Eddie Pepitone: The Bitter Buddha
DVD review by Steve Bennett
At times The Bitter Buddha comes over like a promotional video for comedians’ comedian Eddie Pepitone, with high-profile comedy chums like Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman and Patton Oswalt lining up to sing the praises of his angry, angsty performances. ‘He’s the Charles Bukowski of comedy,’ Oswalt calls him. ‘Only replace alcohol with Nutter Butter.’
But this affectionate documentary also sheds light on the state of the comedy industry in America, and by extension the UK. Pepitone is highly acclaimed, a proper artist who exposes his soul through hilarious rage directed both at the world and at himself. Yet his career is a struggle. Primarily because TV doesn’t want to know him, and he hasn’t a broadcast special to his name. Clearly his careworn, bald 54-year-old face doesn’t fit.
‘What is this demographic shit?’ he asks the camera at one point. ‘Why not got for quality and let the audience come to you?’ It’s a point echoed by many of the other contributors.
His insecurities also lead him to complain about the newer generation, like Aziz Ansari: ‘What have these young guys got to say?’ Ansari has just signed a $3.5million book deal, while Pepitone lives in a shitty Los Angeles apartment, where his pleasure is feeding the local squirrels, cos there’s a softie behind that brusque exterior,
The edge of the underside is where Brookyln-born Pepitone’s roots lie, and what drives his distinctive comedy. He’s acutely aware of social injustice, which informs his bilious diatribes. Comedy is his way at kicking back at the hand life’s dealt him.
‘I’m trying to fight something and I don’t know what it is,’ he tells film-maker StevenFeinartz. ‘It is hard for me to connect with anyone, but through comedy I’ve found a life.’
In scenes such as this, The Bitter Buddha gets close to what makes the difference between comics who are doing it for fun, or for a career, as opposed to those who have nothing else, or never probably could. It is why he is such a gripping subject for a documentary, even a rather directionless one such as this.
Pepitone’s working-class childhood casts a long shadow, with an emotionally absent mother and a disciplinarian father, overcompensating. The one loose narrative of this film is that Pepitone’s returning to New York, which seems so much more a spiritual home than LA, and persuade his irascible dad – who has never really embraced his son’s career choice – to make a rare trip to Manhattan to watch him.
Footage of this, and other intense performances, are inevitably highlights – especially his calling-card routine of scrambling into the audience to yell psychologically wounding heckles at himself. Clearly Comedy Central and their ilk are missing a trick in denying him that special. The animated scenes that punctuate the documentary are less successful, but none too distracting.
Poignantly, Pepitone mulls the fact that he’s never had children, devoting his life to a career that has, until now, born very little fruit. But it doesn’t seem sad – instead is presented as a triumph of his single-minded spirit.
And, indeed, things seem to be turning around for him. The comedy world is embracing him, he’s becoming increasingly well known via podcasts, especially Marc Maron’s WTF, and his Puddin’ web series; he had a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe last year – and he’s got this documentary.
Having got married and sworn off the booze – ‘I just want to be conscious for the horror’ – Pepitone is in danger of being happy with his life, but as long as he can continue to channel the decades of disappointment and failure into his dyspeptic outbursts, he’ll always be able to gig somewhere.
• The Bitter Buddha was released on Region One (North America) DVD by Passion River last month. Extras include a commentary by Pepitone, Paul Provenza and others, a roast of Eddie Pepitone and 30 minutes of deleted scenes and archive footage. Click here to buy on import.
Posted: 28 Aug 2013