If one thing has remained constant across Saturday Night Live’s four decades, it’s that the ensemble is, by design, greater than the sum of its individual players. Cast members naturally strive to stand out from the pack, but always within the confines of Lorne Michaels’ show, by striving for a breakout character or running sketch. Even when appearing in a hit movie, ideally it’s a movie spun off from the show itself. No one is bigger than the show—and no one should distract from the show. Remember Norm MacDonald’s incessant O.J.-is-actually-a-murderer jokes on “Weekend Update”? They got him fired from the show in 1998. Michaels is famous for his quick ax for ostensibly underperforming players, but SNL also has a zero tolerance position on distraction. Once someone’s persona becomes bigger than the show itself, they leave.
Which is why Pete Davidson, more known for his biography than his comedy, is one of the most unique cast members in SNL’s crowded history. Davidson is now in his fourth season, after a couple of years toiling in the comedic salt mines of MTV2 and Comedy Central. His quick rise to fame was compelling and refreshing for a show that is perennially rebooting itself to keep up with the times: a 20-year old skinny stoner stand-up whose father died saving lives on 9/11 and who looked like a photo composite of all three Beastie Boys circa License to Ill. Yet though he’s now easily the show’s most recognizable cast member among nonviewers, Davidson isn’t actually good at SNL, which he freely admits: “I’m not good at sketch comedy. I don’t know how to do that, or write it.” He can’t do impressions, his attempts at Digital Shorts are weak tea compared to the (admittedly high) standards set by Lonely Island, and the closest he’s come to a breakout character is his monosyllabic pool-boy homewrecker. He does play a solid sideman—word to Uncle Butt—and makes his mark as a frequent in-sketch breaker.
In spite of all this, he’s taken over Season 44 because of “Weekend Update.” While last season’s SNL energy was focused on the show’s Trump-themed cold opens, this year has thus far revolved around the personal life of the show’s coolest cast member. It began on the season premiere’s “Update” segment, during which Davidson spent 3½ minutes self-deprecatingly riffing on his engagement to Ariana Grande, during an episode that Grande herself backed out of performing on for “emotional reasons.” Grande’s replacement, Kanye West, ended the episode with a sad, awkward MAGA rant, which Davidson addressed in an “Update” desk bit a week later, framed by his own struggles with mental illness (which he’d previously addressed on the show).
After news surfaced that Grande and Davidson had split, his “Update” takeover shifted into high gear. Davidson jokingly proposed to Maggie Rogers in a promo for Episode 4, leading Grande to subtweet him to hell and release one of the greatest breakup songs in recent memory. Davidson reportedly backed out of a sketch about his ex scheduled for that episode, but he still got to air his side of the post-relationship mess. After a hacky “Update” desk bit during which he cracked adolescent jokes about GOP midterm candidates’ faces, he awkwardly and earnestly addressed the breakup. Appropriately, perhaps, he finished with a nod to a meme about tricking people to vote via celebrity gossip.
Just when it seemed like Davidson was going to turn “Update” into his own weekly op-ed on Grande—the Twitter-savvy pop star liked this trenchant observation from a fan—his serial shifted again. One of the Republicans Davidson attempted to roast in that bit was Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw, who lost his eye in an IED explosion. After a week of Davidson’s bad joke circulating as a Controversial Political Thing, the snake finally swallowed its own tail this weekend, when Davidson let Crenshaw roast his appearance on “Update,” complete with an interruption from Crenshaw’s ringing phone, playing the single “Breathin’ ” by Grande. By the end of this surreal set piece, perfectly pegged to Veterans Day, the duo linked Crenshaw’s selfless service with Davidson’s father’s sui generis sacrifice to urge the country to forgive one another in the spirit of bipartisanship and supporting the troops. By one estimate, Crenshaw is the GOP’s great millennial hope, and at the end of this bit, he turned to the camera and earnestly delivered a convention speech in miniature. Another SNL first: A cast member’s bombed joke helped launch a Republican congressman’s national political career.
All this means that for much of this season, the show—and maybe more importantly in 2018, the post-show coverage—has revolved around Pete Davidson. And not Pete Davidson, the sketch performer: Pete Davidson, the persona. It’s hard to predict where Davidson might go from here; maybe by the end of the season, Davidson will join Eddie Murphy as the only current cast members to host Saturday Night Live.*
Stand-up comedy is always an exaggerated performance of the self, but on SNL, stand-ups have traditionally subsumed their self-examinations for the good of the ensemble. Predecessors Dennis Miller, Colin Quinn, and MacDonald have used “Update” as their own nightclub stage, but Davidson’s bringing the performative rules of social media to SNL: “Weekend Update” is becoming his status update. Though he underperforms elsewhere on the show, Davidson strongly appeals to a cohort of online self-branders who suffer more depressive episodes than any other age group and who are now tuning in to their grandparents’ favorite show to watch Davidson’s endearingly awkward self-revelations. Davidson might have deleted Instagram because the internet didn’t make him feel good—but who needs social media when your personal platform is broadcast live from 30 Rock?
Correction, Nov. 13, 2018: This post misstated that no then-current cast member has previously hosted Saturday Night Live. In fact, in 1982, cast member Eddie Murphy hosted the show when his 48 Hours co-star Nick Nolte fell ill at the last minute.