Passing on the Pete Davidson Pile-on

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Saturday Night Live Set By Rex Sorgatz, via Wikimedia Commons

To be truly outraged by something - not just your average social media hot take outraged, but truly incensed - means that not only the thing you are upset about is important enough to affect you to action, but also that you take the person that did the offending serious enough to let them provoke you.

In the case of Pete Davidson, I don’t, and I won’t.

Davidson is a current cast member on Saturday Night Live. On the 3 November 2018 episode, he was participating in the long-running “Weekend Update” segment. Now, there was a bit of meta casting in his appearance. His high-profile romance with singer Arianna Grande had recently ended, making the usual celebrity-centric headlines. He addressed it in a humorous, and frankly classy way, which he tucked into the end of a bit where he was running down the upcoming midterm elections.

Specifically, making fun of the appearance of the candidates in the upcoming election. Just for context here is the full piece:

It’s that third one that got the backs up of some on social media and elsewhere.

I thought it was terrible. It wasn’t funny, and the “or whatever” is a perfect punctuation to how completely tone deaf you have to be to make a joke about a veteran’s war wound. The mannerisms and smugness of it played into every millennial stereotype you can think of. It wasn’t good natured roasting, or clever, or even relevant to a larger point or setup. It was sad, if we are going to be honest about it, that this young guy who is in a spot most in his profession of comedy would fall short of reaching uses it to do that. Most normal people know that’s just not an area you can mine for comedic material in a public setting.

But I refuse to be outraged on this one, and you might consider doing the same, both on this issue and the next time something similar happens.

Dan Crenshaw is the Republican candidate for the 2nd Congressional district in Texas (TX-2). A retired and highly decorated Navy Officer, Crenshaw notably spent 10 years as a SEAL, and the eye patch in question came about from wounds sustained from an IED blast during his 3rd deployment. He would return to duty after recovering from those wounds to serve 2 more deployments.

The SNL skit isn’t the first to run afoul of Crenshaw’s appearance. During a contentious primary fight in TX-2, a group running ads in favor Crenshaw’s opponent, Kevin Roberts, made the mistake of running ads only showing the veteran from the left side, hiding the patch that covers a glass eye. Local media noticed, Crenshaw’s campaign parried it into a “veteran vs officeholder” narrative, and the incident was an interesting footnote in Robert’s 70%-30% trouncing.

Crenshaw also carries serious credentials beyond his service. The first-time office seeker holds degrees from Tufts and a MPA from Harvard, writes his own policy position papers, and has already caught the eye of party higher-ups for national security roles should he win. From The Houston Chronicle:

That pedigree has national political campaign strategists like Dan Conston itching to get Crenshaw into the U.S. Capitol Building. Conston is a veteran of U.S. Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and helped get U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio elected to the Senate in 2010. Rubio and McCain are two of Congress’s go-to voices on foreign policy.

“Crenshaw has the potential to be a national security star almost immediately, has the profile of a next-generation Republican leader, and has policy depth far beyond most politicians,” said Conston, who helped organize a Super PAC called American Patriots that spent more than $500,000 to help Crenshaw.

All that background is mostly just to point out that Dan Crenshaw will be just fine, and I suspect will benefit greatly from this episode, as he did the earlier one during the primaries. In fact, Crenshaw is getting to make the rounds on the news, responding to the skit and then pivoting to his campaign message. He will benefit from the disrespectful foolishness of Davidson. On the follow Monday he appeared on CNN’s New Day:

Crenshaw is very sharp, great on TV, and as you would expect with his background very disciplined in appearance and messaging. His interviews and statements since the controversy have been pitch perfect, hitting the right tone of defending veterans in general while deflecting any personal outrage. In this instance, Crenshaw showed the rare political acumen of being not only righteous, but secure enough in it to not wield it as a weapon. It could be a textbook example of how to handle such a situation when someone crosses the line of socially acceptable behavior.

There are seemingly very few lines of what is/is not socially acceptable these days. Mocking a wounded war vet for their injuries is a line the vast majority of people in our country will not cross.

But cross it Pete Davidson did.

When Davidson joined SNL in 2014 at the age of twenty he was one of the youngest cast members ever, and the first to be born in the ’90s. His father had been a firefighter whose death in the 9/11 attacks was the defining event of a then 7 year old life. He openly, both in interviews and his comedy, discusses that tragedy along with years of drug use and mental health struggles. Among other things, Davidson tells of how being misdiagnosed as bipolar along with his chronic marijuana usage led to what he felt like was a full mental breakdown, before getting clean and being re-diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in the fall of 2017:

“I should’ve just said, ‘I’m quitting weed,’ because now people think I do drugs,” he said. “I’m very embarrassed at this point.”

Three months after going clean, however, Davidson still felt the same, and was formally diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having borderline personality disorder, or BPD. As a result, he is taking a new medication geared toward helping him manage his BPD.

“It is working, slowly but surely,” he said. “I’ve been having a lot of problems. This whole year has been a fucking nightmare. This has been the worst year of my life, getting diagnosed with this and trying to figure out how to learn with this and live with this.”

Davidson’s background here isn’t to excuse him, but to lend some context. This is who he his and what he does. He pushes boundaries. He jokes about his own father’s death and many other uncomfortable and shocking topics. Notably in the bit above he included himself, along with self-depreciating humor. This is not a new or unique approach to comedy, although it very much is a subject for individual taste.

When it comes to the actual skit, The Washington Post provides a transcript of the bit in question:

Davidson seemed to be aware of Crenshaw’s background during Saturday’s “Weekend Update” segment, in which he gave his “first impressions” of various candidates running in this election cycle.

“This guy is kind of cool, Dan Crenshaw,” Davidson said, as an image of Crenshaw wearing an eye patch flashed on the screen.

His co-host, Michael Che, chuckled and said, “Yo, come on.”

“Hold on,” Davidson replied. “You may be surprised to hear he’s a congressional candidate from Texas and not a hit man in a porno movie.”

The audience laughed.

“I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war, or whatever,” Davidson added, shrugging and grinning. “Whatever.”

Everyone will parse that out how they see fit.

Is it disrespectful? Absolutely

Is it horrible to mock a wounded warrior? Sure is.

Should all Americans go out of their way to be thankful amd respectful to vets? You betcha.

Should citizens have to or be forced to do so?

No. Absolutely not.

Especially comedians. Now maybe Pete Davidson is just a vile wretched soul who has spent years waiting for the moment he could really stick it to wounded vets on national TV and make the nation mock and laugh at them.

But I doubt it.

Taking what we know of him, this strikes me much more as ignorance and inconsideration than malice. As bad as I might find it to be, it’s consistent with his usual schtick. It’s fair to expand a critique of this incident to SNL and NBC, who have the say on what makes air, and should know when to - maybe - reel in the talent they otherwise tell to push the boundaries and create viral moments.

But I can’t even manage too much anger at that. Decrying the hypocrisy that SNL would have never mocked a Democrat this way might well be true, but there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around when it comes to waving veterans as a public issue. Many of the same social media accounts screaming for Pete Davidson’s head didn’t seem to have a problem when then-candidate Donald Trump mocked John McCain’s POW status and war record. Democrat
Richard Blumenthal still serves in the US Senate despite repeated and proven false statements about service in Vietnam. Then there is the tragic absurdity of all political sides failing to do anything of meaning about veterans actually dying, both by their own hand and the systematic incompetence and neglect of the VA healthcare system. That second link and it’s figure of 307k dead veterans is from 2015, and after the splashy headlines nothing, as usual, has really changed in the interim 3 years. The list could go on and on. Point is the rhetoric of veterans sure seems to be much more important and have more value than the actual care for the veterans themselves.

So I’ll pass on getting overly worked up over a comedian who made a classless, unfunny joke. I wish he would have extended the class he showed towards his celebrity ex-girlfriend to Dan Crenshaw. But I agree with the congressional aspirant in this regard; I don’t want Davidson to apologize either. He could take the suggestion Crenshaw made on CNN of fundraising for veterans causes and organizations, but I have a better idea.

Davidson should go spend time with actual veterans. There are plenty of VA facilities that would welcome him. If he did, he would find a lot of kindred spirits not in experiences, but those that suffer with similar issues of drug abuse, mental health, physical ailments, and loss of loved ones. He would find something else too; the dark humor Pete Davidson uses is fairly common amongst vets who, like Pete, use it to deal with and feel empowered with situations outside their control. They just don’t do it publicly and for the laughter of outsiders. In a private setting and after gaining trust, they’ll eat it up and laugh along with him. Maybe then, instead of an apology that was out of duress, Davidson could instead talk openly about what he learned from the experience. Maybe he could actually continue his own healing process from the experience. Context, with humor as it is with everything else, is everything.

Written by

Writer. Mountaineer diaspora. Vet. Managing Editor @ordinarytimemag, Writings found @arcdigi & elsewhere. Writing about food, folks, & faith at Yonder & Home

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