How Judd Apatow made Pete Davidson funny again

The director of The King of Staten Island pushes the envelope with a risky comedy that pays off in laughs.

How Judd Apatow made the biggest tragedy of Pete Davidson’s life – that his father was a firefighter who died during 9/​11 – into a roiling, R‑rated comedy, is one thing. How Apatow turned Davidson, the Saturday Night Live cast member and Ariana Grande-ex who was tagged with the nickname butthole eyes”, into a sympathetic character? Nothing short of a miracle.

The 26-year-old comedian was seemingly on the outs after making one too many public jabs at his past relationship with the singer. For Apatow, long known as the cinematic meister of toilet humour, Davidson’s brand of schlock was putty he could perfectly mold. The results are brilliant.

In The King of Staten Island, Davidson excavates his personal trauma for some heavy one-liners. One joke goes: Knock knock?” Who’s there?” Not your dad!” The risky humour feels fresh, never overcooked. But more than that, Apatow has couched his signature bro-ey jokes in more grown-up interpersonal drama than in any of his prior films. Staten Island native Scott (Davidson) is an aspiring tattoo artist (read: stoner layabout) whose father died on active duty. He lives in his mother’s basement (played by Marisa Tomei) and hangs out with his crew of friends on Staten Island, New York.

There are funny bits. For example, when Scott keeps watch as his motley crew attempts to rob a pharmacy, they tell him to text U up?” as a means of warning that police are nearby. The owners of the pharmacy haven’t yet gone home for the night, so the perps hide amongst the aisles as one by one their phones buzz and beep with U up?” Every alert is signaled by a hilarious extended ringtone – one the theme from The Office – giving away their hiding spots.

Then there are powerful bits. A mother and son reminiscing about Scott’s late father; a firefighter ridealong showcasing the toils of first responders; frank conversations about growing up. Apatow has said that the film is a tribute to those frontline workers we have found so crucial during the pandemic, but the big test for Apatow fans who have come for the dick jokes – will they stay for the sentimentality?

With the premise of the film being hinged on a real death that took place during 9/​11, how did you keep the film from ending up too dark?

Well, my favourite movie is Terms of Endearment, and [director] James Brooks always said that he considered it a comedy about cancer. When you make comedies, they’re always made with a lot of concern for the character’s authenticity, the dramatic aspects. People think that comedy and drama are separate things, but really, everything is grey. All dramas should have comedy; all comedies should have drama. Just because things are very important or serious, it doesn’t mean that they also can’t be very funny.

Who came up with the knock, knock dead dad joke?

That was Ricky Velez who said that. Ricky is a brilliant comedian, he was so funny in the auditions and rehearsals that I asked him to help me punch up the script and be a consultant all the way through the process.

When you first met Pete, it was around the time you filmed Trainwreck, right?

Yeah – Amy Schumer. When we were casting Trainwreck, I asked Amy, who’s funny? And she said, [Pete] is the person you should know about. He had a cameo in Trainwreck, and he was so fun to work with that, the next day, Bill Hader called him and said, I’m going to recommend you to Lorne Michaels to be on Saturday Night Live.

Did he open up about his past quickly?

He’s very open! He has chosen in life to be an open book. I think that’s what people like about him. We worked on another script with him and his partner, Dave Sirus – a more comedic film. And then slowly, as we were talking about ideas, it started gravitating towards this. It’s hard to just leap in and ask people to do something deeply personal. So sometimes it takes years of kicking things around before people are ready to approach a sensitive topic.

I’ve heard stories about Pete doing donuts in a Camaro on the set of Big Time Adolescence. Were there any wild antics from Pete during production?

I can’t say it was a set shilled with high jinks. The last day of shooting, Pete hired a guy to roll cigars for the crew and he also brought in a tattoo artist to give free tattoos to anyone on the crew who wanted one.

Did you get one?

I did not. He was always trying to get me to get a tattoo. I’m too hairy for tattoos. But there was definitely a line around the corner – people you would never expect to want a tattoo were walking out with dragons on their forearms.

I was looking at an old TIME magazine profile of you around 2008 that says you yell suggestions to your actors until they’re so worn down, they can’t think of anything to say other than something personal or funny.

That definitely happens at times. In the past, I have done that to a point where it’s not fair to the actor or actress. I was a little more delicate on this one, although in the scenes where Pete is hanging out with all of his friends, with Lou [Wilson] and Moises [Arias] and Ricky [Velez] and Bel [Powley] and Carly [Aquilino], I wasn’t sure exactly how to get them to seem like old friends. That usually results in me shooting a crazy amount of material and then chatting and listening to what they’re saying, and then rewriting the scene on its feet and pushing them to go in certain directions. That’s how a joke will come up. The whole dynamic of the scene evolved once I saw what their chemistry was. It becomes a Curb Your Enthusiasm day.

How did you get Marisa Tomei?

I had her do a cameo in Trainwreck. There was a scene where John Cena and Amy Schumer go to the movies and they see some movie called The Dog Walker, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei – and she did it as a favour. Ever since then, I thought it would be great to find something substantial to do with her. I felt like the quality of work is so high that it elevated the entire film, because anyone who works with her knows they better be great because she is going to be great.

When we projected the movie for the first time, we noticed all this other stuff that she was doing that we couldn’t even see on our TV during editing. That was the main thing we took away when we watched the movie, like, Wow! Look, at all the stuff we don’t even know she was doing.” Her eyes would light up when she meets Bill Burr.

Towards the end of the film, there’s a ride-along firefighting sequence, which is really earnest. I know you’ve spoken about the film being a tribute to first responders but I’m wondering, how do you have an earnest moment like that and not sort of lose the bro audience, who are maybe just watching for a laugh?

I don’t worry about that because I feel like the people who go to my movies know that I’m trying to tell dramatic stories that also happen to be funny. It’s as simple as this: if you followed Pete around, most of the day would be pretty riotous and there’d be some kind of deeply emotional moment. That’s what the movie is like.

If you followed Pete around, most of the day would be pretty riotous and there’d be some kind of deeply emotional moment. That’s what the movie is like.”

I know Steve Buscemi used to be a real firefighter. Did he share any stories or expertise from actually being the guy who had the job?

He was a firefighter for four or five years before his acting career took off. And after 9/​11, you know, he went to ground zero and helped with the cleanup for a long time. He stayed very close to the firefighting community, he does a lot of charity work with a group called Friends of Firefighters. We wanted a lot of the actors in the firehouse scenes to be real firefighters. So in addition to Steve, we had several other firefighters acting in in those scenes. John Sorrentino was Pete’s dad’s best friend and we made him a consultant, and he’s an actor in the film. He’s the one who’s pulling up the tape with Pete, talking about company pride, you know that moment in the montage? It was really important to us that we got all the details right and the feel for that community. What do they do at night when they’re sleeping? What are they talking about when they’re eating? We wanted to make sure that if firefighters saw this movie, they would say, you got this exactly.

I want to ask about Pauline Chalamet [sister of Timothée, who plays Joanne in the movie] – what do you think she adds to the film?

Pauline is a great actress. I didn’t make the connection when we were casting. I had her come in and read, I wanted somebody who felt like… Their home was Maude’s character’s escape pad [daughter of Judd, who plays Claire in the movie]. You know, there’s so much stress in the house with Pete’s character that clearly Maude’s character spends a ton of time with another person’s family. And I wanted to get the feeling of intimacy very quickly. So there’s a sequence early in the movie where we realise that the party for Maude’s graduation is at her best friend’s house, and that she’s almost like another daughter to them, which is both wonderful and kind of sad, that she spends all her time with other people. And Pauline, she’s such a great person and so funny and an amazing actress. Her and Maude had instant chemistry. They felt like lifelong friends and then did become very close right away.

Lastly, this isn’t a dig at all, but why do you take so long between projects?

Sometimes you’re about to start another movie and the whole thing falls apart. And then you just need another three years to gear back up, and that’s what happened during this period of time. I also was focusing on Crashing and Love and the final seasons of Girls for a few years. On some level, I also thought I’d like to be home in LA more. My youngest daughter, Iris, has one more year of high school and I don’t think I put a lot of energy into getting another movie off the ground quickly. So hopefully it won’t take as long next time, but you never know. I find as I get older, I really don’t want to direct a movie unless I’m as passionate about it as I was the previous one. Sometimes it just takes longer to find or write those ideas.

Well, there’s time now!

Exactly. I can’t tell you I’m spending this time generating ideas, but I am generating empty Haagen-Dazs containers.

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