One of my favorite experiences in the performing arts is watching people who are very, very good at a thing have a very, very fun time doing that thing—standup, improv, music, dance, whatever it is. This is partly because joy is infectious, obviously, but I think there is also something revitalizing and even centering about watching people do what they are the best at, and what they would rather be doing than anything else. It makes me feel like I am in the only place that matters, maybe even the only place that’s real. It makes the world briefly more magical than it already is.
What is the opposite of infectious, revitalizing, and centering? The answer, unfortunately, is Pete Davidson’s bafflingly joyless new Netflix hour, Alive From New York. Shot at the Gramercy Theatre, the special is an unpolished assortment of grievance and insecurity, including multiple re-litigations of years-old tabloid fodder. His opening routine, probably the strongest in the special, tells the story of Louis CK snitching to Lorne Michaels about Davidson getting high at work. Michaels called him upstairs and uncomfortably asked him to take it a little easier, but did not fire him, which Davidson describes as the first of a now-annual ritual in which he discovers that against all odds he’s still employed. Another bit rehashes his side of the Dan Crenshaw incident, making clear along the way that SNL apparently has no meaningful vetting process for Weekend Update jokes, or at least Davidson’s. It was not until right before he went onstage, he says, that someone told him Crenshaw might have lost his eye in combat. Huh. Then there’s the interminably long jeremiad about the unfairness of gay men groping his girlfriend body, a privilege he had to work for; another bit rehashing his breakup with Ariana Grande; and a bizarre portion detailing, with no hint of self-criticism, how he only recently learned about the clit. (Did I misunderstand this? Please tell me I misunderstood this.)
It may be exciting for some to hear a celebrity’s version of events we all know about from the papers. I find it bleak as hell to watch a grown man devote so much material to subject matter that has no bearing on my life or anyone else’s, and which amounts to little more than a list of all the times he got in trouble. Maybe it would be more bearable if his jokes were funny; they are rarely even technically sound. (I am still trying to parse a choppy bit complaining about how painful sex is for his dick, and by “still trying to parse” I mean “haunted by.”) His main rhetorical strategy is to point out something that someone did, then to imagine what it would be like if he did that instead. The intention is to expose some absurdity or double standard, yet these jokes inevitably reveal a blinkered, solipsistic worldview in which, for instance, he thinks gay men grabbing women “on a technicality” is unjust not because it’s nonconsensual but because he doesn’t get to do it; it would be weird, you see, if he did it to a man. Meanwhile his take on getting dumped by a pop superstar includes that all the usual conciliations your friends offer, such as that “nobody even knows who she is,” fall flat. I personally have never been reassured after a breakup that my ex is less famous than me—maybe I should date more.
Davidson lives an interesting life. It’s a shame he has no interesting thoughts about it. The special’s direction does him no favors, alternating between mostly static shots from the front or side, and on rare occasions from behind—perhaps to appease those, like me, skeptical that there is actually an audience laughing. There are no closeup reaction shots, and at one point we can hear a single person clapping at what I gather they alone thought was a hard-hitting punchline. The whole thing just feels dreadfully tedious, hurried, phoned in, a disturbing ouroboros of voyeurism capitalizing on voyeurism. Davidson is a fine performer, but he doesn’t seem like he’s having much of a good time. What he really seems like is a young man whom Hollywood chewed up and spit out with little to say for it but, “boy, that started bad and just kept getting worse.” It is very difficult to watch Alive From New York and come to any conclusion other than that he should get out of the spotlight as soon as possible, for his own good, and that the people who’ve kept him there should take a long hard look at why.
Header image via Netflix.