Pete Davidson, Adrien Brody and the Danger of Ad-Libbing on Saturday Night Live

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The genius and beauty of Saturday Night Live is that it is a cold, impersonal, efficiently mediocre comedy machine that has been refined by some of the safest minds in late night comedy over a period of decades. 

One of the things that makes Lorne Michaels’ venerable show biz institution so dependably predictable and surprise-free is its famous fear of ad-libbing and improvisation. Michaels understandably reckons that it is impossible to improve upon the truth and beauty and, let’s face it, savagery of a written Saturday Night Live sketch and insulting to the writer to try. 

But every once in while there is a glitch in the matrix and a young performer gets too high, screws up and forgets Lorne Michaels’ fierce, vitriolic hatred of spontaneity and risk, either by madly streaking for glory by doing shtick not pre-approved or rehearsed or by panicking and dropping an F bomb. 

You can fired for both offenses. Damon Wayans got the boot when he decided it’d be funny to make a background character he was playing an effeminate homosexual, paving the way for his success on In Living Color. In 1981 Charles Rocket ended a Charlene Tilton-hosted episode by saying in character as J.R about the show’s episode-long riff on the big “Who Shot J.R?” fad, "Oh, man, it's the first time I've ever been shot in my life. I'd like to know who fuckin' did it.” and got the old heave ho for his potty-mouthed insouciance. 

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Most recently Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson ruffled some feathers and outraged some folks by quipping that Republican Congressional candidate Dan Crenshaw—who has an eye-patch after losing an eye in Afghanistan—looked like a "hitman in a porno movie," going on to say, "I'm sorry, I know he lost his eye in war” before ad-libbing “or whatever.” 

It was not the greatest bit to begin with, and, at the risk of being cruel, Davidson was perhaps not its ideal messenger, having the most punchable face this side of Mitch McConnell and Richard Spencer (of getting punched in the face infamy) and the flippant “whatever” took what was already in questionable taste and tilted it unmistakably in the direction of callously mocking the sacrifices of a veteran. 

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a single sketch that Davidson has appeared in, let alone a whole episode showcasing his dazzling gifts. I’ve experienced him exclusively through still images and gossipy internet posts and ascertained that he’s annoyingly famous for looking like a douchebag and saying and doing wildly offensive things or whatever.

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But my favorite case of someone on Saturday Night Live seeking comic nirvana by ad-libbing and improvising wildly is undoubtedly when the previously respected, previously sane Adrien Brody decided that he’d give everyone a laugh, and a surprise by delivering his introduction to musical guest Sean Paul in character as a mildly offensive/racist Halloween costume appropriation of a funky Rastafarian, complete with fake dreadlocks and Jamaican flag wristbands stammering, “Ya, ya, ya, ya, you know, man. We got original rude boy Sean Paul here. Respect all respect. My auntie. Respect all aspect, respect me neck, respect me knees, Big up Jamaica massive! Big up Kingston Massive! We got the whole family now, ya here! Big respect to my man Sean Paul the dance floor killer!” 

It’s less than a minute but it seems to last a lifetime. Brody seems to think that there’s nothing more to comedy than donning moderately racist garb, carefully applying some invisible blackface and then nervously mumbling a lot of words and phrases he imagines Jamaicans use.

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It’s one of the most staggeringly tone-deaf performances and unwise decisions in the history of contemporary comedy, which is why I never stop thinking about it for long. And when the Oscar winner chose of his own volition to portray Flirty Harry in inAPPropriate Comedy and blew his acclaim and prestige reinventing himself as a C-list action star I can’t say I was terribly surprised.

Brody showed us who he was in those infamous twenty or thirty seconds introducing a forgettable performance with a bit of calamitous improvisation that will, unfortunately for Brody, never be forgotten and stands as a harrowing cautionary warning of the dangers of ignoring the big boss man and following your own muse with some wacky improvisation on a show that not strongly discourages it but actively, and in Brody’s case, deservedly sometimes bans people foolish enough to try. 

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