Ricky Velez first met Pete Davidson performing after-prom comedy shows for uninterested high-school kids.
“Nobody’s paying attention,” he says of those shows. “But they liked us. They liked me and Pete because the other comics on the show were, like, 40.”
Davidson was just 16 years old at the time and Velez was 20. “Right away, we clicked,” he says. “He’s family to me. He’s the godfather of my son. We were just two native New Yorkers, young kids in the game, and we were definitely a lot younger than the people we were around.”
“We did good, fast,” Velez, who co-stars as a version of himself in Davidson’s new film The King of Staten Island, continues. “We started moving fast within the walls of comedy. We loved it. We always talk about how those were always the simpler times and the most fun.”
In those days, they shared an apartment in Brooklyn Heights. “Any cup was an ashtray,” he recalls. “It was so frustrating because you would go sip your water you were just drinking and you would swallow a cigarette. It was so disgusting.”
“He’s just a great guy,” he says, “and I’m very, very lucky to have him as my best friend.”
Just a few days before that film’s on-demand release, Velez Zooms onto my computer screen wearing a white NASA sweatshirt and black Yankees cap. He finally fled his hometown of New York City for Florida this week after three months in lockdown.
“I have a 2-year-old and just being stuck in an apartment with him was really hard,” he says. “So we just needed to get into a house and have some space. I’m happy to be here, but I don’t love leaving New York ever, especially with what’s been going on.”
He explains that while he donated some money to Black Lives Matter groups, he decided against going out into the streets to protest. “You know, when I started seeing people get hurt, my biggest fear is not being here for my child,” he says. “So I never, ever want to possibly put that at risk, so I did not.”
Leaving New York was also an easier decision given that he hasn’t had the chance to perform stand-up comedy in over three months. “It definitely hurts,” he says of life without stand-up.
“I think comedy is amazing the way it is,” Velez adds. “I see people doing these Zoom shows and all these other things. I’m not ever going to take away what makes stand-up so magical. It’s the only art form that cannot be practiced without an audience. So I don’t like playing with it. I don’t like dismantling what it is.”
Even during filming for The King of Staten Island, Velez and Davidson would perform stand-up on weekends out of town. By the time the shoot was over, director Judd Apatow had committed to producing Velez’s first hour-long special for HBO. He was scheduled to shoot it less than a month after the country went into full-on coronavirus shutdown.
“April 9 was a sad day in my home,” Velez says of the original date he was supposed to tape the hour in Brooklyn. “I’m never not going to do my special in New York City. It’s where I’m from, it’s where I’m raised, it’s where I’m comfortable and it’s my favorite place to do stand-up.”
In HBO’s official announcement this week that the special will tape later this year, Apatow calls Velez a “brilliantly funny and insightful comedic voice,” adding, “I am so excited to get to work with him on his first HBO special.”
When he does finally get the chance to film his special, Velez knows he’ll have to change some jokes given how much the world has changed over the past few months. “I can’t be like, ‘I was just in an airport,’” he says as an example. “The whole world knows that I wasn’t in an airport. I also wonder, are the crowds going to be so over hearing anything about COVID?”
Of course, Velez already has one coronavirus bit that he tries out on me. “Is this a hangover or is it COVID?” he asks. “For the first month, I played that game. ‘I’m pretty sure I have COVID.’ No, you drank a bottle of tequila.”
Six years ago, Davidson joined the cast of Saturday Night Live at just 20 years old. “When he got SNL, it just didn’t seem real,” Velez says. “It was just like, what do you mean? It wasn’t even an idea in our minds. That was something so far out of our grasp and thought.”
“I mean, I have told media outlets that I don’t know nor like Pete, because they’ve called me so many times.”
Four months later, Velez landed a gig as a contributor on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.
“That was big for me,” he says of getting the opportunity to be part of what was perhaps the most diverse late-night show in history. But after just a year and a half on the air, Comedy Central gave it the axe.
“I thought we had more time,” Velez says, before sharing his unvarnished thoughts about the state of late-night television in 2020.
“I don’t mean to piss anybody off, but truly, I think everybody thinks the format of Jon Stewart is what was great. And the truth of the matter is, it was Jon,” he says in the midst of this moment when America’s white male late-night hosts are publicly confronting their own privilege. “Jon, in this time, would be able to say something now that wouldn’t feel generic or put on. Those shows, they kind of don’t do it for me anymore.”
“And the thing is, there’s a lot of people that aren’t even American talking about America,” he adds with a subtle dig at Stewart’s Daily Show successor Trevor Noah, along with John Oliver, Samantha Bee and James Corden. “I mean, I think these people are very funny and the writers are very funny, but I don’t know. I think late-night has a lot of trouble now based on the lack of change—the lack of diversity and change. What’s really changed in late-night over the past 20 years?”
He does allow that Stephen Colbert is “such an artist that he’s undeniable at all times,” adding, “Any platform you give that man, he’s going to do great.”
While The Nightly Show was short-lived, Davidson is still riding high at SNL and has become a tabloid sensation due mostly to his very public relationship with singer Ariana Grande.
“People act like Pete acts like he hates it,” Velez says of the intense media scrutiny that has come with Davidson’s fame. “He truly hates it. Sometimes that stuff can be really tough. I mean, I have told media outlets that I don’t know nor like Pete, because they’ve called me so many times.” He remembers one time when a random guy sat down at the bar of a comedy club and started asking him questions about Davidson. Only later did he find out the man was a reporter.
“That media stuff is crazy,” he adds. “It’s also crazy how, at times it’s twisted. And it’s not about the story as much as it is about the volume of clicks. So they will say things that truly did not happen. And then the ramifications are for us to deal with. And that’s a little bit unfair. Does it affect my life? Yeah, there was paparazzi at my wedding, but other than that, no.”
Velez has spent time on the road over the past few years opening for both Davidson and Aziz Ansari. And like those more famous comics, he recently decided to delete his Twitter account. “That’s not what I’m here for,” he says. “I write jokes. I’m not my own commercial. I’m not an advertiser.” He says Twitter “wasn’t bringing anything to my life that was valuable.”
Davidson wrote the role of Oscar in The King of Staten Island with Velez in mind. But he still had to audition for it. “Me and Judd did not have a rapport at all,” he says. “So when I auditioned for him, we had seen each other at the Comedy Cellar, I’d said hi to him, but we did not really have a relationship.”
After he found out he’d officially booked the role, he got a phone call out of nowhere from Apatow. “I’m just sitting in bed with my wife and I’ll never forget it,” he says. When he saw the California number, he almost didn’t pick it up. When he realized who it was his first thought was, “Why is he calling me? Is he taking back the part?”
Instead, Apatow told him he wanted him to come help punch-up the script—essentially adding jokes scene-by-scene to make it funnier. “That turned into me shadowing Judd the whole entire movie,” Velez says. They would ride back and forth from Manhattan to Staten Island every day working on bits for that day’s scenes. “I took a masterclass in making a movie this last summer from Judd Apatow.”
Apropos to a movie whose main character is an aspiring tattoo artist, Velez ended up getting a quote from Apatow tattooed on himself at the end of the shoot: “A good idea needs very little explanation.”
“What Judd does the best is he creates an environment that allows people to be the most creative they can be,” Velez says. “And I think that’s why this movie is so special.”
Despite studying theater from a young age, Velez had very little professional acting experience before The King of Staten Island. But he stands out as Davidson’s perpetually stoned, bad influence of a friend. “Dude, if I never have to smoke prop weed again, I’ll be a very happy man,” he says laughing.
But while he wants to do more acting down the line, right now he’s laser-focused on getting his stand-up special in the can. That may even mean breaking his rule about taping in New York.
“Even if I have to film it at a retirement community in Boca, it’s going to happen,” he says. “I promise you.”