When I met Steven Feinartz at an IFC event Sarah Silverman and Reggie Watts were headlining at SXSW, he was upstairs hanging with all the comedians, and I just assumed he was one (he’d actually seen me perform, which makes him part of an incredibly small fraternity). I’d been hearing about this documentary he directed about Eddie Pepitone called The Bitter Buddha for a few months, and between the comedians I follow online talking about it and a somewhat testy interview on WTF with Marc Maron (Maron actually apologized for it in his next show) it seemed like it was everywhere.
Eddie Pepitone himself is kind of like that, one of those names you hear all the time in comedy circles, who pops up from time to time on all the big podcasts. I’d heard his voice before I ever saw his face, and it’s the voice that really makes Pepitone Pepitone. He doesn’t use it all the time, and it’s not quite as much of an invention as, say, Bobcat Goldthwait’s growly voice, but when he’s really animated, Pepitone will turn into this nasally New Yawk firehose. It’s not as loud or screamy as Kinison (though similarly effective), it’s more just this constant, relentless drone, almost like a truck horn, that makes the audience feel like the guy in that Maxell ad.
It turns out the visual of Eddie matches the persona – fat, bald, slouchy – the put-upon everyman. That he’s so incredible a performer and yet so relatively unknown, it’s almost like Eddie Pepitone represents the best and worst of comedy simultaneously, the way that it can be so cathartic and inspiring an art form yet so depressing and cruel a business.
As it turned out, Feinartz wasn’t a comic, he actually produces documentaries for the History Channel, and he heard about Eddie Pepitone the same way as the rest of us. Via podcast appearances, and other comedians talking about Eddie in hushed, reverent tones; this cult, best-comedian-you’ve-never-heard-of figure. Feinartz’ curiosity eventually led to him spending almost a year filming Pepitone and talking to his friends and fans in comedy – Patton Oswalt, Matt Oswalt, Jen Kirkman, Dana Gould, Sarah Silverman, Paul Provenza, Marc Maron, Zach Galifianakis, and more, which led to a great documentary, The Bitter Buddha (currently tracking 94% on RottenTomatoes) which hits DVD today and is also available to stream online. I got to talk to Feinartz recently, to pick his brain about all the big questions, like how much of Eddie’s guy-bitter-that-he-hasn’t-made-it act is just an act, and what was up with the WTF episode anyway.
Vince Mancini:How did you first meet Eddie and what was it about him that made you want to make a movie about him?
Steven Feinartz: I would regularly see shows at UCB Theatre in Hollywood where Eddie performs. Watching him rant at the live podcasts of WTF with Marc Maron made me fan pretty quickly. He clearly was like no other comic I’d ever seen. We grabbed coffee after a show and talked about the possibility of shooting a short Documentary. He was hesitant at first, but he let me into his life eventually. That short film turned into almost a year of filming and a feature film.
VM: For some reason I just assumed you were one of the comics. Did you do anything to build a rapport with the comics you were interviewing, or did they just like to talk?
SF: Jumping into this project as a fan first was probably a little more difficult than it would have been as a comic and already being on the inside. However it was pretty easy to relate to many of them. Paul Provenza, Sean Conroy, Patton Oswalt, Dana Gould and some others really opened up on camera about Eddie. I was really grateful that they trusted me from the get-go.
VM: As comedian, Eddie seems to simultaneously represent something to strive towards (because he’s so funny) and this kind of martyr character, where he’s so funny and he’s been doing it so long and yet still drives a broken down old car and half the time in the movie he looks like he’s performing for six people in some crappy bar. What kind of reactions does Eddie provoke from other comics? Do you think he affects the way people view the business of comedy? What’s your take?
SF: I’ve seen Eddie make comics breakdown in laughter. No joke. Todd Glass loses his mind when he watches Eddie. Don’t forget, Eddie also likes to perform a sort of guerilla-style comedy where he’ll heckle his fellow comics. He likes to be a character in the audience screaming about how he left his ill wife at home in Arcadia to come see some comedy. This humor is the only thing he has left. Eddie has confessed to me that he actually likes doing these twisted bits as much as he likes to be on-stage.
I think Eddie has not only shown that he is as funny as anyone on television right now, but he is one of the most unique voices of any working comic today. It has definitely been frustrating for him. The idea that looks and age are considered to be just as important as the words that come out of your mouth is a frightening concept for a comedian. Eddie is raw, honest and not superficial. His anger on-stage is partially aimed at the comedy business for becoming as vain as the rest of the entertainment industry.
VM: Is it hard to get emotional honesty with comedians, who are so used to using humor to deflect when things get uncomfortable for them?
SF: One thing many people notice about the film is that Eddie seems like he’s joking all the time and he can’t be emotionally honest about certain things. That’s just how he operates. He will joke about the darkest times in his life, but to talk about them honestly is more of a challenge. I feel like we see the real Eddie in the relationship with his father back in Staten Island.
VM: Also, I feel like I’ve at least known Eddie’s name and recognized his voice for a few years – how much of his hasn’t-gotten-a-break stuff is a put on? How bad is it, really?
SF: Eddie is doing better than a lot of other comics out there. I wouldn’t say he hasn’t gotten a break. Eddie was always championed by guys like Patton Oswalt as the funniest guy you’ve never heard of. Eddie would probably agree that it was part of his fear of leaving Los Angeles and New York that limited him in the stand-up world. The film has definitely sparked something in him that has given him the confidence to go around the country, head to Europe, Australia and elsewhere. He’s working on putting together a one-hour comedy special. His fans are really vocal and they’re starting to grow in numbers.
VM: I have a theory that people really want to think that all they’re hearing is a comedian’s words and their comedy, but that the package it comes in, the look of the person delivering it, is actually really important and affects peoples’ perception of the comedy more than they’d ever admit. Like Louis CK, his comedy works better now that he’s a little bit fatter and older. Or Aziz Ansari, who I think Eddie mentioned in the movie, where he sort of has a hip look in addition to his comedy that probably makes him more interesting. How do you think this phenomenon has affected Eddie and his career?
SF: Eddie’s look completely fits with his material. He’s unhinged on stage and in his personal life. If Eddie were to walk on stage in a clean shirt and dark jeans it probably wouldn’t work. He’s authentic, and doesn’t try to impress anyone with anything but his words. He will wear a patchwork, colorful Buddha sport coat, but only for special occasions.
And I definitely agree that some people are fans of certain comics because of a hip look or style, but it only works for me if you can back it up with the voice. Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor had style on stage, but the comedy always came first. If you can make the audience laugh you could wear anything.
VM: How much of the career troubles he complains about are because of self-sabotage?
SF: He has definitely been his own worst enemy in the past. I think that’s pretty clear, when he jokes on-stage about experiences as an actor. Like drinking wine coolers and smoking weed the night before a “Bones” Audition. He’s now sober, married and probably in the best place he’s ever been in, so I’m banking on Eddie to keep moving forward.
VM: Wait, that Bones story was something that actually happened?
SF: The Bones joke was based on a younger Eddie not taking his career that seriously. Bones might just be a funny show name. It could have well been Law and Order.
VM: They once used my apartment in New York to film an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent. True story, my apartment played “Pedophile’s Apartment.” Cool story, huh. Anyway, what’s the story on Eddie’s love-hate thing with Marc Maron? Their relationship seems… complicated.
SF: Eddie loves Marc and vice versa. Marc is brutally honest offstage. He pulls no punches. And when I had the interview with Eddie on WTF, Marc tried to paint me in a negative light. It actually hurt pretty badly. He was quick to apologize for how he came off in the interview. And I think that’s the whole thing. Marc sometimes can’t control Marc. He can be hurtful. And sometimes undeservingly so. But that’s also where so much of his brilliance comes from. He’s unfiltered and raw, and willing to take chances. Eddie and Marc had a couple uncomfortable moments in the film, but you have to understand, they have a lot of history. Marc likes to dig at Eddie to provoke a response. That’s what he wanted to do when we were filming.
VM: I actually missed that WTF episode, but I heard the one right after it where he was apologizing. What actually happened?
SF: Marc was just being tough on me as a young filmmaker. In retrospect its kind of a badge of honor, being bullied by Maron.
VM: You use a lot of clips of Eddie’s stand-up in the movie. Did he have any requests about stuff you could or couldn’t use? Bits that he either didn’t want to see the light of day yet or bits he didn’t want to be known for anymore?
SF: Eddie gave me complete control and didn’t weigh in about any bits that we could or couldn’t use. We filmed almost every stand-up clip but maybe a couple in the film.
VM: You’ve produced documentaries for the History Channel before, were there any challenges specific to this material? Any way you might approach this one differently, from a technical standpoint or otherwise?
SF: It was a completely different animal than doing Cable Docs. For one, we weren’t dealing with a boss or a network. Looking back I wouldn’t have changed much about the film. The pacing definitely has a manic energy that some people are put off by, but I wanted to capture Eddie’s lifestyle in a more non-linear fashion. I’m also glad I didn’t know Eddie on a personal level before I made the film, or I would have made a film that was much more protective. Like leaving out the jokes about other comics.
VM: How did you see Eddie’s career evolve before, during, and since the movie? Has it changed at all?
SF: Eddie was really honored that somebody wanted to make a Doc about his life, so I think that invigorated him a little bit. The film’s festival run and wide release brought him to more cities and opened up his mind to touring more. I’d like to take credit, but Eddie did the work. He just needed a push, and now he’s out there performing all over the world.
I want more like this!
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