The first time I saw the comedian Brett Davis, he was dressed as a cupcake. It was a fairly standard Brooklyn stand-up show until he walked onstage, wearing a glittery pink cap and a skimpy round dress. He sang a cheerful tune that ended with him extending his bare arm and an invitation: “Take a lick.”
Then he waited, holding a pause long enough to veer into Harold Pinter territory and beyond. When no one took him up on his offer, he asked again, his tone shifting from sugary to aggressive as he approached a man in the audience and said pointedly: “Come on!”
The man licked him, earning an anxious laugh from the crowd. Then Mr. Davis approached another man, asking for another lick. The mood darkened. What began as a goofy character turned into something menacing as a performer dressed as a sweet snack prowled the audience bullying men to lick him. Who was this guy and what in the world was he doing?
Mr. Davis offered a hint at one point, briefly shifting into the voice of an observational comic and mentioning the now-notorious article about a woman’s date with Aziz Ansari. By turning a stand-up set into an unsafe space for men, was he making topical performance art about sexual coercion? Perhaps. But examining his broader output — which includes a weekly cable access show and a deliriously twisted podcast — what’s clear is his satirical instincts never entirely overshadow his surrealist ones. There’s always some madness to his method.
Mr. Davis, who is around 30, got his performing start as a New Jersey teenager prank-calling Tom Scharpling’s “The Best Show” — he pretended to be a rapper named MC Steinberg — and he still owes a debt to the conversational, slow-burn comedy of that influential radio program. His anarchic, unhinged characters are typically marked by a coiled energy that gradually spins out of control.
Mr. Davis died in the first episode of “The Special Without Brett Davis,” a low-budget talk show that airs in the former time slot of “The Chris Gethard Show” (where he made cameos as a hothead character named Smith). That allowed him to host the subsequent episodes playing a different wild-eyed character every time, including a nervously enthusiastic Chris Hardwick and a burned-out version of the professional wrestler Ric Flair, constantly yelling “wooooo.” (Like Andy Kaufman, who appears to have had an influence on Mr. Davis, he’s obsessed with wrestling.)
While he introduces musical performances and guest appearances by comics and journalists who often look a bit at sea interacting with Mr. Davis in character, each episode varies wildly, dominated by high concepts like an alt-right Christmas special or an award show for magicians. The show draws many of the funniest off-kilter performers from New York comedy (Cole Escola, Mary Houlihan, Jo Firestone, Conner O’Malley), and as you might expect from young comics, they’re at their most scathing taking shots at the establishment comedy world. But reinventing the hourlong show every week on a shoestring leads to wildly uneven, often amateurish productions, packed full of moments of inspiration that don’t last long.
“The Podcast for Laundry,” a darkly funny spoof of niche podcasting that doubles as a cracked portrait of a damaged, delusional misanthrope, is a tighter, more distilled example of Mr. Davis’s peculiarly assaultive comedy. In every episode, Mr. Davis, or an obnoxious, inept version of himself, talks to a friend in a laundromat about washing clothes. As in “The Special,” Mr. Davis delights in hackneyed showbiz talk, catchphrases (he tries hard to make “yaas, honey” a thing) and industry jargon. After asking his guests a question, he often immediately interrupts them, saying, “Hold for bumper,” referring to a brief ad that never actually shows up. His segments include “What’s Your Terge?” where guests discuss their preferred detergent, and “Bleach, Please,” where they talk about something that bothers them about laundry. Each episode is filled with banter gone horribly wrong.
“Podcast for Laundry” is a satire of podcasting, but only in the way that “Larry Sanders” sends up talk shows: T his is its starting place. But where Mr. Davis takes it is characteristically bizarre. Over the last two months, the podcast has seemed less like distinct episodes than chapters in the story of a sociopath. He struggles; alienates friends; moves to Los Angeles, where he can’t find work or even a place to stay, while running into trouble with the law. While he can be a brusque jerk, there’s pathos to his performance as he becomes increasingly desperate, lashing out at his guests or at various resentments.
His best guests are clued in to this dynamic and play straight men. In a superb performance that evokes her father Chris Elliott’s work on “Late Night With David Letterman,” Bridey Elliott tries and fails to stage an intervention with Mr. Davis, expressing concern that gradually turns to despair and fear. When she says that it seems as if he hasn’t taken a shower in a while, he responds with operatic self-pity.
“I am a monster,” he says. “I am the laundry monster. And I’ll never be clean.”
Mr. Davis has a gift for manufacturing hostility that quickly turns absurd. But what makes him compelling is how committed he is to his performance — never breaking character and persuading you of the reality of whatever extreme emotion he reaches for, no matter how ridiculous the situation. When he confessed his love to a bottle of Tide, it seemed like a silly joke, but it has blossomed into a long arc, a romance that everyone he talks to finds funny, then disturbing.
In a live taping of the podcast on Sunday at Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, Kevin McDonald, a former member of Kids in the Hall, officiated a wedding between Mr. Davis and his detergent. This ceremony ended characteristically, with a burst of violence that spilled out into the hallway of the theater when a police officer character arrested him, shoving him against the wall.
But first there was the baffling tenderness between a man and his Tide. Mr. Davis gazed at the bottle, caressing it. When he kissed the cap, he lingered, in a way that was halfway between creepy and silly. But clearly this love affair has issues. Looking sheepish, he confessed: “I have looked at other bottles.”
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