Some weeks, the most interesting parts of Saturday Night Live are not the sketches but the dangling plot threads of the show’s internal soap opera.
The reliance on ringers like Larry David to populate political sketches; the engagement of co-head writer Colin Jost to frequent guest host Scarlett Johansson; the pugilistic zeal of co-head writer Michael Che flaming the show’s critics on his Insta—all of it adds to a master meta-narrative that informs the experience of watching SNL from week to week.
Although Pete Davidson’s plot line of late has been “will he show up?” as the star has occasionally taken off to film various movies in recent months, at times it has seemed like his entire life has been uploaded into the very fabric of the show.
Faithful viewers will remember previous episodes of The Pete Show tucked inside Weekend Update segments. There was the “Courtship of Ariana Grande” season, and the subsequent fallout from their broken engagement. There was “The Dan Crenshaw Offensive” and its intended corrective. Then there was the bleak bout with depression, about which the less said, the better.
The comedian’s first Netflix special, Alive from New York, plays like a lively, funny DVD commentary track for the overarching story Davidson has fleetingly told us on SNL, with all the details that wouldn’t neatly fit in a Weekend Update segment.
Before he blew up on SNL, Pete Davidson was making waves as a rising New York standup from Staten Island. Being on the world’s best-known sketch comedy show for six seasons has scarcely broadened his range. Davidson would be the first to tell you that what he brings to the table on the show are desk pieces that serve as thinly veiled standup sets. He debuted in this format on his first episode, with a bit about what he termed the How Much Money Would You Go Down on a Guy For? Game. It was immature, sure, but at the time Davidson was a 19-year old standup, literally billed on Weekend Update as SNL’s “Resident Young Person.” It was that very immaturity, though—and the comic’s barely concealed amusement with himself and impish grin through his conversational delivery—which instantly made him someone to watch on the show.
Cut to 2019, and several grinds through the tabloid wringer later, and Davidson had become the kind of standup who yells at 19-year olds, or makes them sign million-dollar NDAs as he runs sets to prepare for this very Netflix special which debuted today.
At the time, those headlines seemed like the worst possible advertisement for a Netflix special. Then Netflix released the actual advertisement, which highlights a bit that seems like an unfortunate B-side to the one he told on his first SNL desk piece, a critique of gay men who supposedly fondle his girlfriends. It’s a joke that thinks it’s more progressive than it is, announcing a general affinity for the LGBT community before going all in on one very specific generalization that seems like something that happened to him one time that he assumes as a constant nuisance.
However off-putting either the trailer or those headlines may have been, though, Davidson’s fans should find a lot to like in this funny, weird, little special.
As a 26-year old man who has become an unlikely sex symbol, it’s no surprise that Davidson has a lot of bedroom-related material. It’s easily the least successful material in the comic’s repertoire. Much more compelling are the bits about stories that viewers are already acquainted with, or the ones that he has not yet told that flesh out his tenure on SNL. Fortunately, Alive from New York mostly consists of these stories.
Almost Quibi-length for a standup special at 49 minutes, Alive from New York starts off as if fired from a cannon, with a story about Louis CK trying to get Davidson fired from SNL in his first season. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a standup special postpone the opening credits until after the entire first chunk, but it works here.
That’s how SNL-infused this thing is: it even has a cold open! And one that delivers a lot more bang for your click than the tedious Democratic Debate recaps that eat up nine or so minutes at the top of seemingly every recent episode of the show. How Davidson managed to sit on this material for the past two years of Louis CK’s excommunication, only to plant it at the top of his Netflix special, I’ll never know.
Later, Davidson recalls the Dan Crenshaw saga in a way that will probably frustrate and amuse in equal measure both the people who were mad at him for disrespecting the war veteran’s one-eyed appearance initially, and the people who were mad at him for hosting Crenshaw on the show the following week. He finds a clever and typically self-deprecating way to dismount from the story, though, that might just satisfy both factions.
Finally, there’s the Ariana Grande portion of the show. It might have made for a bolder statement if Davidson had simply kept her out of this, leaving the ponytailed pop star’s absence an elephant in the room. However, the material he does have about their whirlwind romance seems to come not from a place of bitterness, but rather an earnest desire to add color to a universally known story. Love him or hate him, Pete Davidson had the utterly unique experience of dating and being discarded by one of Earth’s most popular humans, who then made a cultural mission out of letting the world know the size of Davidson’s hog. The comic mines this experience in unexpected ways that suggest he’s made peace with what happened and is ready to be known for something more than Big Dick Energy.
Who knows exactly what that will be? Pete Davidson has a rather Sundance-y coming-of-age movie due on Hulu next month, and a semi-autobiographical star vehicle directed by Judd Apatow—Pete’s Trainwreck, essentially—coming out this summer. If the latter is a huge hit, it’s easy to see the sun setting on the comic’s SNL career at the end of this or next season. He’s even more-than-hinted that he might be ready to go in recent interviews.
Whether he’s on his way to superstardom, or headed for a future of middling HBO Max shows, Alive from New York is an accurate and entertaining document of the interesting SNL years of this comedian’s life.