It’s been a weird year for comedy. The joke that was Donald Trump has become all too real. Louie C.K., some people's great white (male) feminist hope, has been outed as a predator. And, yes, Pete Davidson has somehow gone from being the worst cast member on Saturday Night Live to, arguably (outside of Kate McKinnon), the best.
The three trends aren’t unrelated. SNL—and Alec Baldwin—have capitalized on Trump’s rise, and yet one has the feeling that the show is getting credit not for actually writing funny Trump skits, but for doing Trump skits at all; it’s political praise disguised as comedic praise, our desire for seeing Trump skewered (and feeling like SNL is the institution to do it) outweighing the actual skewering. Because, as nearly everyone has said, how can you parody a parody? Simply by staying on script, Baldwin’s Trump has a logic and a conscience (and a consciousness) that the actual Trump doesn’t have; he unwittingly humanizes someone who, by all accounts, is inhuman, a character in and of himself. There is no take on Trump, the way McKinnon has a take on Sessions (he is an actual possum), or the way McKinnon has a take on Clinton (she is an uber-intense political maniac), or the way Alex Moffat and Mikey Day have a take on the Trump sons (Eric is an actual toddler).
SNL, it is important to remember, is a sketch show, built not on impressions but characters. That’s why when I wrote Alex Moffat and Mikey Day just now, you probably had to wonder who they were, or, if you knew who they were, which one was which—despite the fact that they’re (somehow) in seemingly every sketch this year. This concentration on characters strips SNL performers, for a time, of their own name recognition; it’s one of the reasons it usually takes a few years for SNL breakouts to gain named success.
But in the age of Trump—in an age when a character has become the real live president of the United States, with access to nuclear codes—doing characters can come off as shallow, inauthentic, or just plain not funny. Which is why Pete Davidson, that guy on SNL who always sort of plays Pete Davidson—that guy on SNL who, by his own admission, can’t sing, dance, act, do impressions, or even read—has suddenly become the sole bright spot of the entire broadcast.
I, for one, am a complete convert. When Davidson joked about not being talented in 2015, I agreed with him. Mostly, he was the self-proclaimed Resident Young Person on Weekend Update, telling broad jokes about Harry Potter, living with his mom and looking like that inflatable dude outside of used car dealerships. But lately, he’s gotten more specific: Davidson isn’t just Resident Young Person, he’s Pete Davidson, the recovering pot addict on SNL from Staten Island.
On Weekend Update, Davidson is, on the face of it, drawing on the same personal vulnerabilities that stand-ups do. But in the aftermath of Louie’s admissions, where the ambiguity of a stand-up act has come into question (was it just Louie the character telling the jokes? Or Louie himself?), Davidson’s bits have a refreshingly authentic tone to them. It’s not just that he uses real articles to bolster a joke about how much more Staten Island likes Colin Jost vs. him, or that he jokes about things (like his mental health) that have already been well-publicized. It’s the venue, too. The version of Pete Davidson on Weekend Update is a more real version of Pete Davidson doing stand-up. Where stand-ups, alone on stage, tend to rely on an outsized version of themselves for laughs, the laughs in Davidson’s Update bits come from the joke that on a show where everyone else is playing a character, Davidson, talking guy-to-guy with Jost, is not.
Outside of Update, Davidson plays on a similar meta-gag. Chad, his go-to of late, is a dumb, almost lifeless, average-looking dude whose catchphrase is a simple “Ok.” And yet Chad is irresistible as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s pool boy; chosen by a C.S. Lewis-esque gang of characters to save their world; and worth millions of dollars in a charity bachelor auction. Like Chad, Pete Davidson is successful—the youngest cast member ever on SNL, dating Cazzie David—without having, as he himself admits, any skills or talent for it at all.
In this way, Davidson’s Chad is a better take on Trump than any Baldwin skit, for in Chad, we have the supreme example of Trump’s brand of white male privilege: even the worst presidential candidate can be president, and even the worst sketch comic can succeed on SNL.