There are a thousand approaches a stand-up comedian can use to try and make people laugh. And of all of them, my least favorite is the passive-aggressive smug approach. It's the strain of comedian that stands on stage, rambles aimlessly around until they stumble across a punchline and then acknowledges that their half-assed approach only deserved the brief chuckle it received from the audience. It's the comedian that stands there and exudes this slightly nauseating combination of "hey, I bet you won't find this one as funny as I do" mashed together with "hey, I'm not even sure I should be trying to make you laugh." And if there is a poster child for this waste of comedic bandwidth, it's Pete Davidson.
I've seen Davidson live, I've seen several of his specials and TV sets as well as his appearances on "Saturday Night Live." And I have yet to see him seem to put more than a small kernel of effort into his performances. Sure, it's great he mines his personal life and demons in his act. But he mines them in a way that seems designed to expend the most time to get to the smallest comedic payoff.
In the new Netflix special "Pete Davidson: Alive From New York," (which premiered on Tuesday), Davidson somehow manages to spend the better part of an hour not getting to the point. He starts a story, then gets distracted like comedy's version of a dog fascinated by a flashlight shining on the ground. He sometimes accidentally backs into a punchline and when it only provokes a modest reaction from the audience, he just smirks, shrugs and moves onto the next meandering bit.
His biggest reaction is when he finally discuses his outwardly perplexing (and brief) relationship with Ariana Grande. In a lot of comic's hands, her comments about him would inspire some Richard Pryor-esque on-stage dissection about the weirdness of dating a celebrity. In contrast, Davidson's explanation included a couple of random half-snarky comments and then a bit about the real reason why Grande said in an interview that he had the best dick she had ever seen.
I almost hesitate to write a negative review of a stand-up, because it always provoke a bunch of comments along the lines of "Shut up, you don't know what it's like to try and entertain people." First of all, I do. I did stand-up for more than a decade and am painfully aware of what works and what doesn't. But the most important response I can give to that complaint is that while stand-up is an art form, like all art, there must be at least an attempt to engage the audience. If you don't care enough to put in the time to do your best work, then you're just doing the comedic equivalent of yanking off on stage.
In this special, Davidson talks about an apology he had to give to Republican Congressional Candidate Dan Crenshaw, who wears an eye patch due to an injury he received in Afghanistan. On an SNL appearance, Davidson said that Crenshaw looked like "a hitman in a porno movie", and added, "I'm sorry, I know he lost his eye in war, or whatever." The next week, Davidson brought Crenshaw onto "Weekend Update" with him and apologized, a move Davidson says in this special that he regrets.
Whether he should have apologized or not is less important to me than Davidson's explanation of how he wrote the bit. According to his story about the incident, he had a page of photos of politicians and just riffed on how they looked. And it wasn't until just before his live segment was set to start that someone else looked up Crenshaw's background and realized he was a war veteran.
Maybe I'm just old school, but not even bothering to open up Google and put in a few names before going on a live broadcast network comedy show to make fun of them seems close to comedy malpractice. The incident just serves to illustrate my problem with Davidson's work in general. He seems fine just punching the comedic clock and doing the absolute bare minimum to keep whoever is signing his check happy.