Eddie Pepitone is “The Bitter Buddha” [documentary review]

We here may be called The Comic’s Comic. But what does that title even mean? And who embodies it?

The given standard holds that a “comic’s comic” literally is a comedian beloved by fellow comedians; often also by critics; and sometimes in this current generation, by the so-called “comedy nerds” — but not necessarily by the mainstream or public at-large. In The Bitter Buddha, a new documentary directed by Steven Feinartz, we quickly learn through a series of testimonials from famous comedians and comedic actors that Eddie Pepitone has earned “the comic’s comic” label.

The film opens first with a quote from Pepitone himself, assessing his career:

“The only things stopping me today are: genetics, lack of will, income, brain chemistry and external events.”

It’s quickly followed by a scene of perfect serenity — Pepitone, sitting in lotus position, meditating in the Hollywood hills — juxtaposed only moments later with the comedian’s anger, lashed out onstage at an audience. Who is Eddie Pepitone, the anonymous narrator asks?

“He is definitely a comic’s comic. I mean, every comedian knows and loves Eddie Pepitone,” offers B.J. Novak from NBC’s The Office. Another voice boasts: “He is the Charles Bukowski of comedy, only replace alcohol with Nutter Butters.” That’s countered with a female opinion, that “all it looks like to me is that a homeless guy got onstage and grabbed the mic.” Pepitone is put into perspective, too, akin to Elvis Costello, who may not have sold as many records as REO Speedwagon, but what does that mean in the end, anyhow. It’s left to Sean Conroy, who hosts a podcast with Pepitone, “The Long Shot Podcast,” to describe the dichotomy of “The Bitter Buddha” thusly. “He loves to think of himself as a deeply spiritual person. In fact, he’s probably the angriest person I know.”

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Staten Island, Pepitone has spent the past several years in Los Angeles trying to live the Hollywood dream. After appearing in the 2003 movie, Old School, as one of the unexpected recruits to the fraternity started by Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson, Pepitone went on to make guest appearances in several TV shows in the past decade; among them, The King of Queens, Malcolm in the Middle, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Flight of the Conchords, ER, The Sarah Silverman Program, Weeds, Pretend Time with Nick Swardson, 2 Broke Girls, Happy Endings, The Life & Times of Tim, Whitney, House, Community, Bob’s Burgers, and most recently, a recurring character on Conan as an angry audience member.

But as he approaches 54 on Nov. 5, Pepitone still hasn’t “made it” after three decades in show business. Therein lies part of his bitterness.

It can turn on a dime if he sees the billboards for Whitney, or thinking about other younger, more successful comedians such as Aziz Ansari. Pepitone says dismissively, “They’re big stars, but they really don’t have much to say.”

What does Pepitone have to say?

“I’ve screamed onstage for the past 30 years,” he acknowledges on camera. “I’m trying to fight something and I’m not sure what it is. It’s hard for me to connect with anyone. But through comedy, I’ve built a life.”

This isn’t his version of the Joan Rivers documentary, which showed an old comic trying to stay relevant, because Pepitone hasn’t become relevant yet. He has built up a Twitter following of 44,000. What if you’re not already on board the Pepitone bandwagon, though? What then?

You may not fall in love with him immediately as a comedian by watching The Bitter Buddha, precisely because the film’s “unfiltered” look humanizes him so much. You learn about the anger and depression that his parents passed down to him. You hear him talk about sobriety and breaking his anonymity from the 12-step program. And you see a comedian who is so much a fixture of the Hollywood and NYC comedy scenes that it’s not altogether unsurprising that his stand-up material might not catch on with the heartland of America as quickly as he might have hoped.

But you see this man in his 50s and, if you follow comedy, you remember how long it took some others before him. Rodney Dangerfield, certainly. Lewis Black, most definitely. Perhaps if someone in TV carved out a spot for Pepitone to let loose and be himself, then his career could shine, too. Maybe it’s via Conan. Maybe it’s somewhere else. Who knows: Maybe it’s even Puddin’, the quick-hit webseries Pepitone does with Matt Oswalt, brother of Patton Oswalt.

After all, Pepitone only released his first stand-up album, “A Great Stillness,” last year.

Here’s another look at the trailer for The Bitter Buddha, which The Comic’s Comic first posted back in March:

There’s a major plot point around Pepitone coming home to NYC to headline Gotham Comedy Club on a Sunday night — trying not only to lure his father out to the show, but anyone, really — a title card says he had sold 63 of the 300 seats three days before the show. It ends with a portion of that set, including his great bit in which he heckles himself from a seat in the audience.

So, who is Eddie Pepitone, really?

“I’m a lot like Seabiscuit. I feel like I give a depressed nation hope.” — Eddie Pepitone

Feinartz told The Comic’s Comic that The Bitter Buddha “just secured distribution for an early Feb. 2013 release on VOD/Limited Theaters.” Until then, you can see the documentary in the coming weeks at the following cities and dates…

Upcoming screenings:

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

View all posts by Sean L. McCarthy →

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