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Behold the Evolving Pete Davidson Experience

‘The King of Staten Island’ is deeply rooted in the comic’s past, but feels like the link to a new stage of Davidson’s future

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

When Judd Apatow appeared on Conan O’Brien’s podcast back in February, their conversation carried the tone of two in-the-know old-timers sitting in the bleachers at a minor league baseball park observing the whippersnappers before them. “Mulaney was saying he really feels like he’s like a young Sinatra,” O’Brien mused, paraphrasing former Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney’s assessment of 26-year-old comedian Pete Davidson, who in 2014 became the first SNL cast member to have been born in the ’90s and who has remained in the headlines, for better and worse, ever since. “Like, if you see footage of Sinatra in 1944,” O’Brien continued, “Sinatra has this kind of—he’s slightly twitchy, but menacing, but also vulnerable. Like, it’s this whole package. And you just go, like, ‘Who’s that guy?’”

A few months later, Apatow made a bold comparison of his own when he spoke with The Ringer’s Bill Simmons about his latest film, The King of Staten Island, which premiered on demand on June 12 and not only stars Davidson but is also a broadly autobiographical treatment of the Staten Island native’s life. Davidson was 19 when Apatow first saw him perform stand-up, Apatow said, and seeing the comedian’s star rise over the years reminded him of watching a teenaged Kobe Bryant back in the day.

“You see these rookies,” Apatow said, adding that Darryl Strawberry had been another, “and you get excited about them.” Apatow told Simmons he had once followed the nascent career of the late, infamous Andy Kaufman “the way I think people follow athletes,” and that more recently “that’s how I felt with Pete.”

Davidson was 16 when he performed his first stand-up set at the Looney Bin Comedy Club, a hometown venue that also had a bowling alley inside it. The teen’s act back then was raw and awkward, and included tearing with savage precision into his own gangly, big-mouthed, oddly magnetic appearance, and smirking about being “into cougars—I think 21-year-olds are so hot.” Which is to say that the teen’s act back then had a whole lot in common with Davidson’s work these days. “I don’t know how to act or write characters or do impressions,” Davidson would tell the podcaster Marc Maron in 2017. “I don’t look like anybody. I can only talk about my dick and my mom.”

Limited topics, maybe, but both indisputably potent. Over the years Davidson’s profile has grown almost nonstop. In 2013, he spat disses on Nick Cannon’s MTV program Wild ’n Out and portrayed dudely concerns on a handful of episodes of another MTV show, Guy Code. In 2014, Davidson popped up on Jimmy Kimmel and also filmed a cameo in Amy Schumer’s film Trainwreck that involved his character tripping over a bong and led directly to a successful SNL audition. “This kid is a Star,” tweeted one viewer, Questlove, during Davidson’s debut that September. He also proved to be a tabloid staple, with his every move—including a whirlwind engagement-then-breakup to pop star Ariana Grande—the object of fascination and paparazzi photos. In the past few months, in addition to his film with Apatow, Davidson also starred in the aptly titled movie Big Time Adolescence, and last week brought the announcement of a Lorne Michaels–produced “wedding comedy” titled Worst Man that is slated to star Davidson and his SNL colleague Colin Jost. At some point in 2021, Davidson will genre-hop to appear in The Suicide Squad; possibly-maybe as a spoiled vigilante named Savant.

He has recorded two major stand-up specials, one on Netflix earlier this year called Alive From New York and one in 2015 called SMD. That title was a reference to fellatio, Davidson told The Breakfast Club, and one that Davidson finagled past Comedy Central executives by—technically, truthfully—pointing out that SMD were the initials of his father, Scott, a firefighter who died on 9/11 when Davidson was 7 years old. To see or hear the comic recount all of this with his characteristic relish is to behold the Pete Davidson experience. He is vulgar yet vulnerable. His offensiveness is his best defense. If he had a scouting report, “disarming” would be his version of “wingspan.” (The accompanying highlight reel footage would surely include everything about this Paper cover spread.)

Lanky in form and faded in disposition, Pete Davidson does not cut the traditional profile of a professional physical specimen. (In 2015, The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica described him as a “teddy bear who’s seen too much.”) And yet Apatow’s comparison of Davidson’s allure to that of a promising young athlete makes a lot of sense: Davidson has resonated with people not so much because he is an actor playing himself, but because he is just himself, playing.

“It’s all fake, but it’s also pretty much all true,” is how Davidson described The King of Staten Island to Seth Meyers last week. The plot of the movie, which Apatow directed and Davidson helped cowrite and produce, provides a glimpse of what Davidson’s life might be like if he hadn’t hit it big. The main character, also named Scott, is the son of a firefighter killed in the line of duty, and he has yet to properly process his father’s loss. He takes meds that help his depression yet derail his love life. He is in constant intestinal discomfort from Crohn’s disease. He laughs a little too loudly at a knock-knock joke about his dead dad. He has creative aspirations that are at odds with his lazy execution. He wants his mom, played by Marisa Tomei, to be happy, but hates her new firefighter boyfriend’s guts.

In his 2015 SMD special, Davidson had joked about having both a mom and a sister who are single. “Whenever one of them brings a dude home, I don’t know who he’s for,” he said. “Like, when I answer the door, I don’t know if I’m supposed to, like, beat him up or play catch.” In one scene from The King of Staten Island, Scott’s mom’s boyfriend, played with creepy mustachioso soul by stand-up comedian Bill Burr, says that he has season tickets to “the Yankees.” Davidson’s character is excited until he realizes that Burr’s Ray just means the minor league affiliate on Staten Island.

Everything is a matter of perspective: One person’s insufficient deference to the big league Yankees is another’s lack of context around the cultural institution of Saturday Night Live. Davidson told Maron that before he auditioned for SNL, the fabled sketch show was barely on his radar. “I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “Which is really bad to say. But I just didn’t grow up really watching it. I watched, like, SpongeBob. Drake and Josh. You know, the Nickelodeon shows.” He was familiar with Will Ferrell’s “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketches, he added, but had only ever associated them with YouTube.

Davidson’s lack of reverence for SNL wasn’t a lack of respect toward his comedy elders, though; on the contrary, Davidson was so enamored of stand-up comedian Burr as a teen that his mom took him to a show and later chased down Burr so that her son could meet him. It’s more that sketch comedy was never Davidson’s realm. Most SNL personalities arrive at the show after years of ruthless pursuit, with their characters and impressions fully formed. Davidson did this too, in a fashion; it’s just that the role he was tapped to play was that of Pete Davidson.

And what a character that is, both on the surface and at heart! Davidson’s SpongeBob sweatpants–inflected sartorial “scumbro” abandon makes him almost impossible to ignore. (One Man Repeller blogger who sought to emulate it described “an avant-garde palette of soft wisteria purples, Denver Nuggets blues, and hot flamingo pinks.”) Underneath those clothes lie additional art and armor. Pick an image, any image—Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Stewie from Family Guy; the Bada Bing logo from The Sopranos; the Snapchat ghost—and Davidson probably has it tattooed on his torso. Pick a famous person, any famous person—Cindy Crawford, Larry David, Andie MacDowell—and there’s an excellent chance their gorgeous daughter has seen these markings up close. Davidson’s heady relationship with Grande made him the poster boy for a new three-letter combination that didn’t spell out his dad’s initials this time, but still had to do with Pete’s genitalia: BDE, popular shorthand for “big dick energy.”

All of this was mined for comedy by SNL, which frequently showcases Davidson on “Weekend Update” making jokes about his latest IRL misadventures and mayhem, or features him in corporately synergistic segments where he’s given a fashion makeover by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s Tan France. Even his recurring character-driven bits, like the stoned, agreeable Chad, a guy who turns everyone around him into lovelorn hornballs, feel like Davidson playing a version of himself.

Which may be why the viewer reaction to Davidson, good or bad, tends to feel so personal. On one end of the spectrum everyone from Slate to Moms dot com to multiple subreddits (AskMen and AskWomen!) have all sought an answer to the question: What on earth is this guy’s appeal? On the other end, there are those whose feelings toward Davidson go beyond simply liking or having crushes on him. They all-out root for him, as if he were the home team.

“I think people relate to this vibration he puts off,” Apatow told O’Brien of Davidson, “which is: I’m struggling. I’m trying to laugh and have fun and be a good guy. But it’s hard. Like, life’s hard.” Apatow saw this firsthand in October 2018, when he and Davidson made a joint appearance at a political fundraiser just days after Davidson’s breakup with Grande. “Well, as you could tell, I don’t want to be here,” a miserable Davidson told the crowd. He said he’d been busy getting some body art covered up. “I’m fucking 0 for 2,” he said, referring to tattoos he’d gotten while dating exes Cazzie David and now Grande. “I’m afraid to get my mom tattooed on me, that’s how bad it is.”

Davidson’s humor has long centered on anticipating and preempting his audience’s feelings toward him, whether those feelings are disgust or pity or unrelenting attraction. He finds the elephant in the room and dry-humps it; he has the demeanor of an athlete in a rival arena taunting rival fans with an are you not entertained? In 2015, during a roast of Justin Bieber, he said: “I lost my dad on 9/11, and I always regretted growing up without a dad, until I met your dad, Justin. Now I’m glad mine’s dead.” (This material is tame compared with what he told Howard Stern about his father’s death three years later.) In his Netflix special earlier this year, Davidson talked about his life after Grande broke off their engagement. She was named Billboard’s Woman of the Year, he said, while “I got called Butthole Eyes by BarstoolSports dot com.” And he even rued his famous BDE status, noting that Grande’s hands were just particularly small, and worrying that all his future lovers would now be disappointed right off the bat by his, er, energy.

But Davidson’s act goes beyond self-deprecation; for years, he has been extremely open about his own mental health struggles, and the enormity of his emotions, in a way that feels radical and even vital. He shared his diagnosis of borderline personality disorder with the world. He has credited the music, but even more so the emotional rawness, of recording artist Kid Cudi with saving his life. (The King of Staten Island trailer is set to Cudi’s Pursuit of Happiness, and the artist’s music is featured in the movie twice.)

On one “Weekend Update” in 2018, Davidson said that he and anchor Michael Che had talked about who should cover Kanye West’s disastrous SNL musical guest stint. “Che’s Black, but I’m crazy,” Davidson explained with a grin, “and we both know what side of Kanye is at the wheel right now.” Davidson’s own life was drifting into real danger too, though: A few weeks later, on the heels of his breakup with Grande, Davidson tweeted in support of West’s honesty around mental health a few hours before posting on Instagram that “I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore” and prompting a welfare check by the NYPD. Davidson reflected on what he called a “hectic” time in a recent interview on NPR. “I didn’t have the tools that I needed, or the smarts that I needed, or the information that I needed,” he said, “to prevent myself from getting into a position like that. But I’m really lucky that things like that have happened because now I know how to handle them.”

Knowing the sensitive nature of the backstory behind The King of Staten Island, Davidson and Apatow sought to make the experience of filming it as comfortable as possible. The cast included some of Davidson’s homies, his ex-girlfriend Carly Aquilino, his grandfather, and some firefighters who had worked alongside his dad. Speaking with The New York Times, Davidson said he hoped that the experience of putting so much of his story on screen might enable him “to just really lay it all out there and be able to heal and move on from it, instead of, every day, feeling sorry for myself.” There’s a wholesome scene in The King of Staten Island in which a sensitive young firefighter—not Davidson—makes it clear to the salty old firehouse heads that he has feelings, and they matter. The thrust of the film may be rooted deep in Davidson’s past, but this aspect of it feels like a link to a sunny future.

When you’re a phenom like Davidson, time has a way of warping. You’re an industry veteran at the age of 26, but you’re still often treated as a child. You’re the “Resident Young Person” on SNL, and yet your own upbringing contained little in the way of teenaged normalcy. In a 2016 interview with Vulture, a then-22-year-old Davidson rolled his eyes at kids these days (he has also since vowed to stop doing sets on college campuses, blaming cancel culture) and pointed out that he had already been on the scene for what felt like ages. In his recent comedy special, Alive From New York, Davidson talked about the experience of finally being let in on some unfiltered grown-up stories about his dad while doing research for The King of Staten Island. “What a man of the ’90s!” Davidson said proudly. “Just doing blow and putting out fires!”

As in professional sports, the touring nature of stand-up comedy lends itself to reminiscence and narrative. The same names and faces pop up years apart, framing old glories or failures. In August 2011, Cannon stood onstage at a club called the Stress Factory and introduced one of the young comics showcased in his Fresh Faces Comedy Tour. “This is the reason why we do this show,” Cannon told the audience. “I guarantee you, you’re gonna say: I remember seeing this kid at the Stress Factory, and now he’s a big giant star in movies, albums, all that stuff. He is 17 years old, and he’s about to rip the stage down.” When Davidson took the mic, he was brooding and grinning all at once. “I am 17,” he confirmed. “Thanks for the cockblock, Nick!”

Eight years later, Davidson was being introduced by comedy club owner Vinnie Brand in advance of a set at the Stress Factory. But when Brand told the assembled audience not to mention Grande or Kate Beckinsale, another of Davidson’s erstwhile lovers, the comedian felt disrespected and walked out on the gig before his set began. Brand later insisted that Davidson’s own advance team had been the ones who told him to declare any ex-girlfriend heckling off-limits, and that the way things went down was a misunderstanding. Still, it was a sign that Davidson’s tolerance for being the constant butt of the joke was maybe beginning to wear thin, and perhaps marked the start of a new stage of his career.

Earlier this February, chatting with Charlamagne tha God, Davidson wasn’t shy in expressing frustration with his ongoing SNL tenure. He said that he believed “I should be done with that show, because they make fun of me on it” and that he had brought up these feelings at work. “I literally was just like, ‘Picture what it’s like to be made fun of and then cut to immediately,’” he told Charlemagne. “They think I’m fucking dumb. I’m literally painted out to be this big dumb idiot.” (In an early-June interview with Entertainment Tonight, Davidson sounded less aggrieved: “I will be there as long as they allow me to be,” he said.) Still, Davidson is savvy enough to understand both the upside and the appeal of his hopping in on the joke. In just about every video interview he has done to promote The King of Staten Island, he begins by making a big show of the fact that he’s living in his mom’s basement. This is true, but the truth is also this: Davidson bought his mom the house in the first place.

“I’ve been doing stand-up or working every day since I was 16,” he told Vulture in 2016. “16 to 23 is a fucking window of time. I haven’t had much time to chill.” He told the interviewer that he hoped to take some time off so he could focus on “learning to have a life.” Asked what he meant by that, Davidson wasn’t quite sure. “Maybe go to a theme park,” he said. “I don’t even know what to do. Maybe go to a music festival?”

A year later, in his conversation with Maron, he repeated his worry that he didn’t know how to live right. “I’m never going to experience life, which is a big fear,” he said, again sounding a lot like a professional athlete figuring out how to adjust to being a regular civilian one day. But he also told Maron a more optimistic story, about meeting SNL elder statesman Eddie Murphy during an anniversary episode, an encounter that sounded like a rookie introducing himself to a Hall of Famer at spring training. “I was like, ‘Hey man, I just want to shake your hand,’” Davidson said. “And he was like, ‘How old are you?’ And I was like, ‘20.’ And he’s like, ‘You’re gonna be just fine.’”