The Bitter Buddha, directed by first-time filmmaker Steven Feinartz, is an in-depth portrait of the life of comic Eddie Pepitone. Sometimes angry, frequently instrospective, and always funny, Pepitone is one of those comedians whose name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, but once you see him, you go, “Oh, yeah, that guy.”
Such is the life of a 30-year veteran of the comedy scene who has worked steadily (in movies such as Old School and countless TV sitcoms) but never “broken out” into the comedy big leagues. That might be changing, due to a combination of factors: Pepitone is a regular on various comedy podcasts, including his own, The Long Shot; he’s got a solid following on Twitter; and he’s become somewhat of a cult icon to younger comedians who have hit the mainstream -- including Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, and Zach Galifianakis -- a number of whom appear in the film.
The Bitter Buddha premiered at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Chicago last summer, and has since hit the festival circuit. When I caught up with Feinartz at Slamdance last month, a distribution deal with Gravitas Ventures had just been announced. The Bitter Buddha opens in select cities on Friday, February 15, with a nationwide VOD release to follow on February 19.
Photo courtesy The Bitter Buddha
Kristin McCracken: This is your debut film. How did the idea for the film come about?
Steven Feinartz: I was hanging around the comedy scene in Los Angeles. I live around the corner from the UCB Theatre, which is a really cool comedy-improv theater, and I got the chance to see Eddie live a few times. I’d listened to him on WTF with Marc Maron, and I was just captivated by him.
I was working at a reality TV company, and not very happy with my job, so I was looking for something else to do...
KMc: How did you connect with Eddie?
SF: I first went after him through his management company, but he had just fired his manager -- he’s been known to do that occasionally -- so they told me the best way to contact Eddie was on Twitter. I reached out to him on Twitter, and two weeks later he got back to me. We figured out a time to meet, after a show, we hit it off, and that was it.
KMc: So for people who don’t know Eddie, can you tell us a little about him?
SF: Eddie’s an interesting guy. He’s a 54-year-old man from Staten Island. He’s really starting to take off now in his 50s as a comedian, but he’s an extreme guy. If you watch his stand-up, it’s up and down, and he’s very effacing. He’s political, but at the same time he’s silly. He’s just a very, very unique comedian, and that’s why a lot of other comedians gravitate towards him.
KMc: Someone in the film says he’s like a unicorn.
SF: Yeah, there’s really nobody else like Eddie, and that’s part of the reason why I wanted to do this. I don’t think you can really compare Eddie to anybody -- maybe bits and pieces of Bill Hicks here and there, and George Carlin -- but he’s definitely a unique original, for sure.
KMc: In the film, you interview a lot of other comedians. How did you approach them? Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt, Marc Maron, Paul Provenza…
SF: Dana Gould, Paul Tompkins… A lot of it was just being around Eddie -- backstage at the Improv, at UCB. [Also,] some of Eddie’s friends were more than happy to be on camera, to do a one-on-one interview -- like Patton Oswalt was just great with that.
Photo courtesy The Bitter Buddha
KMc: So tell us about the title: The Bitter Buddha. Where does that come from?
SF: “The Bitter Buddha” is a nickname that Sean Conroy, who’s also on Eddie’s podcast, came up with. It’s kind of making fun of the fact that he’s a bitter older man, and he also meditates at the same time -- the juxtaposition of that. It’s sort of a ham-handed silly name, but at the same time, I think it really fits.
KMc: In the film you see him meditating -- or talking about meditating, at least! -- and then talking about becoming a vegan or a vegetarian… for maybe a half a day. [laughs] He’s not really a practicing Buddhist, is he?
SF: He tries to be a Buddhist, but he’s not religious. He meditates regularly, and he tries to be a vegan; he’s trying many different things. He’s a very spiritual person, but being a comedian -- and a struggling comedian at that -- is a challenge, and he’s doing the best he can. That’s all he can do…
KMc: That’s all anyone can do! So how do you think that comedy has changed in the world of Twitter? Even the fact that you got in touch with him over Twitter in the first place…
SF: I think Twitter is amazing for comedy, and I also think podcasting is amazing for comedy. It’s just a way for comedians to get their voice out, not in clubs -- they can practice their material through tweets and podcasts. And Eddie does it really well -- he tweets about five or six times a day… [His tweets] are just hilarious, and we use them in the movie.
KMc: Is it fun traveling with Eddie? Is he as funny off stage as he is on?
SF: Yeah, I think that’s what comes across in the film, that he’s just a genuinely funny person. He’s got a lot of ups and downs, and there’s a lot of depression and darkness to him, but he’s still the funniest person I’ve ever met, hands down.
He’s from Staten Island… and was known back then as a wild man on the New York club scene, in the '90s, and maybe even early 2000s, before he left for Los Angeles. So I think that Eddie might have been a little crazier [back then], in a lot of different ways. I think since his sobriety, he’s a little more focused, and his comedy is better.
KMc: He’s a paradox: on one hand, he’s loud, and angry, and screaming a lot, and then we see him looking at pictures of his cats when they were kittens, and getting all sentimental. And he has a nice wife, or girlfriend?
SF: He’s 54 years old, and he just got married! He went to Vegas one night, just a few weeks ago, actually, and got married, and then drove back that night, from Vegas. [laughs] He didn’t even stay the night!
KMc: What a romantic!
SF: Yeah, absolutely.
KMc: What was the process of discovery for you in making this movie? Did you talk to Eddie in the beginning and map out the story, or did you just let the camera roll?
SF: I just let it roll, for good or bad. Usually, you want to map out your documentaries [as much as you can], but the way I did it, we just started rolling. And we started to discover things along the way. You know, it’s costly, and the first few months, you’re like, “I don’t have a story here; what do I do?” But I think it was better, because the surprises were a lot more genuine.
KMc: At the end of the film, Eddie has a triumphant return to New York City. What was it like going back home with him?
SF: We went back to Staten Island to visit Eddie’s dad, and Eddie was performing for the first time as a headlining comedian in New York, I think, ever, really.
KMc: After 30 years!
SF: Yeah, he was always kind of a fringe act, the guy you’ll see at alternative rooms, and occasionally he’ll pop up on a big show with Patton Oswalt, here and there, and that was it.
But yeah, he returned to Gotham Comedy Club, and -- I don’t want to give much away -- but it was a great show, and people were there to see him. It was a really great night, and I think in the movie we capture how exciting it was.
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