In Pete Davidson: Alive From New York, the SNL cast member handles controversial topics well...for the most part.
Since diving into the world of stand-up as a teenager, Pete Davidson's comedy has often hinged on touchy subject matter.
The Saturday Night Live cast member's debut Netflix special, Pete Davidson: Alive From New York, dropped this week, and there's no shortage of potentially controversial topics: fellow comedian Louis C.K., his hyper-public breakup with Ariana Grande, and divisive politician/veteran Dan Crenshaw being among them. "All right, we'll do some 9/11 jokes, and then we'll get the f--k out of here," Davidson shrugs near the set's end, as casually as if he were taking a sip of water.
Callousness might be Davidson's bread and butter, but in Alive From New York, he handles these polarizing issues with a surprising level of grace. The special opens with a particularly eyebrow-raising anecdote: "So Louis C.K. tried to get me fired from 'SNL' my first year, and this is that story," he explains. By the punchline—and not without a healthy dose of self-deprecation—Davidson paints the disgraced C.K. as, somehow, even more unlikeable.
Davidson hits his stride when he's able to justify those points of contention; his 9/11 jokes land because he frames them within the context of having lost his father in the attacks. His picking on Grande is among the special's highlights, because he knows he's punching up: "She won Billboard's Woman of the Year, and I got called 'butthole eyes' by barstoolsports.com." Naturally, Davidson also doesn't shy away from poking fun at himself, dismissing the rumors that circulated after Grande implied he was—ahem—well-endowed. "She's a very smart person, OK?" he says. "She did that so that every girl that sees my dick for the rest of my life is disappointed."
But Alive From New York's low point came when Davidson made a joke about doubting if certain gay men were actually gay. In the bit, which got flack after being featured in the special's official trailer, Davidson opens by assuring viewers that he has a lot of gay friends, which off the bat feels slightly too similar to the classic "I can't be racist because I have black friends" defense. "It's that gay dude that'll run up on your girlfriend and squeeze her boobs and grab her ass and be like, 'Damn, girl, you look great!'" Davidson says. "I don't find that f--king funny."
Writer Jill Gutowitz condemned this joke in a viral Twitter thread, emphasizing that, as a woman, she'd never been groped by a gay man: "Did straight men literally invent this stereotype of gay men with grab hands?" she asked, adding that depicting gay men in that light was "extremely dangerous." Gutowitz's tweets were met with mixed responses. Some women shared the same sentiments, although the majority pointed out numerous times in which gay men had groped them without their consent. "Don't dismiss that cis gay men are still men conditioned to see us as objects," one user argued.
i’m trying to remember literally 1 time that a gay man has groped me or slapped my ass. gay ppl are so fucking repr… https://t.co/1IlPpt0WUK— Jill Gutowitz (@Jill Gutowitz)1581611922.0
Davidson's joke concurred that gay men shouldn't be able to freely grope women, although it was veiled with a "...because she's my girlfriend" qualifier. Nonetheless, it's generally in poor taste for masculine, straight men like Davidson to joke about gay men in a negative light. He surely meant no harm in the joke, but if he does in fact have a lot of gay friends, then he probably should've been advised to avoid such a joke altogether.
Davidson knows his comedy isn't for everyone—"I know that joke splits the room," he clarifies after a provocative punchline—but overall, Alive From New York evidences his growth as a comedian. Where other comedians show a lack of distinction between vulgarity and full-on offensiveness, Davidson proves he's pretty good at walking the thin line between the two—butthole eyes and all.
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To cancel cancel culture—and to write off the impulses that motivate it—would be to miss a valuable chance to learn.
Kanye West is canceled.
James Charles is canceled. Doja Cat is canceled. Harvey Weinstein is canceled. J. K. Rowling is canceled. Dave Chappelle is canceled. Donald Trump and all his supporters are canceled. Camila Cabello is canceled. Boomers are canceled. And now, cancel culture itself has been canceled.
The term "cancel culture" has quickly become one of the most discussed trends of the digital age. America is canceled, murder is canceled, Earth is canceled. If one were to scrape through everything I have ever said and written with a fine-toothed comb, I would probably be canceled, and you likely would be, too. As Jonah Engel Bromwich reported in The New York Times, "Everyone is canceled." Maybe we should all just go back to sleep.
Though it would be simple enough to rehash the argument that we should just "cancel cancel culture," cancel culture isn't disappearing anytime soon. Neither are the systemic forces of oppression and the forces of human nature that created it.
Instead of arguing for a complete end of cancel culture, we should ask if there's a way to move past cancel culture's flaws without completely shutting down the deeper meanings and gems of potential buried within the term.
The Case for Canceling Cancel Culture: Twitter, Queer Infighting, and Capitalism
Humans have always been "canceling" each other; it's a way of shaping and solidifying societal values. But the term "canceled" (as we understand it today) actually appeared sometime around 2015, when the hashtag #cancelled appeared on Black Twitter. Initially, cancel culture was used as a way of leveraging the collectivity inherent on the Internet and the attention economy and using this power to critique people in positions of power. In theory, it is a way of giving voice to the marginalized and the voiceless.
Yet inevitably—perhaps because it originated from a place of brokenness and anger—cancel culture began to twist and bend out of shape. It started coming for the powerless, shutting down discussions that would've been beneficial, splintering communities and stymying learning opportunities.
Of cancel culture in the queer community, Ryan Li Dahlstrom writes, "I'm feeling really tired of the call out culture on social media especially within the queer/trans people of color communities. We need to center and build relationships with each other…By making these public attacks on each other, we are engaging in the same disposability politics of capitalism and the prison industrial complex that we purport to be against while feeding into state surveillance tactics that are monitoring how we are tearing each other down."
Cancel culture ultimately idealizes unattainable standards, a fact that led even Barack Obama to critique the trend. "This idea of purity and you're never compromised and you're always politically 'woke' and all that stuff," he said. "The world is messy; there are ambiguities… People who do really good stuff have flaws." He emphasized that cancel culture "is not activism," which it isn't. It can provide immediate gratification and can be cathartic—but while writing a poem about how angry you are (usually) doesn't hurt anyone, cancel culture can have visceral consequences, particularly for people without the resources to bounce back.
It can also lead to burnout on all sides. "One way to heal this emotional drain is to consider what change you're hoping for. Do you actually want this person to learn and do better, or just to feel bad about what they did?" writes Maisha Z. Johnson.
This isn't to say we shouldn't be angry, or that we should all just "get along"; centrism, tolerance, and "politeness" have always been used to breed stagnancy and cover up true harm. But it's important to remember that cancel culture usually does very little to change the things it was trying to address, like systemic violence, racism, transphobia, and the like. If anything, it can perpetuate unproductive constructs. Critiquing Lana Del Rey for dating a cop might feel satisfactory in the short-term, but we can't delude ourselves into thinking it will do anything at all about police brutality.
As Jonah Engel Bromwich writes, "Only those whose power is, for the most part, predicated on the attention economy are susceptible to cancellation." This means that politicians, businessmen, and the people truly in charge of power structures often avoid being canceled while ordinary Internet users become targets, treated as if they single-handedly created massive social issues like racism or capitalism, treated as if they were not broken people with lives and the capacity to change.
Many have noted that cancel culture is a capitalist and carceral practice, one that breeds isolation, competition, and dehumanization. "[Cancel culture] speaks to a lifestyle of commodity, consumerism and capitalism, of transactions being canceled. It's a very transactional word," says Jason Richards, the writer of an episode of Joanne the Scammer that featured an early use of the term "canceled."
According to eminent scholar, preacher, and writer Michael Eric Dyson, cancel culture is literally "the internalization of an ethic of white supremacy, which is wanting to cancel black people from the beginning." Instead, he says, "We have to stand outside and protest and force people inside of the system to do the right thing."
In short, cancel culture takes our eyes off of the prize, which is—ideally—a better world.
The Case Against Canceling Cancel Culture: Learning from Aziz Ansari, Lana Del Rey, and Our Mistakes
All that said, it's tempting to say we should just cancel cancel culture itself. Realistically, though, this won't happen. Whether you think it's real or not, cancel culture generates massive amounts of attention and capital, meaning that it'll continue to be fueled by click-hungry websites and by the parts of us that long for likes, engagement, and revenge.
Plus, the Internet is a natural breeding ground for call-outs. This may be thanks to something the writer Ginger Gorman has called the "online disinhibition effect," which is when people online say things they'd never dream of uttering in real life. And of course, this world offers no shortage of reasons to be angry.
Ultimately, to cancel cancel culture—and to write off the impulses and anger that motivate it—would be to miss a valuable chance to learn from it.
We can honor the fact that cancelations often stem from places of deep pain and insecurity, often rooted in larger issues, while also understanding that the point-blank nature of cancel culture may be unproductive. For example, many men now live in fear of being accused of sexual misconduct, but women have always lived in constant fear of sexual assault. Instead of shutting down the voices of men who fear sexual assault accusations, we need to invest time and energy into dialogue about how men might avoid assaulting women. We could dive deeper into the root causes of sexual assault, like toxic masculinity and trauma, and focus on healing the wounds that created them.
This doesn't mean we should excuse abusers, but one of the most positive results of the increased dialogue about sexual abuse is the widespread proliferation of information about what constitutes consent. We should be highlighting the lessons we might learn from people like Aziz Ansari, whose cancelation generated a great deal of vitriol—but also created an opportunity for rich, nuanced discussions.
We should uplift all people who commit to healing and practicing radical love after (or ideally, before) being accused of something, just as we should honor women and people of all genders for their growth, not just their mistakes and traumas. It may be idealistic to think this is possible, but what would the alternative be? Total nihilism? People are always changing, and those who show a clear willingness to listen and learn from their mistakes deserve the space to do so. They should not be cast off into the wilderness or made into pariahs. We shouldn't rely on the methods of the power structures we're trying to replace.
Transformative Justice Approaches to Cancel Culture
In New York City, people have been writing the same message all over the subways: "We are not in the business of policing each other." We should, however, be in the business of remaining open to questions, to change, and to our own complexity.
The process of diving into the root causes of things, embracing complexity, and focusing on the outcomes we wish to see rather than the problems at hand are all part of a practice called transformative justice. This practice originated in the worlds of prison justice and gender-based violence organizing, but it's very applicable alternative to cancel culture. Transformative justice "seeks to provide people who experience violence with immediate safety and long-term healing and reparations while holding people who commit violence accountable within and by their communities," according to usprisonculture.com. It's about advocating for learning, conversation, and growth instead of silence and ostracization.
Transformative justice is not the same as unconditional forgiveness. It means creating opportunities for repentance, reparations, and ongoing healing for all parties involved. It means channeling our rage into action, organizing, and community-building, not using it to tear others down. In this broken world, maybe the best we can do is learn from our mistakes and help others do the same.
The activist and writer adrienne maree brown makes a passionate, beautiful argument for why we need to replace cancel culture with transformative justice approaches. "Is this what we're here for? To cultivate a fear-based adherence to reductive common values?" she asks. "What can this lead to in an imperfect world full of sloppy complex humans? Is it possible we will call each other out until there's no one left beside us?"
If we continue to cancel each other instead of focusing on growth and systemic change, she implies, we'll merely perpetuate the philosophies that got us into all these messes in the first place. But "if we want to create a world in which conflict and trauma aren't the center of our collective existence, we have to practice something new, ask different questions, access again our curiosity about each other as a species," brown writes. "I believe transformative justice could yield deeper trust, resilience and interdependence."
This approach can be useful for those on every side of a potential cancelation. "What the majority dismisses as so-called hate is usually honest criticism that needs to be addressed," advises Erin Tatum. "In lieu of justifying your actions, try channeling your energy into understanding the other person's perspective." When we are the ones being called out, we can try to practice understanding the complexity of the other person's perspectives, and we can realize that we aren't personally being attacked. We might also acknowledge that we might have done something wrong, but this doesn't mean that we can't learn and grow. Acknowledging our mistakes and inherent biases is the first step to getting over things like white fragility, and it's a way to heal deeper wounds instead of trying to stitch them up by opening more.
As brown writes, "All these mass and intimate punishments keep us small and fragile. And right now our movements and the people within them need to be massive and complex and strong."
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Louis CK's new set wasn't just offensive. It was straight up bad comedy.
Comedy is subjective.
Some people enjoy Patton Oswalt, some prefer Jeff Foxworthy, and maybe one person somewhere out there liked Carlos Mencia at some point. But for a long time, many comedy fans could agree that Louis CK was one of the best living comedians on the circuit.
Pre-masturbation scandal, Louis CK's comedy was unparalleled. His sets were expertly timed with thematic through-lines and numerous callbacks. His character - a self-deprecating, bitter but ultimately good-natured middle-aged man - was funny and relatable to a wide demographic. And sure, oftentimes his comedy was offensive, but Louis CK had an incredible knack for imbuing even his edgiest jokes with genuine empathy.
That's why his newest set, performed on December 16th at the Governor's Comedy Club in Long Island, was so surprising. It's not that it was offensive; it's that the entire set was garbage, neither well-crafted nor particularly interesting. It was simply an angry old man making hacky jokes and yelling about how millennials ruined his life.
Standout bits included:
-Suggesting nobody should care what the Parkland survivors have to say because they didn't even get shot
"Testify in front of Congress, these kids, what the fuck? What are you doing? Cause you went to a high school where kids got shot, why does that mean I have to listen to you? Why does that make you interesting? You didn't get shot. You pushed some fat kid in the way and now I gotta listen to you talking?"
This is the one that's making all the headlines. And while it's certainly offensive, and definitely too soon, it's mainly just a really bad joke. If you think the notion of people surviving school shootings by pushing fat kids in the way is funny, you might be a 12-year-old kid. Except probably not, because real 12-year-olds go through school shooting drills and understand that dying in their classroom is an actual possibility, and the best course of action is to barricade rooms. Not "pushing fat kids." The entire joke hinges on the premise that you'll find the idea of a fat kid getting shot to be funny. Ha ha ha! It also suggests that Louis CK has more perspective on the realities of gun violence than a bunch of kids who recently watched their friends get slaughtered in front of them. Hate to break it to you Louie but no, you don't.
-Complaining about having a bad year
"You ever have a whole bad year? You ever have an entire year that sucks - 365 shit cunt days in a row? I mean fuck. You ever have a time that's so shitty it starts to get funny? Like you just don't fucking - after a while you're like fuck. At first you're like ohhh. Then you're like Jesus. Like I lost so much fucking money in a day."
Amazingly, Louis CK managed to avoid any potential introspection in this bit, focusing entirely on the fact that he's had a bad time and lost a lot of money. It comes off as a "poor me" rant, which isn't a great look for a dude who non-consensually jerked off in front of a bunch of young women whose careers he had the power to destroy. Poor Louie, definitely the victim here.
-Ridiculing people who use different gender pronouns
"They're like royalty, telling you how to address them. 'You should address me as they/them because I identify as gender-neutral.' Okay. You should address me as 'there' because I identify as a location and the location is your mother's cunt."
Hey, did you know that non-binary people sometimes ask to be called by different pronouns that make them feel more comfortable in basic interactions? Isn't that weird and strange? Isn't revising pronouns a huge burden on you? Louis CK certainly thinks so. The alt-right and your 80-year-old uncle who has never met a non-binary person in his life would probably agree. The rest of us are way past this.
-A long screed about the penis sizes of various ethnicities, culminating in the assertion that Asian men are actually women
"You know why Asian men have small dicks? 'Cause they're women. They're not dudes. They're all women. All Asians are women. And they have big clits, really big clits, and when they have sex they just stick their clits in each other's pussies and then they procreate using math."
This joke was particularly original, because very few comedians have ever tackled the relationship between penis size and race before. Black people really do have big penises! And Asian men are feminine and not masculine and have vaginas because Asian penises are so small! And Asians love math! Wow, so true! If you really analyze this joke, you'll see that it's funny because blatant racism is apparently hilarious. Old school Louis CK might have pushed this joke even further to ultimately parody the inherent racism at play. Current Louis CK is content with making racist statements and calling them jokes.
-A story about pranking his friend with gay sex
"So I put lipstick up my asshole. And then I say to my friend 'you want to fuck me up the ass?' And he's like 'yeah okay.' He's drunk. All drunk men are gay. So he fucked me up the ass. And then he went home and his wife sees lipstick on his dick and he's got nothing to say. I enjoyed that prank so much."
During the entire recording, one particular audience member is going nuts for Louis CK. He's howling, laughing like a maniac at every joke. At the end of this one, which he loved, he audibly says, "Fucking f*ggot!" This was a particularly enlightening moment of the set because it clearly answers the question that is bound to pop up over and over again if you were a former Louis CK fan listening to his new stuff: "Who is Louis CK trying to appeal to?" The answer is this guy - a dude who hears an overlong, rambling joke about a man convincing his drunk, straight friend to have sex, finds that super hilarious, and audibly says, "fucking f*ggot."
Throughout the entire laughless 50 minute set, a single joke stood out as being in-line with the old Louie - a bit about how his daughter told him she thought comedians were pointless. He rebuts that the only interesting thing about her is that her dad is a comedian. Louis CK's best jokes have always been ones like these, biting, real, and personal. It was almost depressing hearing one like this buried in a set that would have felt at home on Ben Shapiro's podcast.
The worst part is that, considering this is Louis CK's supposed comeback attempt, it could have been great. He could have been introspective, truthfully analyzing how and why he got into the situation he did, mining the darkest parts of himself for the sort of self-deprecating humor he's always been known for. He could have torn himself apart for raw comedy gold. Given his recent status as a sexual deviant and social pariah, he was in a unique position to do exactly that. Instead he punched down, played victim, and pandered to the worst elements of his fanbase. The only running theme was meanness and vitriol.
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