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Showbiz knucklehead Pete Davidson explains himself – again – in 'Bupkis'

Pete Davidson (left) as a fictionalized version of himself, and Joe Pesci as Joe Larocca in <em>Bupkis.</em>
Heidi Gutman
/
Peacock
Pete Davidson (left) as a fictionalized version of himself, and Joe Pesci as Joe Larocca in Bupkis.

Watching Pete Davidson's new comedy, Bupkis, another title suggested itself: Adventures in Being a Knucklehead.

How else to describe a series where the very first joke involves Davidson's mom Amy, played by the always excellent Edie Falco, walking in on him while he's, um, pleasuring himself?

Or the scene where his agent, played by Chris O'Donnell, isn't sure Pete can be trusted to deliver a key stand-up gig sober, because he's getting high on nitrous gas in the office while they're talking?

Awkward moments like this are the backbone for a lot of the comedy in Bupkis, which streams on Peacock and features the Saturday Night Live alum playing a fictionalized version of himself, stumbling through situations like a grownup comedy star with the attention span – and drug habits – of an at-risk teenager.

But a funny thing happens on the way to jokes about hiring a sex worker for his dying grandfather and hanging out with a motor-mouthed hustler in Miami. We get a close-up look at Davidson's tortured life as a celebrity.

Facing a world that doesn't understand him

Before his mom walked in on him, Davidson started his online session by scrolling through seriously insulting headlines about himself ("The Rise of The Scumbro," an actual headline in Vanity Fair, was a particular standout).

In another sequence, a media outlet falsely reports his death, sending his mother into a panic attack. And the public's misunderstanding of his life leads to anger and self-destructive behavior, as he explains in an emotional therapy session.

Edie Falco plays Pete's mom,  Amy, in <em>Bupkis.</em>
Heidi Gutman / Peacock
/
Peacock
Edie Falco plays Pete's mom, Amy, in Bupkis.

"I get really f-----g mad at things I can't control," Davidson says. "People online are, like, Pete's a cokehead, Pete's on coke, because I move my jaw a lot when I get nervous. And I wasn't even on coke. ... Like, if you came up to me [and said] 'Yo, do you do coke?' I'd be, like, 'No.' But, like, if someone said 'Do you want to do a bump?' I'd be, like, 'Yeah.' "

So it's kind of like a drug-fueled, Gen Z version of Curb Your Enthusiasm set in Staten Island.

This fictionalized Pete Davidson lives in the basement of his mother's house, just like the real comic once did. And he also struggles with thoughts of suicide while the death of his father, a firefighter killed responding to the Sept. 11 attacks, still looms over the family.

Joe Pesci, right, plays Davidson's no-nonsense Italian grandfather in <em>Bupkis.</em>
/ Peacock
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Peacock
Joe Pesci, right, plays Davidson's no-nonsense Italian grandfather in Bupkis.

But the show's real casting coup is getting Goodfellas alum Joe Pesci to play Davidson's grandfather – a no-nonsense Italian guy dying of cancer who is always ready with some tough love when his grandson needs it.

"People think I'm, like, a joke for some reason," Davidson tells him in one scene.

"They see you as a joke because you are a joke," Pesci answers. "You act like a f-----g joke. You run around like a kid and you're not a kid anymore. You're a man."

In other words, stop being a knucklehead.

Explaining himself through comedy

This isn't the first time Davidson has tried to tell his life story on a bigger canvas; he played a more heavily fictionalized version of himself in the 2020 film The King of Staten Island.

But, in his scenes with Pesci especially, Davidson presents his clearest attempt yet to explain himself to a world determined to write him off as a talentless slacker. He doesn't hold back on depicting the stuff that makes him look terrible – blowing off work on a film shoot because he can't handle the situation without getting high.

Still, Bupkis also reminds the viewer constantly that there's a human being at the center of all the paparazzi shots and tabloid stories – even if he's a guy with terrible impulse control, a mountainous drug tolerance and a talent for surrounding himself with even worse knuckleheads.

Kenan Thompson is one of the great cameos in the show.
/ Peacock
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Peacock
Kenan Thompson is one of the great cameos in the show.

There's a boatload of other great cameos here – from Brad Garrett and Bobby Cannavale playing his relatives to inspired turns by Ray Romano, J.J. Abrams, Steve Buscemi, Kenan Thompson and more.

Sometimes, they're just comic relief – like when Sebastian Stan beats up Davidson in a coffee shop. But in other moments, they show off the twisted male role models and bizarre personal connections of a man-child celebrity coming to terms with his own strange life.

One of the series' most affecting episodes depicts Davidson as a kid, not long after the death of his father, attending the wedding of relatives and learning how adults pretend to have one set of values, but often live their lives in a different way. The episode title, "Do As I Say, Not As I Do," kinda says it all.

Thanks to the writers' strike, we won't get to see Davidson come full circle and return to host Saturday Night Live with his comedic sensibility front and center.

So fans will have to settle for Bupkis, which gathers all the contradictions of Davidson's world into one comic stew, showing that even he's not exactly sure how he got here – but the story isn't exactly what everyone expects.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.