If there was ever a time when 52-year-old comedian Eddie Pepitone was going to break through into what passes for the mainstream, it's now. And there is no better case for him doing so than director Steven Feinartz's documentary about Pepitone, THE BITTER BUDDHA. I first became aware of Eddie's value as a comic actor during his appearances on "The Sarah Silverman Program," a couple of shots on "Community," and a bunch of featured appearances on "Conan." And if you didn't blink, you might have caught him in THE MUPPETS as a postman.
But his true gifts come to light during his live act, in which his exquisitely worded rants almost feel like a volatile mixture of a sociopath's manifesto and a hobo's suicide note--a combination that manifests itself in Pepitone's physical appearance as well. His five-days-a-week web series "Puddin'" is simply one of the most consistently funny things I've ever seen, and it's attracted some fairly high-profile celebrity guest appearances, who add to the depravity.
As THE BITTER BUDDHA reveals, the pain that fuels Pepitone's act and persona comes from a very real place, and his ability to transform into a very thoughtful and caring man is matched only by his rarely leaving a psychological foundation built on self-hatred. And somehow learning all of this about him makes us love him more.
Not surprisingly, a host of edgier comics line up to sing Pepitone's praises. Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Paul F. Tomkins, Marc Maron, Paul Provenze, Todd Barry, Todd Glass, and more talk up the strange career path Pepitone has taken (by choice or not) and what a master monologist he is. He doesn't so much tell jokes as he does talk in long, raging sentences that reveal a window to the world that is both obscured by cracks yet crystal clear. He sees people and situations for what they are and strips them down on stage to their ugly, self-centered core. He also reads his tweets, which, when strung together, seem like they are those of a drooling mental patient with a great sense of humor.
One comic refers to Pepitone as "the guitarist that all the other guitarists go see," and that seems about the best way to understand his influence. He's like one of those punk bands that never quite got famous but inspired dozens of other bands that went on to sell millions. He's comedy's Sonic Youth. He's angrier and more unbalanced than the rest, which is both his greatest gift and has likely held his career back until now.
But by far the greatest moments in THE BITTER BUDDHA are those surrounding Eddie's return to New York for a big showcase performance. The show itself is important, but for Eddie, it's a chance to reconnect with his father, who I'm fairly certain had never seen him perform to that point. Eddie's confidence is clearly on the brink of collapse at both the prospect of his father being in his audience and the very real possibility that his dad may decide not to show up. Either way, Pepitone is guaranteed to be an emotional wreck come showtime, and it's a fascinating process to watch.
You can't help but watch Pepitone on stage and off and immediately start to form opinions about his mental makeup. What damage was done to him when he was younger? What motivates and fuels him? What terrifies him, both in the world and in his day-to-day life? And of course, what makes him happy, smile, or laugh? Following Pepitone around for months, Feinartz answers some of the questions, while leaving a few parts of the man's life a fun mystery.
I don't remember a film about a comedian getting quite this deep before, while still providing so many laughs. Even his friends seem baffled at times by Eddie's decisions, but there is something undeniably irresistible, and for that we can be grateful.
THE BITTER BUDDHA has been on the festival circuit for the better part of eight months, is now playing in Los Angeles, hits VOD on February 19, and hopefully will make its way around the country after that (I know it opens in Chicago in mid-March). Just kick back and enjoy the awkward chuckles.