Starting as a walk-on bit for the former The Chris Gethard Show, in a year’s time The Special Without Brett Davis has taken on a life of its own. Despite the constantly changing cast of characters and format, Davis has formulated a distinct brand of off-kilter comedy. But, The Special Without Brett Davis is more than just a public access sketch comedy show. It’s a modern variety show. It’s as close to a DIY, “punk rock” attitude as you can get with a late night show, one that seamlessly mixes comedy (a mixture of improv and sketch) and music. “In the early conversations about [The Special Without Brett Davis], we were trying to find ways to distance ourselves from the Gethard Show," says Davis. "But the one thing that we wanted to keep was the music, because all of the key members of the show—me, and my co-writer, Darren, who books the bands now, our show runner Frank—we all come from sort of a music background, in one way or another.” Despite the fact that he has never played in any bands, Davis owes a lot to the New Brunswick DIY punk scene. It’s where he got his start.“I think coming into comedy can be alienating for somebody who came in from another background in art or performance, because so much of comedy is shitty. I mean, to get your start, you have to go to a bunch of open mics, and open mics are filled with very sad people, so I would just open for my friends’ bands. It’s not the ideal way to start out in comedy, but I also didn’t have to cut my teeth hanging out at shitty open mics. It’s just another way of performing. Generally, it would go over well. You’d always get the audience that just wants to see a band, but nine times out of ten, people were respectful of what I was trying to do, even if I was making fun of them.”
Making fun of his crowd is key to Davis’s comedy and, despite his clear love for the scene, punk serves as one of Davis’s best targets. It makes sense, as Davis describes, since people in punk don’t always have a sense of humor about themselves. Punks make easy targets, especially young and naïve ones. Borderline anarchistic ideas are twisted through one of Davis’s reoccurring characters, Craig Evanhalen. Craig is a self-described “enigmatic genius,” an “angry young man,” whose goals are “subverting status quos” and “waking up the silent majority.” Craig is loud, he’s passionate, but, most importantly, Craig’s an asshole. Every scene has its own Craig, and that’s where the brilliance of his character shines. You’ll find yourself starting to sympathize with him, even agree with him, but then it’ll suddenly be clear that this guy has no idea what he is saying. For anyone who has spent any significant time inside of dark, sweaty basement shows, Craig will feel scarily real and amusing. Whether you detest punk or love it, you’ll enjoy hating Craig.
To get an intimate sense of the show, I was invited behind the scenes on a recent episode, yet another that centered around the character of Craig. Entering the “writers' room,” I caught the motley crew of performers huddled around the corner of a comically large conference table. They were still preparing for the show that night, which included writing the music Craig’s makeshift band would be performing. The cast that night was a mixture of notable faces from both the local comedy and punk scenes, which only added to the writers'-room-meets-shitty-band-practice atmosphere. The important task to be completed was perfecting their “punk riff,” which either needed to be “faster” or “shittier,” although I think the answer was both. Another cast member was preparing for his role as Ed Wound—a thinly veiled nod to famed frontman GG Allin—by smearing a mixture of shit (Nutella) and blood (ketchup) on the jockstrap he was planning on wearing. I caught up with Davis shortly following the taping, to learn more about who Craig was.
Noisey: Where did the idea for Craig come from?
Brett Davis: I was living in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and I was seeing a lot of the “rich kid slumming it as a punk kid,” I was just seeing that type of guy a lot. I thought it was really funny. And just the whole people in punk not really having a sense of humor about things. I kind of wanted to parody all of that. The thing that kind of started it was that my friend’s house was always a spot where just friends’ bands would play. Occasionally, a bigger touring act would come in, and this band called Emily’s Army got booked. Emily’s Army featured the son of Billie Joe Armstrong, and for some reason, they were huge with the tween community, and we got all these 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old kids showing up with their parents. So I rushed and grabbed whatever punk costume, because I wanted to dress like it was my first punk show too. So my friend gave me this Limp Wrist shirt and she was like, “Hey, you’ll find a use for this some day,” and I grabbed this like Beatles wig, I just fucked it.
So I went to the show, and it was great. It was like Nuclear Santa Claust playing in front of 13-year-old kids. Then, Emily’s Army gets up to play, and they all take off their shirts off for the show. [Pause] I don’t know why. [Laughs] They have their guitar cases lined up on the basement floor so they could have a barrier between them and their fans. And I ran up just before they were getting ready to play—I got permission from the house, but not from the guy booking the show—Joe Steinhardt from Don Giovanni, although I am not sure he would even remember or put it together, because I was just in character yelling at him. So I went up there and I was just like, “Hey guys, before this show starts, I want to do some spoken word poetry.” And I just did the dumbest thing from stuff I had just pieced together from rants I had heard kids in college talk about. It was really dumb, but the kids were in to it. One of the parents came up to me after and was like, “Hey, I work a 9 to 5 job. I am one of those corporate drones, and I needed to hear that.” And Billie Joe’s son came up to me after and was like, “That was pretty rad,” and I was like, “You needed to hear that most of all.”
So the joke kind of went over most people’s heads, which kind of makes it funnier.
Yeah, and someone who was at that show wanted to make a film about that character. So we got people together to form his band, and we went to SXSW and made a movie called BANANAZZZ. It was like their whole inception to their first show, where Craig has a massive mental breakdown.
I think the joke hits really close to home with a lot of actual punks involved. Does it ever hit too close for some of the people involved?
Yeah, but the thing about Craig is that he is so insincere about everything that if someone is offended by that particular take on punk, then they are just a shitty person. So much of that is just my love of that stuff, but through the lens of somebody who just doesn’t get it. I always am worried about that with other things, but I try to have an educated background in something before I take it on and make fun of it. I did an episode with juggalos and I was like, “If I am going to do a show about juggalos, I better know my shit, because I am going to know what makes them tick, know all the slang, and do it.” Because, then, if it turns out bad, at least I am not uninformed.
Joe Yanick is on Twitter, fighting the establishment. Follow him at @JoeYanick.