Pete Davidson and What It’s Like Being a Rising Standup at Age 20

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Pete Davidson is only 20 and already has amassed several TV appearances and a development deal. It would be easy to resent the success he’s had at such a young age if he wasn’t such a great comic.

The NYC comedian is a regular at all of the city’s top clubs, has done late-night sets on Comedy Central and Jimmy Kimmel Live, and has a role in the Fox pilot, Sober Companion.

This year, Davidson was named one of Variety’s Top Comics to Watch at Montreal Just For Laughs, where he was among the festival’s highlights.

I had a chance to chat with Davidson in Montreal to talk about his start and why Staten Island sucks for comedy.

You started when you were 16 years old?

Yes.

And you just turned 20? 

Yep.

How did you get into it? Most kids at 16 aren’t like “I want to be onstage right now.” It’s frightening. 

When I was like 12, Dane Cook was more than a comic. He was the shit. He was on top of the world. I went to go see him at Madison Square Garden for my 16th birthday. Bill Burr opened, and after I saw Bill Burr, I was like, “I want to do standup.” He’s amazing. So I started writing a bunch of stuff.

You liked Bill Burr over Dane Cook?

Oh yeah.

Even at that age you picked up on that? 

Yeah. I was like “Jesus!” So I went home. I had like two friends in high school so we didn’t get invited to parties, so instead of going to parties, I would go to clubs. So I tried it in Staten Island, at a club called The Looney Bin, which is a club that has a bowling alley inside of it, so when you’re bombing you can hear people getting strikes and spares. That part kind of sucks.

I take it you’re not playing The Looney Bin anymore?

No, Staten Island clubs stink. They’re like the white Apollo. They just don’t want to fucking laugh at you. For some reason they just don’t like you. They’re like 50 and talk about show tunes.

So eventually you just started doing open mics in the city?

Yeah, I started doing mics and eventually I got passed at one club and started working a bunch.

How old were you when you got passed?

17.

Which club was that?

Broadway Comedy Club. At the time, I was very excited. I started going on the road a little bit with Bob Levy.

The “Reverend” Bob?

Yeah. Doing pizza places across New Jersey, and they were sold out. I would open for him. And it allowed me to work on longer set because usually it’s 7 or 8-minute spots. I only had 7 minutes, but he would make me do 30 just to learn. So he helped me out a lot.

And he found you at the club?

Yeah, I met him at The Looney Bin actually.

That’s great. 

Then about 6 or 7 months later I met Nick Cannon, and he helped me out a lot and he took me on the road with him for the next 2 years. And it was really cool opening for him because I got to learn what it was like to be at his level, like where you can’t go anywhere and stuff. I learned a lot about the business from him because he does so much shit.

That guy’s like a mini-mogul. 

It’s annoying how much stuff he has.

And he knew of you just from word of mouth?

Somebody saw me at The Looney Bin who was working at the radio company he was working with, and sent them my video. He liked me and brought me on the road with him. It was a lot of fun.

Going back to the NYC comedy scene, how long did it take you to earn the respect of the old timers. I know they love to give shit to the new guys.

Probably last year when I got passed at the Comedy Cellar. Until then, you’re kind of like, “that guy could be funny.” But now you know, that guy’s funny.

So you go hang out at the comic’s table upstairs and shoot the shit with those guys?

Yeah I get trashed – take a lot of trashings. I’ve got three more years of getting trashed before I can trash people, but it’s a good feeling.

Since you’re a lot younger than most of your audience members, do you find yourself writing material that caters to them or are you just like this is who I am? Climb on board if you like it or not.

That’s what it kind of is. I just talk about stuff that I go through and I think older people went through it so they can relate and younger people are going through it. It can work for both. There have been many times when it’s just not going well at all but I can’t talk about things I haven’t experienced yet. So it’s a lot of dick and fucking jokes because that’s all new to me. Before I was living with my mom and now I’m having sex. My first set ever was like, “Oh, I love Christmas.” But now it’s different experiences. I appreciate it because it’s growth.

When did you start getting comfortable onstage? Do you still get nervous much? 

I get nervous for things I have to do well on. So every once in a while I’m nervous.

But around New York you’re pretty cool now?

Oh, yeah. I’m okay with bombing in New York. But if I bombed here, I’d be like, “Oh I want to kill myself.” I bombed really bad at a Letterman audition a year ago. Just crickets. For like 5 minutes. It took me until I got Kimmel to get over it.

And that was weird because Kimmel doesn’t even do much standup anymore. 

Yeah, it was word of mouth. He reached out and we met up and he said to send him a tape. I sent him one and he said to send him another one and finally he was like, “Alright.”

Oh that’s awesome. I was reading about Sober Companion. Is that still in the works?

I forgot about that. I’ve been told there’s still life in it, that it’s not completely gone.

It’s a sitcom? 

Yeah. It’s a sitcom with Justin Long and Nick Frost and one of the women from American Horror Story and John Larroquette. So it’s a great cast.

Did you shoot a pilot?

We shot a pilot and a second script has been ordered to be written, but I won’t know until like January.

What do you play?

I play a stoner assistant. It was very easy. I auditioned for like 25 pilots, and this was the last one. And they were like, “If you don’t get this, we don’t know why we gave you a deal.” [Laughs.]

So you did the whole pilot season thing?

Yeah, it was awful. I’ll never do it again.

How do you like acting? 

I don’t mind it. Standup’s the main thing, so anything that comes after it is a bonus. I could enjoy it. It’s harder than standup.

What’s so hard about it?

You can’t be yourself, but the whole thing about standup is being yourself. So everybody’s like, “He’s comfortable onstage, he should be able to act.” It’s just like, “I don’t know how to act.”

Any other projects you’re working on?

I just wrote a movie that’s being shopped around. I wrote it with my buddy Dave Sirus.

Is he a comic?

Yeah, he’s a comic out in LA. We wrote a webseries that Comedy Central is interested in. I think from now on I’m going to just try to write things and do it myself. I don’t like having to wait, so in the meantime I’m just going to write a bunch of stuff and see if I can sell it.

You learning how to write scripts and stuff like that?

That’s why I love Dave. I can’t physically type. It’s the hardest shit ever. But I call Dave and I’m like “This happens! And this guy does this!” He knows how to put it into the format.

Tell me about growing up in Staten Island. Does that form who you are as a comic? 

Nobody wants you to do well from Staten Island. Nobody from Staten Island wants to see you do well. Unless it’s your mother, and even then, she doesn’t really want you to do that well.

[Laughs.] Why?

Staten Island is its own place. You either stay there or get out of there. It’s one of those places – they’re some good people, I’m not trying to say everybody from Staten Island’s a douchebag, but it’s not a very positive place. So I don’t go there.

Is your mom still there?

Yeah, I just visit her.

It’s so funny, it’s right there.

There’s a reason it’s away from everything. Just go to Long Island.

I know you work in New York a lot, are you starting to hit the road much? 

In September, I’m starting to tour. I’m doing some weekends and stuff.

Headlining?

Yep. I’ve got like I think 10 or 12 weekends booked so I’m very, very excited. I’m excited to work on an hour.

Do you have an hour?

Yeah, from doing colleges and stuff. And sometimes I’ve run an hour like at a bar show just to fuck around and see how it goes. I’m really excited.

Do you ever get concerned about expectations because you hit it big at such a young age? 

There are some things, like this Variety thing, where you get it and you’re looking back at people, comics who are hilarious, and you respect. And it’s a lot to take in, but I just try not to think about it or I just make fun of myself. I’m just like, “Yeah, but I suck.” So I try not to think about it because I think when you start thinking about it, things get – because you could have a bad set. Everybody has bad sets. It’s not a race. So I try not to think about it. Comparisons freak me out.

Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.

Photo Credit: Jon Asher