It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?
Making a documentary about a man who is both a living comedy legend and an under-appreciated genius is walking a tight rope. How does one show-off his brilliance while exploring why he’s struggled to succeed? And is it possible to fairly assess a comic, when the purpose of the film is to showcase him?
It’s this dilemma that The Bitter Buddha faces with its star, Eddie Pepitone. Early on, Pepitone is praised by a who’s who of modern alt comedy – Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Scott Aukerman – and in the process, compared to Elvis Costello and Charles Bukowski. After this, expectations are high.
Initially, they aren’t entirely met. Some of the clips of Pepitone on stage are funny, but includes a bit of him dying with new material. Some of his funniest material is shown in tweet form and in segments from live WTF with Marc Maron episodes, which have been animated for the film. And it can be hard to see the genius amidst his messy, cat-filled apartment.
Both on stage and off, Pepitone is not afraid to air his own flaws, insecurities, and failures. (The doc even begins with a quote of his: “The only things stopping me today are: genetics, lack of will, income, brain chemistry, and external events.”) The film tends to dismiss this nay-saying as an endearing character trait, rather than an opportunity to look soberly at why an obviously funny man hasn’t succeeded more. The opportunity to focus on a comic in his mid-50s, hitting it big with young crowds, could have been a bit less fawning.
The true heart of the film is the relationship between Pepitone and his father. The groundwork is laid early on, with Pepitone discussing his childhood in an angry house on both WTF and The Mental Illness Happy Hour. The end of the movie is devoted to his first headlining gig in his hometown of New York City, which will also mark the first time his father has seen him on stage in nine years. In the final half hour, the father-son dynamic takes center stage, and makes for the most compelling section of the film, turning into a mini-arc about his father’s ambivalence towards his career.
The nickname “Bitter Buddha” derives from the duality of Pepitone’s curmudgeonly on-stage persona paired with his habit of listening to Eckhart Tolle tapes and meditating in the hills of Los Angeles. The film also shows Pepitone at a threshold in his career, as he crosses over from comic’s comic to more mainstream success. It’s not a perfect film, but it captures an crucial moment for one of the comedy scene’s most important figures.
And so, in conclusion…
Is it interesting? Ultimately, yes. At 52 years old, Pepitone says he’s “just getting [his] shit together now.” This stage in a performer’s career is not often chronicled, and is intriguing to watch.
What does it have to say about comedy? Fans of Pepitone’s argue that his decades of experience give him an authority that a younger comic can never have, and that his years of struggling are such an inherent part of his personality that it is central to his comedy.
Is it funny? As is normal for this type of fly-on-the-wall documentary, the stage bits are good but the film itself isn’t a laugh-a-minute.
Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She trudges the trudge.