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The Big Yikes Energy of Pete Davidson’s New Netflix Special

‘Alive From New York’ knows exactly what you want, and it doesn’t hold back

Netflix/Ringer illustration

“So Louis C.K. tried to get me fired from SNL my first year, and this is that story.” We have not yet seen Pete Davidson’s face, in the opening seconds of the capricious Saturday Night Live cast member’s new Netflix stand-up special Alive From New York, and already we know that he knows what we want, which is sordid tales of Pete Davidson’s awkward and oft-disastrous interactions with celebrities.

Like, say, the time Louis C.K. was hosting the show in 2015, and loudly called out Davidson backstage for looking (and in fact being) stoned, and furthermore actually complained to deified SNL boss Lorne Michaels about it. This necessitated a super-awkward Lorne-Pete summit that Davidson is happy now to recount at the onset of his Netflix special in painstaking detail, because he knows that’s what we want.

“And I was like, ‘Oh, so, like, am I fired?’” Davidson recalls.

“And he was like, ‘No.’”

“And I was like, ‘Why?’”

“And he was like, ‘I don’t know.’”

Awkward laughter from the crowd. “Which, again, is a conversation we have yearly, on a yearly basis,” Davidson continues, marveling that Michaels has not yet fired him. “‘Is this the year?’ ‘I don’t know. Not yet. I don’t know. We’ll figure it out. I don’t know.’” Louis C.K., of course, was himself a deified comedy superstar at the time—Davidson gleefully repeats the phrase at the time throughout this story, setting up the ugly-triumphant finale we all see coming but we don’t not want, exactly.

“And then, one glorious morning!” he crows. Huge, less-awkward laugh from the crowd. “I woke up, and I read, ‘Louis C.K. jerks off in front of women,’ and I went, ‘Yes!’”

And then Davidson pivots to a riff about jerking off alone in the dark, which is mildly amusing—as a comic, he’s midtier at best, what with the stammering, the awkward pauses, the groaning asides, the rhythmless barrage of uhs and likes—but, again, not quite what we want, which is more gossip-column calamity. Alive From New York, a modest 49-minute set released on Netflix on Tuesday, is less a matter of exquisite stand-up craft than of shrewd content generation, peaking with a vividly gnarly burst of barbed jokes about Davidson’s ex-fiancé, one Ariana Grande. Which is especially what we all want. Right? Right?

I paused Alive From New York for the first time about 16 minutes in—he was riffing at length about the sex position where the lady’s on top and grinding excessively pre-penetration and “your dick gets chapped and ripped apart”—to rewatch my favorite Davidson SNL moment thus far. It’s the January 2019 bit when he and his good friend John Mulaney went on Weekend Update to (a) briefly address Davidson’s recent alarming Instagram post that began, “I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore,” and (b) rave about the goofy new Clint Eastwood film The Mule. It’s a low-key masterful blend of frivolity and personal strife, a genuinely sweet gesture of friendship and support in service of the reality, long accepted by that point, that Davidson’s primary function on SNL was to generate jokes about the chaotic and worrying Pete Davidson experience. Sometimes he makes those jokes himself; sometimes he doesn’t.

I paused Alive From New York the second time about six minutes later—he was riffing about his suspicion that some gay guys are pretending to be gay just to slap ladies’ asses with impunity—to read Tuesday’s fresh burst of Pete vs. SNL gossip. “I personally think I should be done with that show because they make fun of me on it,” he told Charlamagne tha God in an interview posted Monday, adding that he’d wanted 2019 to be his last year on the show, and “they think I’m fucking dumb, like I’m literally painted out to be this big, dumb idiot.”

This was quickly followed by a Page Six report wherein anonymous SNL sources bashed Davidson for receiving “star treatment” and being coddled by Michaels and skipping episodes for frivolous reasons, such as to attend a friend’s wedding or shoot a role in the Suicide Squad sequel. (Other recent Davidson news is far less frivolous: He seemed to joke about an imminent rehab stint in a solo December 2019 Weekend Update bit, and seemed to joke about it again during a stand-up gig in February.) All of this is somewhat of a minefield, professionally and personally: Davidson is a likable cringe-comic rapscallion, but Alive From New York, from its title on down, thrives on the uneasily thin barrier between the frail human and the troubled boldface name.

To wit, I didn’t pause this special a third time because he immediately started talking about Dan Crenshaw. In November 2018, during yet another Weekend Update spot, Davidson had mocked Crenshaw, the ex-Navy Seal from Texas then running for Congress as a Republican, for looking like “a hitman in a porno movie” on account of his eyepatch. Crenshaw won his election three days later, and on the very next SNL received an in-person, on-air apology from Davidson himself, which Davidson now, at least in part, regrets. “The only thing I did do, which I am guilty of, and I apologize for, is I did make that guy famous and a household name for no reason,” he says, as Alive From New York prepares to burst into flames. “Right? I did what, like, Ariana Grande did for me, right? I sucked his dick at SNL.”

So, listen. One fights the urge to view this special entirely through a prurient celebrity-dirt prism, but the fact of the matter is that Davidson’s other material is C+ at best: the grody sex jokes, the somehow grodier kid jokes, the buoyant self-deprecation. (“I found a nice lady suit at the Banana Republic,” he announces, of his nattier-than-usual stage attire. “I look like a divorced wife who just, like, got it together.”) Halfway through, he interrupts his stammering to look straight at the camera and say, “Congrats on fucking. Thanks for unpausing and continuing to watch.” Big awkward laugh. “Sorry, I always wanted that to happen while I was watching a Netflix thing.” Pretty good bit, really. But one cannot deny that Alive From New York, in much of the real world, exists as a yes-no proposition, the question specifically being Does Ariana Grande come up, and the answer being Yikes.

Davidson is still a little salty, specifically, about her 2019 Vogue cover, which sure seemed to dismiss their brief but furiously content-generating romance and engagement as a “distraction.” Yikes. “Can you imagine if I did that?” Davidson asks the crowd, which is audibly leaning forward now. “Can you imagine if I did that? My career would be over tomorrow. If I spray-painted myself brown, and hopped on the cover of Vogue magazine, and just started shitting on my ex?”

Yikes. He pulls back from there, concedes that she’s a genius, and allows that even his own grandpa described Grande’s massive post-breakup hit, “thank u, next,” as “a slap.” But he’s got one more grievance to air: “I don’t like that she talked all this shit on behalf of my dick.” Davidson regards the whole Big Dick Energy kerfuffle as false advertising (“she has just very little hands”) deployed only to humiliate him. “She did that so that every girl that sees my dick for the rest of my life is disappointed.”

Yikes. “I didn’t even get to enjoy my Big Dick summer or whatever the fuck it was called,” he concludes. “Please stop doing that. I have a family that reads. Stop. My poor mother.”

Quick pause.

“Anyway, uh, we’ll do some 9/11 jokes, and then we’ll get the fuck out of here. How’s that sound?”

For Alive From New York does indeed conclude with 12 minutes or so on the topic of Davidson’s father, a fireman who died in the 9/11 attacks, when Pete was just 7 years old, a colossally painful memory that a grown-up Pete once joked about during Comedy Central’s 2015 roast of Justin Bieber. His family got a modest settlement; Pete’s mom bought him and his sister a pool to theoretically help them make friends, which allows her son to now crack jokes on Netflix about filling it up with his tears.

Cue awkward laughter; the audience is, by design, now audibly recoiling, and doubly so when Davidson follows that up by recalling how his dad always used to demand that young Pete clean his dinner plate, on account of there being starving children in Africa, which compels a grown-up Pete to briefly imitate a starving African child saying, “I am full.” Cue audience groans. Davidson allows that he might not be allowed to do impressions like that: “I guess we’ll check Twitter as the decider of all. Twitter’s the new pearly gates.” The cycle begins anew. Alive From New York is designed to trigger a modest but manageable backlash. Whatever happens from here—good, bad, or ugly—you can bet Davidson will at least get some material out of it.