In his new Netflix special Alive From New York, Pete Davidson is working through it.
There are two things to unpack about that. The first is what the “it” is: There’s a whole realm of stuff Davidson is obsessing over and considering and responding to and pushing back against. For Davidson fans and skeptics, the things he’s forthrightly working through here are going to be a draw no matter how they’re presented. He talks about all the things that have made him famous in the last several years: his relationship with Ariana Grande, his work on SNL, becoming the BDE Ur-text. He talks about Lorne Michaels and doing a lot of drugs, and he tells stories about his father, a firefighter who died on 9/11. Alive From New York is alternatingly sad and dishy, with long swings through resentful, naughty, vulnerable, and cavalier.
There’s some score settling, especially when Davidson talks about the blowback to a joke he made on SNL about U.S. representative Dan Crenshaw, who wears a patch over one eye. There’s some frustration, too, about feeling at the mercy of Twitter crowds — Davidson has to talk about the aftermath of the Crenshaw situation in this special, he says, because he’s not allowed on Twitter anymore. Later, he makes an (underwhelming) joke about starving kids in Africa and senses some pushback from the crowd. “I like how half of you are like, ‘That’s funny!’ and the other half are like, ‘I dunno if you can do that, dude,’” Davidson says. “I guess we’ll check Twitter, the decider of all.”
All of this makes Alive From New York noteworthy, in the way that any major celebrity interview can be noteworthy when a public figure reveals things about themselves. Davidson opens with one of the strongest pieces of the hour, a story about Louis C.K. trying to get him fired from SNL. He has a long section about getting dumped by one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Davidson has a lot to work through, and unlike most stories about being dumped or almost getting fired, it’s going to be immediately interesting to a large audience just by virtue of the content and regardless of how it’s told.
The second thing to unpack, though, is less about what Davidson is working through and more about how. It’s good that he’s working through stuff, and it’s probably also good that he’s doing it by working — getting up in front of an audience and figuring out how to turn all this stuff into material. He is positioning himself in relation to all of it, and he’s hammering it into a story.
But while Alive From New York is made and performed by someone who is without a doubt working through it, this is not a set by someone who has worked through it. Davidson may be hammering all of this into a narrative that he can use. He may be stitching together all the pieces of his life and examining them for the odd, remarkable, tragic, difficult, unlikely events they are. But as an hour of comedy, the work is not finished.
He lurches from one section to another, with transitions that could seem purposely unartful and instead feel slapdash. He cannot stop himself from giggling at his own work, which can come off as charming and sincere for more controlled performers (see: Lil Rel in Live in Crenshaw), but for Davidson it’s more like when your friend remembers a funny story that’s not funny now because you really had to be there. It all feels raw and under-formed, even in the sections where there’s plainly more polish. It’s baggy. A trailer for the special features a joke about the gay guy every straight guy suspects is not actually gay, and when Davidson actually performs the longer version of the joke in the set, I found myself wishing it’d been cut down to the trailer version, streamlined and edited more closely so the punch hit harder.
It’s not that there’s no appeal in the way Davidson performs the set. His shoulders are tight but his limbs are loose, and the comedy feels the same: anxious, jittery, but also casual, sliding haphazardly from idea to idea, shrugging when something doesn’t work and moving on. It’s that watching Alive From New York makes me long for the ghost version of this special you can feel lurking somewhere underneath, the one where Davidson commits more fully to sharpness or takes a step back and embraces a warm bro-y glow. This lukewarm middle ground doesn’t serve him or the material.
After the last few years Davidson has had — really, after the last half decade — it’s not unreasonable to see Alive From New York for exactly what the title advertises. It’s proof of life, proof that he’s still a comedian and not a punch line, proof that he can tell the story rather than be just the story everyone keeps talking about. It’s good that he’s working through it. It’s too bad it still feels like a rough draft.