In Pete Davidson’s recent performance at Binghamton University, he remarked that he would be bullied by the school’s newspaper after the show was over. While we criticize more often than we praise in our editorials, we do so with the hopes of being constructive, and so the Editorial Board felt it necessary to take up his challenge by examining both his prior conduct and the performance itself.
Pete Davidson has made questionable comments in the past few months to years, which have become the crux of college criticism against him. The Student Association Programming Board (SAPB) did a great job recruiting Chris Fleming for a comedy show, who drew in a similarly sized crowd while lacking a reputation for being “problematic,” but there’s more to Davidson’s story than that. The SAPB’s decision to acquire Pete Davidson was well before some of his recent missteps, and SAPB comedy chair Jillian Pizzuto said they did so because they felt that they wanted to find a comedian that much of the student body would enjoy, despite the controversy.
Davidson’s performance at the University of Central Florida is the most recent event to have raised some eyebrows. He reportedly scolded a student in the midst of his set, reprimanding them for using their phone to take photos and videos of him, but cast it off as part of the routine. This brings up two interesting issues surrounding celebrity: How much privacy are performers entitled to, and how culpable is Davidson for making jokes not everyone finds funny?
For Davidson’s performance at BU, students were asked to not take out their phones during his comedy show, likely because of what happened at UCF. The issue is that, as BU is a public university and thus a public space, the implications of limiting phone use in this way is questionable. Furthermore, enforcing such a rule seems tedious and unnecessary, and might be better fit as a suggestion or general act of courtesy on behalf of those in attendance. One can imagine the analogue of being denied the ability to use a phone when attending a paid concert, where many people have made the terrible habit of recording the entire show on Snapchat for all to see. Going as far as to bar the press from taking photos of the event is even stranger, but not necessarily something worth demonizing him for.
On the other side of the argument, Davidson is a person like anyone else and should be treated with the same respect. Any celebrity is entitled to ask for those observing them, even in paid performances, to be considerate of their boundaries. This is, however, a two-way argument, and applies to how Davidson should treat the criticism he receives from his audiences with equal respect. Just as he may feel targeted for his performances, so do the people he targets with his ill-thought-through use of the word “retarded” to describe college students at UCF. His appearance at BU is an opportunity to reconsider our relationship with comedians like him who mock, but cannot handle being mocked.
Some attendees have said that Davidson’s show included an admission that this would be his second-to-last show on college campuses, ever. Feeling that he cannot freely do his comedy routine appears to have worn him down, as evidenced by his displeasure at being constantly in the gaze of cameras and his expressed frustration at cutting his content for his audience. He has admitted to his mental health struggles, which have entered his comedy just as it has for the people in the generation he jokes with. Not everything he has said can be so easily dismissed, however, as he’s gone as far as to make jokes that fall inches short of threatening his ex-fiancée, Ariana Grande, by implying he’d trick her into becoming pregnant. When he oversteps that line, it’s not grounds for calling young people incapable of laughing without looking over their shoulder — it’s a chance to recognize how comedy is a careful craft fraught with mistakes that won’t be resolved unless they’re understood as errors. On that same note, students laughed at his jokes about self-harm more than many of his other bits, which, while part of his comedy, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously by those attending his shows.
While the Editorial Board does not approve of the supposed jokes he has made at the expense of women and the mentally ill, we recognize that it does not mean he has forfeited the right to ask his audience to respect what makes him comfortable. Conversely, just because Davidson is a comedian doesn’t mean that he should say whatever he wants and not deal with the consequences. If he so chooses, he could easily address his past blunders with an apology rather than disdain. We only wish that his decision to abstain from performing at colleges was for reflection, or even a personal break, instead of a retreat from his perceived limitations with a single demographic.