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Pete Davidson’s drowsy charisma buoys an uneven stand-up special

Pete Davidson (Photo: Comedy Central)
Pete Davidson (Photo: Comedy Central)

Pete Davidson: SMD

Director: Joel Gallen
Runtime: 49 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Cast: Pete Davidson
Availability: October 29 on Comedy Central

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Since joining the cast of Saturday Night Live at the age of 20 (the fourth-youngest player in the show’s history), Pete Davidson has cultivated an image as the stoner kid brother of the SNL cast. With his heavy-lidded eyes and Adam Sandler-esque drawl, he comes off as both brash and bashful at the Weekend Update desk, an endearing combination, even if his amiably scabrous confessional comedy is more adorable than outright hilarious.

In his first comedy special, Davidson plays up the brashness, slouching across the stage in front of a responsive Brooklyn audience looking for all the world like he’s just rolled out of bed. Hair disheveled and face unshaven, Davidson—freed from the late-night-but-still-sanitizing SNL cameras—is free to be cruder and less deliberately puppyish in his observations. Unfortunately, the comic replaces his endearing “I can’t believe I’m here” self-deprecation with a more contemptuous bafflement at the world around him. Coupled with the fact that razor-sharp observational humor has never been his calling card, the resulting set is often boorish and lazy. It’s not an appealing combination.

Davidson hits all the subjects SNL viewers would expect, considering his Update material. Porn, masturbation, shitting in public bathrooms, condoms, and lots and lots of weed jokes all tumble by. Davidson has a mumbly, offhand delivery that’s less authoritative than it is disaffected, and that can tire out even a good observational bit. For Davidson’s often lazy material, it gets tiresome at times. When he talks about Jaws being his favorite movie, the entire routine hinges on a pair of uninspired observations that the characters would talk differently if the film were made today. There’s no snap to the bit, no twist in the logic. When he talks about how he sends his mother, a school nurse, pictures of his penis for her to diagnose, there’s no punchline other than the fact that he does that. Davidson hasn’t yet got the discipline to craft his material. Most often, he’s just pointing out something and expecting to get a laugh for doing so.

That Davidson does get consistent laughs from his audience mostly comes down to his charisma. Crude or not, his diffidence and willingness to make himself the butt of most of the jokes is his main strength as a comic. Holding himself up like a particularly embarrassing pair of underpants for all the world to laugh at, Davidson has a cheerful pride in being unimpressive that can prop up an unstructured bit. (The Sandler comparison holds truest here.) He’s a bit more confrontational throughout SMD. He teases members of the audience, slinging an especially harsh joke at the expense of one boisterous patron’s hometown, and there’s an underlying bro-comedy vibe to Davidson’s stage persona (terms like “slingin’ pussy” and using “gay” as a juvenile pejorative). But, in the end, the comic redirects his insults toward himself, which keeps the jokes palatable. (After relating how the first two high schools he went to were full of assholes, Davidson admits, “I got to the third high school. I was like, ‘Oh, it’s me.’”)

Screenshot: Comedy Central

SMD’s best moments come when Davidson takes the time to let a bit build. A long anecdote about the time he and a friend took mushrooms is made up of a series of humorously eccentric details, both about their preparation (essentially Yelp-ing the possible outcomes online, hiring someone to baby-proof the windows) and the outcome. A joke about how his orgasm noise owes a debt to an unlikely film/actor is funnier because of how Davidson takes the time to tend to the buildup and the pauses in his delivery. And his intimate familiarity with his drug of choice breeds some especially lived-in pot humor. Speaking of his half-assed attempt at rehab, he confesses, “I’m there because I want to know what food tastes like.”

For all his happy stoner affectations, Davidson lets the audience glimpse the pain underlying his comedy from time to time. Addressing his marijuana use, Davidson alludes to being high for the performance, and his offhand observation, “I have problems and I need it. It makes me feel better,” hints at other things going on. (Davidson has explained that he smokes at least partly to alleviate the effects of Crohn’s disease.)

Screenshot: Comedy Central

The special’s most straightforward personal material comes from jokes about his family, however. Davidson’s firefighter father died on 9/11, a well-known fact the comedian addresses at the end of his show with an abrupt, “We’ll do some 9/11 jokes, then we’ll get the fuck outta here.” Throughout the special, Davidson feints at being a controversial comic, but his style really doesn’t bend that way, as he confesses, calling himself “the French Montana of comedy.” Here, too, the very fact of telling jokes about the terrorist attack might be transgressive, if Davidson’s weren’t more or less innocuous and centered on himself.

Davidson was 7 when his father was killed, and the way that that experience has shaped him makes up much of the material that concludes the show. A joke about how kids are better equipped to handle tragedy (“You’re dad’s dead, but we got you a PlayStation 2”) is affecting for how Davidson lets it sail by unobtrusively. A conspiracy theory about his grandmother (who never liked his father and who’s birthday was on 9/11) sparks with audacity and a carefully crafted punchline. And the final anecdote, in which he explains his conflict over getting his father’s initials (“SMD,” which give the special its name) tattooed on his neck, is illustrative of both the promise and the limitations of Davidson’s current style. There’s an earnestness to what he’s talking about that, in his affected sloppiness, makes the material quite compelling, even as the buildup leads to a punchline (about how the other meaning of “SMD” could have win-win consequences) that’s as clever as it is juvenile.