Before his unexpected mid-life rise to fame, Louis C.K. was called a “comics comic,” the kind of comedian who sweats it out in small clubs for years, who is loved by his peers, but unrecognized by the wider public. Eddie Pepitone is another “comic’s comic,” and like C.K., Pepitone is a kind of exaggeration of the disenfranchised middle-aged white American male, only more trollish. Balding, overweight, and worn-down, with sallow eyes and an unhealthy ice cream addiction, Pepitone sharply bitter – occasionally boiling angry — and his comedy spews forth from a well of decades of repressed frustrations. In director Steven Feinartz new bio-doc The Bitter Buddha, these frustrations – from bad drivers to his challenged relationship with his father – come to define the comedian waiting for his big break.
The movie is, in part, about coming to grips with one’s life when success never comes. Feinartz introduces us to Pepitone in his Los Angeles home, and the movie mixes the usual scenes of domestic life and professional moments intercut with talking heads. That comics (such as Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, and others) respect him is clear. But we learn the most about the man reading between the lines. There’s a confusion between Pepitone’s on- and off-stage persona, and we get the sense the comic doesn’t let many people get close to him, that his comedy is both protective and cathartic. Perhaps the most honest look comes in a charged scene involving Pepitone friend and fellow comedian Marc Maron. Maron confronts Pepitone about his own showboating, accusing him of playing a character for the documentary crew. The comic laughs it off, but you know Maron has struck a chord. Maron and Pepitone both seem to know that no one really knows the “real” Pepitone.
Feinartz does manage to catch a few critically candid scenes. One involves a bizarre and unsettling mental breakdown. The comic sits at his computer in tears, fishing through papers, looking for headshots. “I’m overwhelmed,” he wails, like a small, inconsolable child. His child-like quality is one of the qualities that is mentioned by the comics who love him. But later on, when we see Pepitone interacting with his Staten Island-dwelling father, we see the man revert again to a kind of innocence. Pepitone harps on about his frustrating lack of success, but it is clear from these scenes that the real suffering has been his long-fraught inability to find love. It’s what makes the sloppy, grossly overweight Pepitone both endearing and pitiful. A troubled childhood, an unsuccessful career, failed romance, prickly friendships: Pepitone’s humor functions as a kind of scapegoat for all of our fears of failure and obsolescence. It makes you wonder: if Pepitone made it, would he still be funny? Or do we need him to be the fall guy?