When, in a cold, rainy place (from my experience) called Red Land, New Jersey, Pete Davidson took the stage in an ill-fitting suit, the equally incongruous, gaudy concert hall shook with laughter. He had yet to even say a word. Pete just had to exist, to be a little bit too tall, and to wear clothes other than those normally associated with him, to get choking laughs all around and set the tone for a successful show. I get that minimalism can be a virtue, but is it really possible that this guy, this guy your 12-year-old sister would make fun of you for liking, is some sort of avant-garde comedic genius?
From the first droll line, Pete clearly felt uncomfortable––maybe because he was microdosing, maybe because he was wearing (as he immediately revealed) John Mulaney’s clothes, or maybe because awkwardness is one of his personality traits. The rest of his set revealed all of the above to be true, the latter in particular: something about seeing Pete in person screamed discomfort and anxiety, the deeply ingrained kind that’s rarely associated with A-list-celebrity status.
I’ve always wondered about the appeal of Pete Davidson. On the surface, he just seems like a normal-type guy who says everything he’s not supposed to say. Some of his bits are really well-done, but even Pete himself half-admitted during the show that he was still sort of learning the ropes of formal comedic structure. Instead, I think the wide appeal of Pete Davidson, not only as a comedian but as an icon, lies in the awkward presentation and in the overly self-aware, self-conscious, and above all self-deprecating humor. Pete is the antihero, the everyman.
In a sense, the question Why Him? has been answered with a resounding That’s Why! or perhaps, Because Why NotHim! He’s the last person you’d expect up there. And he knows it; he even talksabout it. The Pete Davidson phenomenon is absurd, it’s postmodernist. It’s dumb. It’s hilarious.
In a generation where practically every movie and book feels the need to not only be about something but also to be about itself, so as to delight the audience/reader by allowing them to say to themselves They Are Breaking The Fourth Wall, I Know I Am Watching/Reading A Movie/Book, I Am Very Smart And Self-Aware, the Pete-Davidson phenomenon makes more sense. He’s not just making the jokes: he isthe joke. And for a guy whose lack of self-confidence has propelled him to stardom, he sure is confident in his lack of self-confidence. He exploits the latent energy of awkward pauses, awkward stage presence, and uncomfortably dark topics, channeling uneasiness into comedy.
This unusual, reflexive, laughing-at-him type of comedy might at first seem noble and almost self-sacrificial on his part, but I found myself wondering whether this changes when his “self-deprecating” jokes relate to issues like mental health, which are both sensitive to many and far from unique to Pete. When Pete makes self-deprecating jokes about mental health, it feelsokay to the observer, because he’s making light of his own experiences with depression and borderline personality disorder. Here again, the self-awareness and reflexiveness of his comedic style is paramount: part of what’s supposed to be funny is the fact that he’s making jokes about those precious few things that are traditionally forbidden. It’s not like Pete makes betterjokes about sensitive topics; instead, the fact that they’re sensitive feeds into his disobedient antihero comedic style, and in turn makes the delivery funnier. Exploiting his own awkwardness is one thing, but does this sort of exploitation of a serious illness that he shares with millions verge on mockery?
But to Pete’s credit, I think his nationally-broadcasted comedy––on SNL, for instance––does a much more tactful job of making self-deprecating jokes about mental health without dragging down everyone else who also suffers from mental illness. For instance, (in typical self-aware fashion) he coyly suggested on an episode of SNL that the show ought to run more of his skits to make him less depressed, going on to explain that the only reason he struggles to write skits is because he’s so depressed all the time. Here, Pete succeeds in making a self-aware, self-deprecating, fourth-wall-breaking joke without sweepingly mocking those who share his illness. However, this skit didn’t draw nearly as many laughs as did his more abrasive mental health jokes at his live show in Red Land. So, perhaps rather than pointing fingers at Pete Davidson, who at least seems to be doing his best to consider his impact when in front of a national viewership, we should instead look at what kind of an audience rewards comedians for saying what’s not allowed to be said. Maybe this is a result of the relative anonymity of an enormous, darkened concert hall. Is it just funny because it’s scandalous, or does it maybe suggest something more concerning, like a kind of catharsis resulting from a deeper impatience with the rules for what’s considered tolerant vs. intolerant in today’s society?
At the end of the day, whether you love or hate Pete Davidson, it’s clear that there is high demand for his reflexive, abrasive comedy. This is what gives Pete Davidson an edge in comedy. Under the guise of “self-deprecating humor,” he gives viewers a psychological “pass” to laugh at the utter rejection of societal expectations, standards and assumptions, such that every joke he makes is also making fun of joke-making and joke-making-culture and, most often, himself and whoever else happens to be caught in the crossfire. It’s not just him, it’s us.