Welcome to our series On the Verge, where our contributors highlight comedians they feel are ready for their next big break. Whether they’re already working in television or still waiting to land their breakout gig, these are just some of the comedians we’d like to see more of over the coming years – ideally with a show, film, or other comedy project of their very own.
In the last few years, public access television has emerged as an unexpected outlet for the next generation of comedians looking to hone their craft. In 2011, Chris Gethard experimented with the format with the premiere of The Chris Gethard Show, a call-in variety show with a growing fan base that helped propel it to its current home on truTV.
Now comedian Brett Davis holds the slot once filled by TCGS. The Special Without Brett Davis, which airs every Wednesday on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN), took the community vibe passed over from TCGS and warped it into a wonderfully absurdist sketch show filled with episodes that include a celebrity telethon for a kid with a fictional disease, terrifying Beach Boys flashbacks, and a show that promised free ice cream and never delivered.
I was first introduced to Brett Davis three years ago when he appeared on TCGS as “Smith.” It was the first episode of TCGS I had ever seen. Gethard sought to confront a fellow MNN public access host named Smith who had been staring him down for weeks. Smith reluctantly sat down down to talk to Gethard and the panel for a chance to clear the air. Davis quickly cast himself as the villain, taking jabs at Gethard for being a “detriment to the network” and receiving “preferential treatment.” He also called the unknowing audience “emotionally stunted.”
One of the episode’s best moments was Shannon O’Neill asking Smith: “Do you ever wake up in the morning, just walk outside and say, ‘You know what? I’m not going to do anything planned today. I’m gonna see what happens’?” Smith responded: “No, I have a very strict schedule that I adhere to,” prompting the audience to laugh both out of surprise and pity. The tension rose when one audience member tripped Smith, prompting Smith to throw water in the audience member’s face. This led to a “brawl,” leaving sites like Splitsider to wonder if the encounter was staged or not.
It was fake. But not everyone knew about it.
Gethard posted on his blog the following day how he, Davis, and some of his writers thought up the confrontation. “We were pitching Brett jokes and he at one point quietly went ‘How real do you want me to go?’” Gethard wrote. “And we told him to follow his gut.”
The stunt appeared so authentic that it fired up TCGS regulars, who were unaware Davis was playing a character. “Shannon and Murf were late to the show last night and had no idea it was happening,” Gethard wrote. “This made their reactions very raw and real. Emma also didn’t know, which is why if you watch the footage you can see her literally run over getting ready to punch Brett.” This was my introduction to Brett Davis, who has since become one of my favorite performers in New York.
Davis, now 29, grew up in New Jersey finding comedic influences in Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Best Show on WFMU. It was the latter show that helped Davis get his start in comedy when, as a 15-year-old, he called the show each week. “I was just an awful teenager trying to hijack the show for a minute, but for some reason the host, Tom Scharpling, kind of encouraged me to keep that going,” Davis said. He kept phoning The Best Show. Scharpling kept hanging up. But the producer, AP Mike, encouraged Davis to keep calling back.
“I was doing this weird voice the third time and he was like, ‘OK, what’s your deal?’” Davis said. “I said my name was Steinberg but when I rapped my name was MC Steinberg and he was like … ‘Let me hear one of your songs.’ And [I rapped] an Aaron Carter parody but by somebody that’s really sad. He was like, ‘OK, you can call in every week.’” MC Steinberg eventually caught the attention of a local music show producer, who asked Davis to host a show where he got to interview artists like The Shins and Ted Leo. Music was another catalyst that helped Davis jumpstart his comedy career, specifically the New Brunswick punk scene. “I mean, to get your start, you have to go to a bunch of open mics, and open mics are filled with very sad people,” Davis told Vice, “so I would just open for my friends’ bands.”
Davis also credits professional wrestling in helping him shape his personas. “For anyone who wants to study character work I think it’s the perfect example. You can watch these little two-minute promos the wrestlers do to build up their matches…You’ve got everything from a guy that’s basically an MMA fighter without a personality but maybe with a real-life story, and then you’ve got a guy that’s like, ‘Yeah I’m the wrestling garbage man!’ You’ve got a real broad scope of different kinds of character work.”
Davis is currently based in Brooklyn and every week puts on The Special Without Brett Davis. The name draws from the concept that in the show’s first episode Davis is killed off, allowing the real Davis to play characters including poetry professor John Gentle, wrestler Bobby Blaze, and Kelsey Grammer. Each week’s surprise guests, talented performers, and unique themes help the show work so well.
What makes Davis’ comedy particularly great is there is no attempt to make fun of anyone. It’s about the absurdity of the situation more than pointing a finger at a single person. It’s about unjustifiably confident characters or down-on-their-luck kooks who find themselves stuck in Davis’ world. “I never want to make anyone feel bad,” he says. “I like to do things that are all in good fun, but I do also like to push the boundaries of what a ‘safe’ comedy show is.”
Davis commits to his performances, rarely breaking character. He also surrounds himself with writers and performers who are starting to get noticed by wider audiences. Julio Torres and Anna Drezen often collaborate with Davis and were recently hired to write for Saturday Night Live. Other fantastic collaborators include Darren Mabee, Jo Firestone, Dan Chamberlain, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, Mary Houlihan, and John Reynolds, to name a few.
The Special episodes are posted to YouTube but rarely break views into the 1000s. With a crew of over 20 people volunteering every week to help with lighting, music, props, and sets, the show is made up of extremely hardworking individuals. The show even celebrated its 100th episode recently with some fantastic guest stars.
Davis is currently hosting a podcast called The Podcast for Laundry where he interviews a guest at different laundromats each week, because he loves doing laundry and calls laundromats the “corridor of his dreams” and a “zen place to go.” Some of his previous work includes the recently ended Macaulay Culkin Show at Shea Stadium and an IFC web series called Boy Band, where he played a former pop star trying to assemble the next big boy band. The entire show is on YouTube and worth watching.
Davis has been hard at work for many years pursuing comedy, holding day jobs here and there to get by, but this is a comedian deserving of a wider audience considering the effort and talent he exudes in each performance.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.