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.