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For Pete Davidson And Judd Apatow, 'Comedy Is A Beautiful Escape'

Pete Davidson says playing a fictionalized version of himself in <em>The King of Staten Island </em>helped him come to terms with losing his father in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Universal Pictures
Pete Davidson says playing a fictionalized version of himself in The King of Staten Island helped him come to terms with losing his father in the Sept. 11 attacks.

SNL castmember Pete Davidson was 7 years old when his father, a New York City firefighter, died as a first responder in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. His dad's badge was later recovered from Ground Zero, and Davidson has worn it every day since.

"I'm very lucky that I have that piece to remember him by," he says. "He was one of the lucky ones that were found."

As a teenager, Davidson found that comedy helped ease his pain, and he began doing stand-up. "My goal was always to just bring light to the darkness," he says.

Davidson explores the loss of his father in the new dramatic comedy, The King of Staten Island. In it, he plays Scott, a fictionalized version of himself who's grieving after his father dies fighting a hotel fire. Director Judd Apatow calls the film a "hopeful story about somebody who starts opening up and getting support."

"We were trying to do something that was uplifting and honest about the struggles that people go through," Apatow says.

While working on the film, Davidson consulted with friends and former colleagues of his late father. He says the conversations helped him process the pain he had been holding on to.

"It's really a part of my life that I'm ready to move on from, and I think this [film] was the perfect thing for it," Davidson says.

Interview highlights

On how Apatow and Davidson met, and their early forays into comedy

Judd Apatow: We're both complete comedy nerds. We're fans of comedy in addition to people who started doing stand-up at a young age. I know for me, I first became aware of Pete when we were casting Trainwreck. And I ask Amy [Schumer], "Who should I know? Who might we want to put in the movie?" And the first person she mentioned was Pete. And then we just went on YouTube and watched a bunch of clips of Pete, and they were hysterical. And then she told me he was 20 years old, which angered me, because I was so unfunny at 20. And it just seemed crazy how sophisticated and riotously funny his act was at such a young age. ...

Pete Davidson: I grew up having very few friends and I wasn't invited to a lot of parties and school and stuff like that, so it was the first time that I was able to speak freely and people would actually listen to me, and I really enjoyed that. And I liked how freeing it was. So it just felt really good to have anybody listen to what I had to say.

On using comedy to deal with trauma

Comedy is a beautiful escape. It really just frees my mind from focusing on things that might be upsetting to me.

Davidson: Comedy is a beautiful escape. It really just frees my mind from focusing on things that might be upsetting to me. And I think it really helped me grow as a person. And I'm really grateful for comedy and having it in my life.

Apatow: I think the thing that we all love about comedy is whenever anything bad happens, for a normal person, it's just bad. But when a bad thing happens to a comedian, they go, "This is gonna make a good bit." And anything terrible in life actually has a positive function to a comedian.

On how working on The King of Staten Island changed the way he thought of firefighters

Davidson: When I was little, when [my father died], I definitely felt that maybe it wasn't a job for people who had families, because of the consequences that could happen if, God forbid, you passed away on the job. But as I got to meet with these firemen and my dad's friends and just see how much they really loved what they were doing, and the sacrifices that they were making, and how important that job actually is, it made me feel differently towards it. And now I think a lot differently. ...

One of my dad's friends and a bunch of his colleagues were consultants on the film, and we got to be in the firehouse and I got to see the camaraderie and the friendships and the bonds that these people had with each other. They were brothers and they were going into battle together. And I just think that it's just a necessary, selfless job to have, and I think it's really important. ... And we're lucky to have people that are willing to do that. They're all heroes.

On posting on Instagram about his suicidal thoughts

Davidson: It was at a time in my life where things were very hectic, and a lot of pressure, and there wasn't a lot of kindness in the air towards me, and I think I just folded under pressure, and I had a true moment of honesty where I reached out, and I needed some help, and I just needed some things to stop.

Now, looking back, knowing that maybe posting something like that isn't the most mature thing you could do. There's certainly other ways to go about it, and I've definitely learned my lesson and know what steps to take to even preventing myself from getting into a place like that.

I didn't have the tools that I needed, or the smarts that I needed, or the information that I needed, to prevent myself from getting into a position like that. But I'm really lucky that things like that have happened because now I know how to handle them. ...

The thing about me is I'm very self-aware and sometimes a little too honest, and I think I have concerned people. And I'm not sure how to answer it, but I definitely am aware of it like that. To me, being honest and open is the best thing you could do because there's nothing to hide. But, yeah, I've definitely caused some concerns and there's certainly some things I'm not proud of. But I think those are the things that have taught me how to grow as a person.

On Davidson being the youngest cast member of SNL and feeling pressure to deliver

Davidson: I am still trying to figure out who I am as a person and as an adult, and I'm still growing and learning. But I was really lucky that I came in. And people like [SNL castmembers] Kenan [Thompson] and Kate [McKinnon] and [SNL producer] Lorne [Michaels], they really were sensitive to my age and the position I was in. And everybody really made it really comfortable for me and a very easy transition to the cast. I felt like family immediately, and they do a really good job over there at that.

Apatow: I think something that, you know, people don't talk much about is the pressure to be funny. It's really hard to deliver. The first show that I worked on ... [was] The Ben Stiller Show with Ben, and I was 24 years old when we first started it, which is a little younger than Pete is now, and we only did 13 episodes. I had no idea how to make a TV show. I was so stressed out I would sit in my room listening to self-help tapes and I would read Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. And then when I wasn't doing that, I was praying we would get canceled, because I was so tired. And then we were canceled. My dream, sadly, came true.

But Pete and I, we both started really early, but as a result, we got excellent opportunities early. But it's hard to be thrown from being basically a teenager into high-profile situations where you really have to come through. It is a real learning on the job.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.