Bupkis Production Designer, Joshua Petersen On The Myth Of Pete Davidson’s Basement
June 7, 2023

Written by Owen Danoff, ScreenRant

The hilarious and at times heartbreaking Bupkis is one of Pete Davidson’s best projects to date. In a similar vein to the excellent FXX show Dave, Bupkis mines heart and humor alike for its fictionalized adaptation of its subject’s real life. The eight-episode series also boasts a fantastic guest cast that includes Joe Pesci, Steve Buscemi, and even Al Gore.

Bupkis blurs reality due to the very nature of its concept, which resulted in an interesting opportunity for production designer Joshua Petersen. In addition to location scouting across Staten Island for the external shots and overall aesthetic of Bupkis, Petersen recreated Pete Davidson’s basement and mother’s house from scratch for the series, even adding to each room to better suit the fictionalized aspects of the story. A self-proclaimed SNL lover, Petersen has also worked with other alums including Michael Che on the comedian’s own show That Damn Michael Che.

Joshua Petersen spoke with Screen Rant about the myth of Pete Davidson, exploring Staten Island, and more Bupkis set secrets.

Screen Rant: Because this is both autobiographical and fictional, how much of what you're using is a set, and how much is an actual location?

Joshua Petersen: This show itself is a fun game of "guess the build". There's some stuff in there that is real, and then there's some stuff that we just built, that I had a really good time building. That's kind of my bread and butter as a designer; I love constructing sets from scratch, even if it's just a domestic space. I love building that stuff, because I love introducing the detail into every aspect of it and getting as granular as possible for our stage builds.

We built Pete's basement and the upstairs of that house. Although I went to those locations--I went to Amy's house, got a look around, and went in the basement and saw all that stuff--these aren't places that are very conducive for shooting a television show. The basement itself is this storied, almost mythological idea in people's heads, so it's a really fun exercise to see the real one and then just be like, "Let's make the myth that's in my head a reality," and start putting that to paper. [It was fun] working with my team to flesh that out; we went pretty ham on that, and it was really fun. I was just really thrilled with where we got with that; I think everybody did a really beautiful job.

And then [in] connecting that to the upstairs of the house, to Amy's side of it, it's like, "Where do we find the family roots here, and where do we ground this in reality?" Those two sets speak to each other really well; I think there's really good communication between the color stories there, and [I like] the sort of conflicting but congruent vibes of the two spaces.

Other than that, we were all over Staten Island. We found a lot of spaces that are real. That's also a really fun exercise in the research process of something like this. It's like, "I'm going to go wander around Staten Island and see what I find, and just drink in what I'm seeing." That kind of research informs how our graphic design works; the show logo is kind of like a play on the Staten Island Ferry, and a lot of our design comes from old signs that I stumbled upon just wandering around. [I looked at] old ghost ads, and the peeling paint aspect of Staten Island where you get these advertisements or signage from the late '80s, early '90s that has been kind of sun-baked for decades. That really comes into play in the show's design, especially when we go into the flashback moments, and how that world gets built out.

Jumping back to what you were saying about the basement being a mythological space. Were there specific things that you were excited about putting in that set as a way to contribute to that?

Joshua Petersen: The basement itself is kind of riddled with Easter eggs, one of them being... I don't want to call it a signature thing, but it's the second time that I've done it. When we get into the real macro details of a set, and I'm like, "I'd love to have a neon over here and a neon over here," and I can't get super specific because of time, eventually, those generalities come back to kind of bite me in the ass. Somebody's eventually asking me, 'So what should the neon be?" and sometimes I'll just scribble [something] on a piece of paper. It's happened twice now where that's just the word ***k, and then I just do it in a different handwriting. So that kind of thing is in there. But they always play, because it's something nobody's expecting to see go up on the wall. I haven't been asked to remove them yet, so that's going great.

We [also] made some custom gold and platinum record-type plaques that go in there. Everything in there is custom-made; there are some artwork from artists that we know and work with quite a bit. The space itself just really lends itself to, "Anything can be in here." Nothing will feel super out of place. The things that were nods to the real basement were, like, this stuffed alien doll that sits in a corner.

There are a lot of brushstrokes there that play into it, but I wanted a little bit more of a robust, basement arcade, big-style setup. We actually put a Sopranos pinball machine down there and then made a new logo wrap for the outside. Nobody's caught it yet, so I'm just going to out it now. I was really hoping that a real eagle-eyed observer would be able to see the play field through the glass, which we didn't alter, and be able to recognize that it's actually a Sopranos pinball machine in disguise. We obviously had to wrap the picture of Edie Falco that's on the side of it.


Joshua Petersen: Immediately next to it is the other big nod there, which is a very strange art piece that I came up with. In the real basement, there's a nine-panel painting of Tony Soprano smoking a cigar. He's in a black field, sitting on a stool, and he's holding a naked woman. That was some of the only artwork that was on the walls down there. I was just kind of standing there staring at it, and I'm just like, "Well, obviously I'm not going to do that." I was trying to pick up some pieces that I can work with.

What I started doing instead was [that] I started using some AI software to generate images of different characters and people that I thought might be playing cameos in the show. I wanted to generate Muppet versions of them, so I started generating these weird images. I don't know if you've worked with AI; it's a finicky tool. I was using it to generate these things, and most of them were just really too terrifying to speak of.

The original idea was [that] we had a comedy club scene, and I wanted to do all the headshots of all the comics as Muppets, just as like a weird Easter egg [in] the background of it. [That way,] we can kind of use these likenesses, and they would feel like that and maybe look like that from afar, but when you really took a closer look, you'd realize there was something a little amiss there. I tried to regenerate that image of Tony Soprano holding a naked woman and smoking a cigar in a black field, but as a Muppet. I eventually nailed that down to one, and then I handed it off to one of my amazingly talented scenic artists. She painted the nine-panel painted version of it, and we put that on the set. It's a pretty amazing piece that's very heavily featured in the show, I might add. I love that piece.

There's a lot of stuff like that in the show, that's kind of blink-and-you'll-miss-it. We had a lot of fun fleshing out the world like that, and that was something that Pete responded to really positively. It was like, "I'm going to pitch this," and I'm fully expecting to somebody to say, like, "What the ***k is this?" [But] they were like, "Actually, this is amazing".

This is at least your second time working with someone who has been through the craziness of the SNL world, because you also worked on That Damn Michael Che. Have you noticed anything in terms of the way that Michael or Pete think about production design? I imagine their experience with that has been very different from a lot of the other people you work with.

Joshua Petersen: I've also worked with designers who have done film units at SNL in the past, and I'm a huge SNL fan. I've watched, like, every episode since I was a child. It was my favorite show, so I was always very interested in how that process works there. Then, later, [after] becoming a production designer, [I was] very curious about how that operates as well.

When you're dealing with comedy writing, there's the initial idea, and then there's the workshopping of that idea, [and] the refining of an idea, but the best idea always wins, and that idea might come one second before you roll on something. I want to be prepared for anything, and so I make multiple logistical plans for what can be possible in a scene. Then, I'm a part of that pitching process when it comes to, "What are we actually going to achieve practically on the production side of things?"

There are certain avenues that you go down where it's like, "None of us have really landed on the best idea yet," because when you get the best idea, you know. You just have to be open to adapting to that sort of thing. I love comedy and I'm really big on that. I really have enjoyed being a production designer in the comedy world because of how open that collaboration is. If something isn't possible from a production standpoint, I can pitch another idea, and we can all laugh about it and know that that's the right move to make.

Do you have something else that you're excited about working on right now, or is there something you'd be excited to do given a season 2 of Bupkis?

Joshua Petersen: Obviously, right now I'm standing in solidarity with our writer siblings, and [am] very much in support of that. This is a show that really showcases what writers do because it's a show that is absurd and funny and surreal, but that also really earns its emotional moments, and it really earns some big ones in my opinion. That was something that, when we got into the meat of what the second episode is really about, it's like, "Wow, this show is going places that I didn't fully expect." You kind of expect the first scene; I knew when I opened that script that I was in for something right away. I wasn't sure what it was going to be, but it delivered. Then, from there, you can go in these other directions and earn some really powerful moments, particularly with regard to addiction, and suicidal ideation, and some real heavy life stuff. I think I tend to be attracted to shows like that, and to content like that.

Just before the strike started, I had finished the second season of Life & Beth, which I'm really excited for, [which is] coming out down the line. I think that show is similar in that sense, and I'm really excited for that to come out. I'm super happy with what we did with that show as well.

As far as the second season for Bupkis, one of the things that we were a little bit more restricted on for the first season was showing travel and the "on the road" aspect of a comedian's life, and of Pete's life. We were able to do that with Miami and Toronto, but [we were] shooting them all in New York in the middle of summer, which was a little bit of a challenge, for sure. I'd be really excited for a second season to show that off a little bit more and take some bigger swings. [It would be fun] designing some brand-new environments while still keeping it really centered, and grounded, and in the world that we built for the first season.

About Bupkis

Bupkis is a new comedy following Pete Davidson as he attempts to work through unique family dynamics and the complexities of fame to form meaningful relationships. The raw, semi-autobiographical series stars Davidson, Edie Falco, and Joe Pesci alongside a star-studded supporting cast in a show that straddles reality and absurdity to best represent what it is to be Pete Davidson. Welcome to Bupkis.

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