With the rise of more confessional, experimental, and storytelling styles in the exploding category of alternative standup comedy, it seems that the angry comic has largely been left by the wayside. But comedian Eddie Pepitone clearly never received that note, and over 30 years into his career, Eddie and his often raging, self-loathing, unhinged act have managed to forge a devoted following among comics of both older and newer guards as well as younger fans of both stand up and sketch. And now, in his mid-50s and with comics of all stripes rooting for him, Eddie seems poised to finally break into the mainstream entertainment industry that has been the source of his bitterness for so long, a journey captured in Steven Feinartz's affectionate documentary, The Bitter Buddha, which is available Feb. 19 on Video On Demand and iTunes (go here for more info). Watch my ReThink Review of The Bitter Buddha below (transcript following).
There's a stereotype that most standup comedians are sad, angry, dark souls who take to the stage as a form of therapy to exorcise their demons in front of strangers. Personally, I've been around enough comics to know that comedy draws all types of people and personalities, but in the case of Eddie Pepitone, "angry" and "bitter" are more than accurate descriptions of Eddie and his raging, often unhinged style of stand up comedy. Over the past few years, Eddie has become known as a comic's comic who's still inexplicably outside the mainstream, mostly landing bit parts on TV, an occasional film, and on late night shows. But what makes Pepitone interesting is that recognition of his unique voice only came later in life when he was well into his 40s, where's he's unexpectedly become a cult favorite with a new generation of young comics and fans. What he'll do with this moment, and what got him there, is the subject of the captivating documentary, The Bitter Buddha.
Throughout The Bitter Buddha, some of the most respected names in stand up profess their love, admiration, and respect for Pepitone, including Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Dana Gould, Jen Kirkman, Paul Provenza, Zach Galifianakis, and Marc Maron, who often features Pepitone in the live tapings of Maron's extremely popular podcast, WTF. The film follows Pepitone to various shows and podcasts, as well as through his everyday life, all leading up to a triumphant return to New York city where he'll perform perhaps the biggest show of his life, and with his father in attendance. But it's been a long time coming, since Pepitone was born in Brooklyn in 1958 and has been doing comedy for over 30 years.
In conversation and in quieter moments, we see Eddie as a sweet, sensitive, sometimes overwhelmed guy who dotes on his cats, feeds squirrels in the park, meditates, has a supportive girlfriend, and dabbles in veganism -- which all seems totally at odds with the ranting lunatic he becomes onstage. The film explores the possible roots of his rage, a mix of an angry father, a troubled mom, working class resentment, righteous indignation at the state of America, and a whole lot of bitterness and jealousy towards the entertainment industry Eddie is trying to be a part of.
But what The Bitter Buddha illustrates about comedians is something that, at first blush, seems paradoxical -- that through sharing and even exaggerating the worst things about you on stage, whether it's your rage or your sadness or your hypocrisy, you can begin to deal with and minimize them in your actual life. And by being as honest and funny as you can about them, you can actually use those dark things to make people feel less alone, give them a new perspective, or at the very least, help them get their minds off their own problems for an evening.
This isn't to say that Eddie has vanquished his demons, and you see several times throughout the film that his anger and insecurity are never far from the surface. But having earned the respect of his peers and found an audience without compromising his voice, it seems like Eddie recognizes that all his struggles are finally starting to pay off, and the fact that it's happened later in life in such a notoriously difficult industry makes it that much sweeter. Eddie hung in until he was able to harness his pain and his flaws instead of being handicapped by them, and by doing so, turned them into something that could be a source of joy not just for himself, but for others as well. The Bitter Buddha is a wonderful testament to perseverance, and for anyone who's pursued a dream for what seems like too long, this might be the kind of inspiration you've been looking for.