Pete Davidson begins his new Netflix stand-up special, Alive from New York, with an anecdote about Louis C.K. trying to get him fired from Saturday Night Live in 2015. After getting high in his dressing room, Davidson spotted C.K. holding court by the elevator and tried to circumvent the group to avoid embarrassing himself. C.K. spotted him, pointed, and shouted, “Look at how high Pete is, that fuckin’ idiot! Just getting high at work, you stupid fuck. You’re gonna smoke your career away, idiot.”
Davidson has not, as of yet, smoked his career away. He has, instead, converted his status as one of the youngest cast members in SNL’s history—he was hired at the tender age of 20—into roles in films including Set It Up and Judd Apatow’s forthcoming King of Staten Island (which he also co-wrote) and this new stand-up special on Netflix. But that success may have arrived too quickly. Alive from New York is lackadaisical and sloppy, and Davidson seems occasionally perplexed by the fact that it is happening at all: As he tells the audience at one point, almost apologetically, “They’re just giving [specials] out to everybody on Netflix, what can I say.”
DIRECTOR: Jason Orley
In his abysmal first stand-up special, Pete Davidson stumbles through anecdotes about sex, drugs, and his ex-girlfriend Ariana Grande.
The Louis C.K. anecdote that kicks off the special is instructive. Davidson, despite his success, has retained a whatever, man stoner persona that his frequent references to drug use in this special will do nothing to dispel. Davidson tells the story in the context of C.K.’s radical shift in reputation since 2015—at the time a revered comedian, he has since been outed as a sexual predator—but C.K., ironically, had a point. Davidson may be doing well professionally, but his creative output has, thus far, failed to live up to the sharp glimmers of potential he has occasionally shown on SNL. Some of his “Weekend Update” appearances have showcased his natural charisma and humor very effectively, and his sincerity when speaking about mental health has been affecting. But he often struggles in sketches and has been absent for long stretches of episodes, and is even more disaffected in this half-hearted special.
Davidson’s delivery in Alive from New York is stumbling—his speech is peppered with countless “ums” and “likes”—and most of his anecdotes are meandering to the point of incoherency. Last year, he toured locally with SNL alum and stand-up megastar John Mulaney, who has achieved enormous success with his carefully written and precisely performed style of stand-up comedy. No other comic working matches Mulaney’s word-perfect delivery, but Davidson’s mumbling style suffers acutely from the association. His material also leaves something to be desired. He speaks at tedious length about sex and masturbation—subjects, ironically, essential to C.K.’s oeuvre.
When I reviewed Rob Delaney’s recent comedy special Jackie, I observed that his material was eerily evocative of C.K.’s work, despite his feminist outlook. As a younger comedian who has yet to face the difficulties of middle age or fatherhood, Davidson does not echo C.K. quite as closely as Delaney does, but he operates in a similar zone. C.K. was hardly the first male comedian to discuss sex onstage, or make disparaging comments about women, but he was the most successful comedian in America for several years, and his influence on a younger generation of male comedians has not evaporated in the wake of his admission of sexual misconduct. His specials included a great deal of offensive material that has aged poorly, irrespective of his sexual misconduct, but his success was not an accident. His jokes were delivered more casually than Mulaney’s but were just as carefully structured and almost as deliberately worded. Comics like Davidson and Delaney occupy an uncomfortable position in the stand-up ecosystem, at least for viewers: They reject C.K. and his behavior but haven’t managed to escape his influence—or match his skill as a performer.
The result, in Alive from New York, is a deflating slog of a special that Davidson seems to know isn’t much good, and to which the tentative audience isn’t quite sure how to react. As the special progresses, Davidson moves on from sex jokes and begins litigating his public grudges with Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a congressman whose Afghanistan War injury he semi-inadvertently mocked on SNL, and his ex-girlfriend Ariana Grande. He has chosen to use this forum to explain the Crenshaw mess, he tells the audience, “’Cause I don’t have, like, Twitter, so I can’t, like, explain myself every time something bad happens.” But in his description of the Crenshaw debacle, he neither takes responsibility for his own lack of research about Crenshaw’s history nor engages with Crenshaw’s right-wing politics. He does not even mention that Crenshaw came on the show in the wake of the incident, although he does say several times that he was forced to apologize. The story is not a long-form joke; it is, instead, a self-defensive gripe about something that happened a year ago.
His discussion of Grande, whom he dated very publicly in 2018, is angrier and more distasteful. After making a revolting sex joke about the singer, he defends himself by saying that he hadn’t planned to make jokes about her, but that a friend told him that “Ariana said she had no idea who you were, and she just dated you as a distraction” in a profile in Vogue. In fact, Grande told Vogue that, in the wake of her breakup with late rapper Mac Miller, her whirlwind relationship with Davidson “was frivolous and fun and insane and highly unrealistic, and I loved him, and I didn’t know him.” Davidson is evidently not in a place to appreciate this level of nuance. He instead lists one way after another that Grande has (supposedly) disparaged him and asks the audience, “Can you imagine if I did that?” before disparaging her in return, seemingly without realizing that he is doing exactly the same thing.
Davidson has faced genuine personal struggles in his life: His father died on 9/11 when he was only seven years old, he has Crohn’s disease, and he has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. These are all serious difficulties worthy of sympathy. But he has also been the beneficiary of enormous good fortune. Most comedians can only dream of being cast on SNL, and work for years to attain that goal; he wound up there at 20. He has released his first comedy special on Netflix at the age of 26. Listening to a man who has had so much success so early in his life gripe about people being unfair to him is, quite simply, not entertaining. If Davidson feels like everyone from Dan Crenshaw to Ariana Grande to the media at large to his colleagues at SNL are out to get him, he should pause to consider how fortunate he has been in many areas of his life. His comedy might improve as a result.
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