Why Has Pete Davidson Garnered Such A Huge Following At SNL?

Pete Davidson opened up his 2020 Netflix stand-up special his set by mentioning how he felt after the finale of his first season on "Saturday Night Live." The comedian said, "So it's 2014 or '15, and it's the finale of SNL, and I was so shocked and happy that I didn't get fired, and this is a feeling that I get to relive every week... It's really awesome. I still can't believe it. It's very funny."

This is a running joke to those familiar with Davidson's comedy both on and off of "SNL." He's constantly marveling at how they're still paying him to be on the show, an apparent reaction to the fact that there's plenty of regular "SNL" viewers who feel the same way. After all, he only has one major recurring character (Chad, which doesn't require a ton of acting skill), and he's not a particularly memorable impressionist. Where actors like Kate McKinnon and Kenan Thompson are all over the show, it's easy to forget at times that Davidson's even there unless he makes one of his reliable appearances at the Weekend Update desk.

As a result, Davidson's popularity throughout these last eight years has befuddled critics and audiences alike. "Why is this guy getting so much attention?" people ask, and not just because every famous woman in Hollywood seemingly wants to date him. Compared to past "SNL" cast members, Davidson's tenure has been unique not only in the seemingly disproportionate amount of attention he's gotten, but the fact that he's still even on the show at all. 

Years of inconsistency

Those who frequent the Live From New York subreddit will remember a lot of anger and frustration aimed towards Davidson, fueled by the knowledge that past cast members couldn't have gotten away with so many absences. This was lightly remarked upon in Scarlett Johansson's monologue during the 2019 Christmas episode, where they did a fun little spoof of "Avengers: Infinity War," in which half the cast starts disappearing. At one point Heidi Gardner goes up to Cecily Strong and says "I think Thanos took Pete!" and Cecily responds calmly, "Oh, no, I think it's just one of those weeks where Davidson doesn't show up." 

It's funny because it's true: Pete Davidson was barely on the show in 2019, missing the first few weeks of the season 45 premiere to film "The Suicide Squad" and taking multiple episodes off after that. Taran Killam, who had a much stronger presence on the show throughout his six-year tenure, left because he was directing a movie that would've at most interfered with filming for the first two months of the next season. Before COVID-19 mixed up a bunch of cast members' schedules, if a project meant you were missing out on weeks of SNL, that typically meant it was time to leave the show. However, this is something that Lorne Michaels has become increasingly lenient about in recent years, with cast members like Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and Cecily Strong getting substantial time away from the show for other projects. 

On top of that, there's been a general perception that Davidson wasn't taking "SNL" seriously. Not only was he barely in any sketches, but when he was in one, he was breaking constantly, almost reaching Jimmy Fallon levels of unprofessional disruptions. Things got worse in early 2020 where he gave an interview with Charlamagne Tha God where he stated his intentions to leave the show soon, saying, "I have a weird feeling in that building where I don't know whose team they're playing for really ... if I'm the joke or I'm in on the joke." Although he wasn't quite as bitter in the interview as the quotes that circulated from it made him sound, all it did was further cement the anger towards him. If he was barely on the show — and he didn't appear to want to be on the show, why shouldn't he just leave?

His sudden improvement

The heat got taken off of Pete Davidson at the start of the pandemic in 2020, when "SNL" was forced to stick to at-home episodes for the remainder of the season. While those three at-home, entirely pre-recorded episodes serve as a nice little time capsule into what life was like back at the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, it just wasn't the same as the live show, and nobody could really blame them for it. 

But by the time the show properly returned to its live format in the fall of 2020, Davidson felt like a whole new performer. He was showing up in multiple sketches per episodes, no longer breaking nearly as often, and seemed to find his calling doing music videos for the show, giving him a sort of hip-hop Adam Sandler kind of vibe. Although he'd done pre-recorded music video sketches before, he reached new heights with the Eminem-themed Christmas sketch "Stu," which was not only well-rapped but simply an impressive impersonation of Devon Sawa as Stan from the original music video. Whereas Davidson used to only be good for his Weekend Update stand-up segments, season 46 saw him come into his own as a sketch performer. When the season ended he discussed the change:

"I was at a really different place a year or two ago. I'm not exactly proud of how I handled or was handling things a few years ago. Looking back on it, you're like, "Ahh, come on, dude." Luckily a pandemic happened and I got kicked in the balls and had to sit with all of my immature irrational decisions. I was so happy when they said that SNL was going to come back because I was literally sitting with my own thoughts and I was feeling really bad. I was really excited just to work and see people and I had a different outlook for this season and moving forward."

Despite the yearly predictions that Davidson would be let go after each season, he's still going strong and doesn't show signs of leaving any time soon (though he has been gone a little while in this second half of the season to shoot another movie). However, that still doesn't fully explain the years of inconsistency beforehand. Throughout the nearly 50-year history of "SNL," it's rare for cast members to stick around for more than seven seasons, let alone to only hit their stride seven seasons into their run. With all the controversy Davidson's garnered over the years, from the outrage over his birth control joke about former fling Ariana Grande, to the right-wing outrage over his joke about Dan Crenshaw's eyepatch, to the mental health problems that made him such an unreliable member in the cast in the first place, it's worth wondering why Davidson was given so many second chance while other "SNL" performers were let go for stirring up far less trouble.

Lorne Michaels' favorite

Showing up on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" in 2019, Davidson played a game of "True Confessions" with Fallon and former "SNL" writer and reliable host John Mulaney. The premise was that each of them had to read a statement and the other two had to figure out if it was true or not. Davidson's statement was so absurd the others assumed it had to be a lie: "Lorne Michaels and I went to Jamaica together for New Year's." 

Fallon and Mulaney — both "SNL" alums — couldn't believe that the famously stoic "SNL" showrunner would want to go on vacation with Pete Davidson, a 20-year-old who had only been in eight episodes of the show by that point. But it's true. Michaels and Davidson have always been on surprisingly close terms, with Davidson thinking of Michaels as a father figure and Lorne repeatedly having his back through all the controversies. With the behind-the-scenes culture of "SNL" notoriously leading to so many stories of actors self-destructing due to drug use, it makes sense that someone like Lorne, who's witnessed it all, would be looking out for the show's resident young person. As Davidson put it in an interview with Gold Derby in 2021:

"That guy never looked at me differently, never treated me differently, was always very understanding, never made me feel like my job was in jeopardy or that he was mad ... I definitely think he was concerned. There was a lot of concerning moments and a lot of serious conversations that needed to be had, but it was always from a loving place."

Watching the show live over the years, it feels like everyone at "SNL" has been looking after him, slipping in signs of support whenever they had the chance. One particularly memorable moment came in Jonah Hill's Five-Timer monologue, where Candace Bergen asks a bartender for a drink called a "Pete Davidson," explaining, "All I know is it's got a lot going on, but it gets the job done." At a time where Davidson was reeling from his highly public break-up with Ariana Grande and dealing with suicidal ideation, this felt like a sweet declaration from the writers that even if Davidson couldn't be as present on the show as you'd expect from a cast member, they still considered him a valuable member of the team.

Pete the underdog

In 2017, Pete Davidson was formally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and depression, and shortly after, he went on Weekend Update to talk about it. What starts as a serious bit about how people suffering from mental illness can find help quickly transitions into Davidson using it as an excuse for the show to put him in more sketches. Colin Jost suggests that if he wants to be on the air more, "maybe you should write more sketches for yourself," and Davidson jokes back, "That won't work. My sketches suck because they're all written by a depressed person."

This stand-up style bit was widely praised for its honesty and for the destigmatizing way Davidson treated mental illness, talking about depression with the same lack of shame most people talk about a standard physical injury. The type of comedy Davidson displayed here wasn't unique to that one episode. Much of his stand-up bits on Weekend Update were inspired by seemingly embarrassing bits from his life — the stuff most people would simply not want to admit on live TV — where Davidson turned it into something funny. He jokes about his rehab stints, his still living with his mom, his questionable choice in tattoos, it's all fair game, and it shows his great skill for personal comedy. 

Plenty of stand-up comedians' material feels like you're listening to a lecture, where the comedian in questions seems to think they're noble truth-tellers providing an invaluable service for humanity, carrying about a sense of self-importance that can make them nearly unbearable to listen to. Pete Davidson has none of those pretensions: he portrays himself as an idiot and he invites you all to laugh at his expense. There's no hint of arrogance in his material, and he clearly does not think he's better than you. He's honest about his life on a level that nobody else on Weekend Update is, and it makes viewers connect with him far more than they would with the other "SNL" stars who get way more screen time. Everyone else is playing a character, but he's often playing himself, and it feels like we've spent the past eight years truly getting to know him.