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‘F*ck Staten Island’: A Beautifully Candid Interview With Comic Prodigy Pete Davidson

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Pete Davidson is 22. He has probably another five years before his age stops being the first thing writers bring up in profiles, so I figured I might as well get that out of the way. At 20, he became the fourth-youngest ever SNL cast member behind Eddie Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., and Anthony Michael Hall (only one of whom was even a comic). For other comics, he’d be easy to hate. I know comics who’ve been grinding for a decade — funny comics — who are still begging for drop-in spots at local bars. Trust me, I want nothing more than to be able to begrudge Pete Davidson his success. And yet, I don’t.

The biggest reason for that, I think, is that with most comedians who experience quick fame, there’s a shtick. They have a specific, semi-obvious niche they’ve plugged themselves into, or maybe they’re just easily digestible. If Pete Davidson has a niche, it’s not one anyone knew existed before. He’s not embellishing some part of his personality (the nerd! the weirdo! the adorable fat guy!) to make himself an easier sell. He presents himself as he is — this slightly dirtbaggy, thoughtful stoner who wears gold chains and Jordans who grew up on Staten Island and whose dad died on 9/11 — and it doesn’t feel at all like a sell. If that’s a hook, it’s not one you’d choose off the rack (with all due respect to Steve Rannazzisi — a comic who got caught in a 9/11 lie, a controversy Davidson was shockingly nice about).

The most notable thing about Pete Davidson, in fact, is his apparent lack of artifice. He feels like a natural, a guy who isn’t trying too hard. In his first televised comedy special, an hour set premiering on Comedy Central this week, he does exactly one impression, of Al Pacino, which lasts for a single word. “Hello!”

You wouldn’t think that would play on a sketch show, and Davidson himself says “I am the most untalented third season cast member in the history of SNL. It’s ridiculous that I’m on the show. I really think I’m a Make-A-Wish kid.” Adding, “I still really can’t believe that I still have a job. We’ll see how long it f*cking lasts.”

The way Davidson tells it, he got his audition, which he says consisted entirely of four minutes of straight stand-up, thanks to Bill Hader, whom he’d met doing a bit part on Trainwreck, That single reference, according to Davidson, counted for more than his audition. I have to imagine Hader (and Seth Meyer, whom Davidson met in 2012) were struck by that same natural quality. Because I can almost guarantee you they weren’t out there trying to find Lorne Michaels some comedic teenager.

With most comics who achieve early notoriety, they feel “big,” like a real “show,” energetic performers who can’t be denied (think Murphy, think Kinison). Davidson, for all his backstory — the 9/11 thing, having spent his high school years attending class during the day and hanging out at comedy clubs all night — just feels like a dude talking to you. Only funny. His is the shtick of shticklessness.

Maybe that sounds cheesy, but I don’t know if the average person understands how much of stand-up comedy involves selling yourself. You’re the only character in the story. To the point that when someone can do it without feeling like they’re selling, it’s noticeable. It also makes Davidson, whom I spoke to this week by phone, a great interview. He told me all about Staten Island (“f*ck Staten Island”), his tattoos (“f*cking rubber ducks. f*cking Harry Potter symbols. a watermelon emoji…”), his own sanity (“I’ve been in and out of mental hospitals since I was seven”), and being way too nice to Justin Bieber at the Justin Bieber roast. He was so candid and charming I think he actually won me over about Justin Bieber. I’ll never forgive him.

Davidson’s first Comedy Central special, the hourlong Pete Davidson: SMD, premieres on Comedy Central this Saturday, October 29, at 11pm ET.

So how long have you been doing full-hour sets like this?

I’ve been doing stand up for seven years. I’ve been doing an hour, I guess maybe for three or four years.

How’s the process of taping the special different from a normal set?

It’s the same thing. There’s just cameras there. It’s really annoying for you. Other than that it’s pretty much the same. It’s just with cameras everywhere. I guess, we also usually tape two shows as opposed to one.

You have a really good closer that became the title of the special. Was having a big joke to close on important to you?

Yes. A closer is a weapon for stand up. You could be having a terrible set, and then you know you have this one thing that always works. You can kind of feel okay about that.

When you started doing comedy were you immediately thinking of it as a career?

Yeah, but I didn’t think it would go very well. I thought I was going to be like doing another job on the side while I was doing stand up. I got very very lucky. I was just really lucky.

What were the first places that you started doing stand up?

I did it at the Loony Bin in Staten Island which is a comedy club inside of a bowling alley. You can imagine it’s not really the best place to perform.

How soon did you go from there to, like… Did you go into Manhattan after that?

Yeah. I always do open mics. I would just take the ferry and the train. I’d get to New York City around four or five after school. Then I would stay there till like 11 at night and do six open mics. Then I would go back to Staten Island and go to school and just repeat that until I graduated for like two or three years.

Did that sort of feel like a weird double life?

No. It’s just hard to explain to people that you do stand up without them being f*cking f*ck faces about it. Yeah. It’s annoying. It’s like “You do stand up, tell me a joke. You’re not funny.” People are c*nts. It’s really difficult to do anything today. Everybody’s such a f*cking c*nt.

Yeah.

Yeah. It’s like no matter, if you do anything that’s not construction in Staten Island, you’re a pussy for some reason.

Was this just something that you knew you wanted to do? Did you meet any other people that did comedy that became an example for you?

I didn’t know anybody that did stand up. I really wanted to do it. This kid that I went to school with, her dad did stand up. He brought me to a couple shows. I didn’t really know anyone until I was like two years in. Then I made some friends.

Do you remember any of your first thoughts when you went to maybe your first open mic or your first stand up experience?

Yeah. It’s weird when you go up your first time and it goes well. You immediately think that you’re famous. Not famous but immediately like “Where’s my special? This is easy.” I think there’s a lot of misinformation about stand up. It’s not easy at all. Even though I’ve been doing it for seven years, having an hour special is still pretty soon. Most people get it 10 or 15 years in.

Right.

I guess I was a little naïve about how long the process was. Just because you have four or five minutes that’s funny, that doesn’t really mean anything. Also, it’s not funny. You just think it is because it’s your first time on stage. It’s a lot of getting up and doing terrible and trying to get better and stuff like that.

Do you remember your first memorable eating sh*t experience?

Yeah. I still do. All the time. I always try out new stuff. I f*cking bomb all the time. I’m okay with it because you can’t get a new bit if you don’t try it out and let it eat sh*t. You can catch me bombing regularly at the Comedy Cellar. If you would like to come see me eat sh*t, I’ll be there.

You can still eat sh*t? Is it hard to work out material now that you’re more famous?

At first it was. I was like I don’t want to go up there and [have people say] Oh this kid sucks. Then I was like I’m a comic it’s my job to work out stuff. If they think I suck, it doesn’t really matter. You’re trying out stuff. It doesn’t really bother me anymore. If I bomb, when I’m not trying to bomb, I’ll be really mad. I don’t think there’s any problem with working out stuff in front of other people.

So you’re not quite to the level of fame where they just laugh no matter what you say?

I get a two-minute window. The first two minutes, they’ll be like “Oh wow this is cool.” Then they’re like “make me laugh.”

Did you have a break that led you to get noticed by the SNL people? Was it more just kind of grinding?

It was just really plugging away. I did this comedy festival in Montreal in 2012. I met Seth Meyers. He thought I was funny. I didn’t get it because of that. I just met him for a second when I was 18. Then I went back to the festival two years later. I auditioned that summer. I only got the show because I worked with Bill Hader on Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck movie. Bill Hader put in a really nice word. I think he got me the job rather than myself.

What was your audition like?

It was four minutes of dick jokes doing stand up. As you can imagine, I think it’s all Bill Hader’s fault that I’m on the show.

Right. I think you did one voice, a one-word Al Pacino impression [on your special]. You don’t seem like a super theatrical stand up performer with a lot of impressions and stuff.

No.

Were you worried how that was going to play at SNL?

I never wanted SNL. I didn’t care if I got it or not because I never thought I was a good fit for it. Then I got it. I was like I guess I should try my best. Then it just really worked out, me doing Update. I found a nice little niche that I could stay in under the show. Stay under the radar on it, but also have some memorable moments, I would say. I guess in the aspect of the show, on paper I don’t really fit there, but I feel like on Update it’s okay. Some of the pre-tapes I’m okay in.

Some of the best casts were a lot of stand ups, I feel like [Adam Sandler, Norm MacDonald, David Spade, etc.]. Did you have a favorite cast when you were growing up?

I never really watched it. I loved Adam Sandler. I loved Rob Schneider. I loved David Spade. Everybody I loved was from there, but I was unaware of it. I was really young. I didn’t grow up watching SNL. I watched all of it after I got the show. I think it’s great. I still really can’t believe that I still have a job. We’ll see how long it f*cking lasts.

I think I read you’re like the third-youngest or something like that. Where do you rank as far as the most tattoos of SNL cast members?

I’m the only SNL cast member to leave and come back next season with full sleeves.

How did that go over?

Surprisingly better than I thought it would. I thought I would get yelled at and Lorne would scrape them off my f*cking arms with the cheese grater. No. He’s just like “You’re an idiot. Enjoy your tattoos.”

Does anybody else have them?

Yes. Other people have like one or two. I have f*cking 30.

What are some of your tattoos?

It’s embarrassing when I say them out loud.

Man, I got [redacted]. Don’t worry about it.

The solar system. F*cking rubber ducks. F*cking Harry Potter symbols. My dad’s helmet. My girlfriend’s face. I got a wolf. A watermelon emoji. It goes on and on.

Is she still your girlfriend?

Yeah.

Nice. That’s helpful.

Very.

You’re from Staten Island. You’re pretty close to home at SNL. How much did getting on the show change your daily life?

F*ck them. They all suck. They have nothing to do with me or my success. It’s a terrible borough, filled with terrible people. A f*cking tidal Wave could take out Staten Island and I wouldn’t even move in my sleep. In fact I would sleep better. F*ck Staten Island. A bunch of Trump-supporting f*cking jerk offs. F*ck them. End quote.

Okay. Where do you live now? I assume you don’t live there anymore.

No. My mother lives there because she’s too f*cking stupid to realize she shouldn’t.

Have you bought a house or anything like that since you got on the show?

Yeah. I just bought a house with my mom in Staten Island.

Nice.

It’s only because my mom doesn’t want to leave. It makes her really happy. Me and my sister got a house together.

What do the stand up people think — like when the stand up people on the show and the sketch people on the show, what do they think of each other? When you guys bust each other’s balls, what you say about each other?

You mean on the show? Like the rest of the cast?

Yeah.

I’m not good at, like… They’re all really good during rehearsals and doing weird characters and f*cking around. I just come to sit there and laugh. I don’t really do anything.

No ball busting?

I am the most untalented third-season cast member in the history of SNL. That’s ridiculous that I’m on the show. I really think I’m a Make-A-Wish kid. They’re going to reveal it.

That’s very humble of you. Why did you go to three high schools?

I had a really rough time. The kids in Staten Island are mean. I also was going through a lot. I was weird and I didn’t really make a lot of friends so I had to move from high school to high school.

I think you mentioned three or four different friends during your set, and it seemed like all of them had prison experience.

Prison experience. Yeah. Two of them, I have like four friends. Two of them have been to jail. One of them has really been to jail. Over a month and you’re really in jail. They’re not bad. There my best friends. They’re all just potheads they get caught with pot or do stupid sh*t. They’re all good kids. They’re all my friends. They’re just idiots. We’re all dumb. Me and my friends are just stupid. We’re just stupid people. It’s not our fault.

On the pot note, did you really go to rehab? Why did you think your pot smoking was bad enough to warrant rehab?

It wasn’t just that. I was going through a lot of sh*t. I’ve been in and out of f*cking mental hospitals since I was seven. I was having a really rough time. I didn’t know what it was. I thought the best move was to either go away for a little bit and try to figure out what’s up. Yeah.

Did you get anything out of it?

Yeah. I learned that rehab is f*cking awful and you should do your best to not to be able to have to go there.

Got it. It seems like the hardest part of stand up is trying to understand how other people see you and then joke about it. Do you think that’s true? Can you remember any moments where you realized what your angle was or how people saw you?

That’s the scariest thing to think about for me. Is what other people really think. What I think of me is I think it’s like you know me or get my type of humor, I think you’ll have a really good time. If you’re unaware that I’m a sh*t head you’ll not have a good f*cking time. It’s just like do your research, I guess. If you come to see me and you know who I am, there’s no reason you shouldn’t really have fun. There’s people that comment that I’m very frustrating because they watch SNL and I come there and I talk about my mother’s pussy. They’re like what is this? It’s just like, I feel like if you’re going to see a stand up, you should do some research.

Do you think, in presenting yourself as sort of a flawed person, does that free you from having to be really earnest and tell jokes that are true?

No, I think that I just tell people that I’m flawed because I am, and I don’t want to pretend like I’m not. When you’re honest about it, you just feel better as a person rather than like you’re pretending to be someone else. I’m on television and I’m miserable. I’m not happy. I hate my life. I’m not going to f*cking pretend like I’m the happiest guy in the world. That’s just how I am. I don’t think it’s right. I think I should lie and be like everything is great. It isn’t. I’m not a liar.

When you’re doing comedy, is getting the laugh the ultimate goal? Do you have any sort of higher goal? Do you want the audience to think about a certain thing or change their mind about something?

No. Sometimes I have opinions on things that are going on. I don’t want anybody to think how I think necessarily. I just want them to hear my opinion and hopefully think it’s a good one or something they can relate to.

Now that you’re on SNL, do you ever have random comics accusing you of stealing some joke now that they can see you joke on TV?

No. I don’t really have that.

That’s good.

I’ve been lucky in that nobody [else is] 19-years-old telling jokes about living with their moms. It would be really hard for me to do that. I’m the youngest in like f*cking 50 years. The range of material that we’re talking about is just completely different.

Do you still live with your mom?

On and off. I go there as much as I can. She’s alone. She’s a really good lady. I always stay in Staten Island, sometimes with her. I mostly live alone in Midtown.

You’re at an age where a lot of people don’t know themselves yet, let alone have to sort of sell it to an audience. Do you think doing comedy speeds up the process of knowing who you are? Does it make it harder?

Absolutely. Definitely [it speeds up the process]. I feel like I couldn’t even talk to a person until I started doing stand up. It’s given me all the confidence and identity in the world. I definitely think it really helps. Again, I’m 23 now [22 until November, according to my research –ed.]. I feel like I’m 30. I feel like I have the responsibilities and the mind of a 30-year-old. Not a smart 30-year-old, but 30.

That’s the way you think about yourself?

Yeah. I had to grow quicker than others, as you could imagine. I always felt like I was a little bit older just for that.

I was watching your Justin Bieber roast. I thought you had probably one of the best sets of the night. At the end, you got really nice to him. How come you got so nice? Was all that earnest?

The kid’s f*cking worth $300 million and he’s f*cking 20-years-old. I can’t imagine how hard it is. It’s hard for me and I’m worth $100,000. I can’t imagine. A lot of people just sh*t on that kid, they don’t know him. He’s not a terrible kid. He’s a really rich young kid that has been working since he’s f*cking 12-years-old. I respect the f*ck out of that. I don’t like him. He’s not like my best friend. I definitely have the utmost respect for his work. He’s definitely a talented person. He’s been through a lot. It’s not his fault.

You kind of commiserate with him having to grow up fast?

Dude, the f*cking fact that he hasn’t killed anyone yet, is incredible.

Right.

If I was Justin Bieber, I would’ve murdered five people already in been in jail.

Are you sure that he hasn’t? Maybe he has enough money to sort of just cover that up.

I don’t know. That’s a wonderful thing about that level of fame. You can get away with it.

Yeah. All right, man. Anything you want to add?

No. That’s good. Thank you so much. Sorry if I’m a terrible interview.

No. You’re great. That was great. Thanks a lot.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.

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