There’s an implication throughout The Bitter Buddha that comedian Eddie Pepitone, the subject of this documentary, is, well, bitter. Bitter that after a stand-up career that spans decades, he hasn’t achieved mainstream appeal or sold a TV show Seinfeld-style. That even though he’s beloved by modern comedy deities like Patton Oswalt and Sarah Silverman, it’s somehow not enough. Director Steven Feinartz begins his film with the assumption that in the five stages of grief – lamenting the loss of theoretical lucrativeness – Pepitone is stuck on “anger.”
Yet despite this narrative thread, The Bitter Buddha paints Pepitone as having completed these five stages. Lack of popularity is no longer an albatross around his neck. In fact, Pepitone has the uncanny ability to see the albatross around everyone’s neck, and talk them into taking it off. Pepitone is on “acceptance,” and laughing about it.
The Bitter Buddha can be forgiven for playing up the “bitter” aspect of Pepitone’s personality, at least in its first half. After all, the simple and unfortunate truth is that not many people are familiar with him. Buddha spends a great deal of time interviewing comics about who Pepitone is and why he hasn’t caught on with the masses. Yes, this is necessary background information. And no matter what, it’s always cool to hear comedians praise other comedians; it’s humbling to know that those you think have everything figured out are still flawed, and in awe of those who they think have a better grasp on the grind. But these are still people trying to reverse-engineer the mind of their most beloved curmudgeon, and the mythology begins to take over.
Thus there’s an interesting juxtaposition introduced. Feinartz throws in clips of Pepitone and inserts appearances on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron between the interview segments, so every thought about Pepitone is followed by some of the man himself. And on stage, Pepitone – stout and cocksure, with a grin that just won’t leave – is completely at ease. Any bitterness is played up for comic effect; his jokes might as well be punctuated with, “Is this what you people want?!” At his headlining set at New York’s Gotham Comedy Club (the kicker and natural conclusion of the film), Pepitone marches on stage with a folder overflowing with paper. He looks like a guy trying to pick up piles of leaves with his hands. “These are my tweets!” he shouts. He digs through the mess and pulls out a particularly popular one to read: “WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?” He beams with pride that it got more than 50 retweets.
Pepitone is unnaturally content commenting on the ridiculousness of his own act during his act, and that ease is in direct conflict with the film’s initial notion that there’s truth behind the bitterness. Maron himself says two telling things that succinctly sum up the film’s first and second halves. During one particular podcast, he calls Pepitone out for being angry, no matter what Pepitone says to the contrary. Maron is intuitive like no other, and he senses the seething. Later, during an interview with the documentary crew, he praises Pepitone for being a dream WTF guest. All Maron has to do is give the guy a little nudge, and he’s capable of ranting and raving far longer than anyone ever thought possible – all fascinating, all funny.
That’s all The Bitter Buddha needs to do, too. Once it acknowledges that yes, we all have a sense of Pepitone’s rough, motherless upbringing and reputation for mocking the same establishment he once wanted to be a part of, the film wisely gets out of his way. Pepitone has a plum Gotham gig to attend to, of course, but the real stressor is seeing Papa Pepitone – who has sequestered himself on Staten Island and might not venture to Manhattan even to see his own son perform. Buddha embraces this new development with bravado, treating it with the same weight it treats the nitty-gritty of Pepitone’s comedy. Yes, Pepitone may have accepted the fact that he’s not a “household name,” but he’s struggling to accept that he’s not even one in the Pepitone household.
Chalk this up to Feinartz’s intimate understanding of his documentary subject and savvy to recognize that comedy is not just what happens on stage: it’s the sum total of every event leading up to approaching the microphone. The Bitter Buddha is a stealthy reminder that the five steps of acceptance do not come with a warranty or guarantee. Regression is natural and inevitable. But in the overdrive mind of Eddie Pepitone, he notices the regression and is quick to make a joke about it. No amount of bitterness, manufactured or otherwise, can cut Pepitone down.