielding much heat, or outsider’s insight. Davidson spends a solid seven minutes on the Crenshaw debacle (his mom picked up the first death threat call after Fox News whipped its viewership into a Pete-rage) without drawing much in the way of conclusions, comic or otherwise, from that time his lazy approach to joke research landed him in the right-wing Twitterverse’s (literal) crosshairs. As close as Davidson comes to pushback on the incident is switching up his on-air apology to Crenshaw to one obliquely referencing his regret that he unknowingly launched the then little-known ultra-conservative Crenshaw into the public consciousness.

Davidson’s not off-base when he complains about being slotted into a narrow lane on Saturday Night Live, but his non-SNL comedy doesn’t stray very far from the self-effacing underachiever persona he’s asked to trot out there. There are glimpses—both on- and off-SNL—of the sort of working class, “telling it like it is” comic style that looks better on Davidson. And his uncommon frankness about his own struggles with addiction and mental health (neither of which surface here, except in passing) suggests that a truly compelling comic evolution as a stand-up isn’t out of the question. But Alive From New York shows a comedian who’s far too committed to the character of a guy from Staten Island for whom such a leap is far too much effort.

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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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