To hear Pete Davidson tell it, the worst thing his ex-fiancée Ariana Grande might have done to him was tell the world he has a big penis. Now every woman who sees him naked, he says in his new stand-up special, will be disappointed.
In “Alive From New York,” Davidson, 26, corrects the record (“she just has very little hands”) in a debut that feels like a late-career effort, the kind tossed together quickly to satisfy the terms of an ill-advised contract. And yet, it does provide some clues to a long-running mystery that has taken on new urgency: How in the world did Pete Davidson get so famous?
Dating other famous people, a cynic might say, but there was buzz surrounding this lanky comic even before he became one of the youngest cast members in the history of “Saturday Night Live,” and then a regular player in the daily soap opera of online media. And his stratospheric rise has put him on the verge of a breakthrough with starring roles in two major movies in the next few months, “Big Time Adolescence” and “The King of Staten Island.”
When I first saw him perform a couple of times in 2014, he seemed unusually poised for a 20-year-old, but his jokes were sloppy and rambling. He seemed to be having a better time than the audience. His style hasn’t evolved much, but his public persona has. And he is savvy enough to exploit that in his special, which, in responding to various public brouhahas (joke controversies, backstage gossip), provides plenty of fodder for tabloid news.
Swallowed up in a suit, Davidson is relatively static in his special, which was released Tuesday on Netflix. But his voice is nimble, a deep outer-borough croak that is a register or two away from demonic, before bursting into a girlish giggle. Such incongruities mark his man-child persona. Swagger alternates with sensitivity. An indifferent stare periodically turns into a gaping grin. Like the biggest stars, he’s fun to look at. But you can’t do it for long without worrying a little. He projects a “Glass Menagerie” fragility, onstage and off. In the only interview he did to promote this special, he said he’s ready to leave “Saturday Night Live” and criticized the show in a way cast members rarely do. He talked about getting tattoos to hide the scars on his chest from cutting himself, and how he’s so insecure about his looks that he keeps no mirrors in his house, which he shares with his mother. At a recent show at Caroline’s, he twitchily joked about rehab and suicidal tendencies. Davidson has a peculiar gift for a stand-up: He makes you want to take care of him.
In one of Conan O’Brien’s recent podcasts, the question of Davidson’s appeal came up, and Judd Apatow, who directed “The King of Staten Island,” said that on top of his charisma, he’s representative of a generation wracked by anxiety. At the risk of generalizing, the mood of young, straight white male comics does seem to have shifted of late, the old self-deprecation morphed into something darker, even melancholy. In their recent specials, Bo Burnham and Drew Michael have moments of real sadness, talking about the loneliness of performance and the pain of relationships. In “Alive From New York,” Davidson discusses the death of a parent — his father was a firefighter who died at ground zero on Sept. 11 — but his comedy special isn’t even the only one to do that in the past week.
Whitmer Thomas, another gaunt comic, whose “The Golden One” premiered on HBO over the weekend, embraces many of the trendiest features of modern comedy: using documentary to flesh out jokes, alternating punch lines with songs and fully embracing personal tragedy as a subject of comedy. When he was young, Thomas, 30, sang in an emo band, and his moodiness makes it seem that he never really left the genre. If there’s such a thing as emo comedy, this is it.
Thomas, an Alabama native based in Los Angeles, cuts a glamorous, haunted figure, with pale skin and the tousled hair of Timothée Chalamet caught in a wind tunnel. He turns estrangement from his father and being kidnapped as a child into dark comedy. But his central story is about the early death of his mother, a singer, and the way he grapples with this loss through returning to the club where she performed in the house band.
What really distinguishes Thomas is his commitment to incorporating sad music into funny jokes. It’s not a novelty, and the satire is embedded in the lyrics, but the manner of performance is deeply sincere. When he sings that he just wants to be “dumb and in love,” you believe it. His most lacerating wit is directed at himself. “My identity is my mother died,” he moans in an early song, before adding knowingly: “Anything to distract from being straight and white.”
There’s a cynicism here that sits right beside the earnestness, a carefully curated vulnerability. Davidson isn’t as skilled of an entertainer, but he’s better at performing this trick. Thomas is charismatic, too, but he isn’t slick enough to realize the advantages of coming off sloppy.
Young comics always have and always will talk about sex, but in the #MeToo era, a political context is more likely to inform such material. Whereas some older male comics have defended Louis C.K., Thomas and Davidson notably go in the opposite direction. Davidson has a whole story about how Louis C.K. tried to get him fired from “S.N.L.” when he was just starting out, and Thomas, without naming Louis C.K., says he hopes comics like him go to hell.
When Thomas performed at the Bell House in Brooklyn earlier this month, he danced around the stage with the flair of an emerging rock star. But he’s a cautious, modest one, making his songs not just about sex and romance, but performance anxiety and the solitary life.
Both of these comics finish their shows by paying homage to their late parents. Davidson describes interviewing his father’s friends to get to know him better and discovering he did cocaine. “I knew he was a hero,” he said in one of his crispest setups. “But I didn’t know he was a superhero.”
And Thomas movingly sings his mother’s best-known song, “He’s Hot,” along with her sister and former bandmate, giving it the television exposure it never received. Both of them make their parents out to be more fun and carefree than they are themselves. It’s an odd tribute for comedians to make, and who knows whether it’s actually the case, but it does have the ring of truth.