Siobhán Kane spoke with comedian Eddie Pepitone ahead of his show in Whelan’s next Monday and the imminent release of his documentary The Bitter Buddha.
Over the years Brooklyn’s Eddie Pepitone has become well-known for his appearances on other people’s endeavours, whether the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, Conan, Chapelle’s Show, Flight of the Conchords, or Community, the list is large and varied.
However, Pepitone has quietly been etching out a long narrative, that now sees him co-hosting The Long Shot Podcast, and releasing his own stand up albums, such as A Great Stillness (2011). This made him a perfect subject for documentary, and last year The Bitter Buddha was released to great acclaim, and includes many comics own thoughts on Pepitone, from Patton Oswalt to Zach Galifianakis – all exploring the natural force and range of this true “comics comic”, and he is only just beginning, as he tells Siobhán Kane.
When did you realise that people found you funny? I remember Woody Allen suggesting that it was his upbringing, chaotic, chattering splendour – and that perhaps there was so much to communicate and observe, and these remain staples of his comedy, how has it been for you?
I realised I was funny when I was about 9, and would make my friends pay attention to me in school. I was the classic class clown, if you will. I was brought up in a tense household, but funny. My father was Sicilian and had operatic emotions which led to fear and comedy. I think my comedy has always been about larger than life emotions. Emotions taken to an absurd level and I had my Dad as a great example. But I wasn’t able to express it till I got around my friends in school. I used to make up gibberish languages. I was always into playing with language. But I’ll never forget making up a gibberish language and my young friends thinking it was hilarious and I was off and running.
So many of my favourite comics had childhoods that were full of weird representations of love, as in, no real love shown, or in repressive environments – would you relate to that in some way?
Yes, I definitely relate to the lack of love in growing up. Just caught up in other people acting out their dramas and you are an appendage to their personal drama. You as a child are just there and not of your own doing. You are thrust into an insane world where you are terrified. I relate to it and survived it. I’m not saying there wasn’t any love, I’m just saying it wasn’t the predominant emotion.
Is there something in the water in Brooklyn? It is not lost on me that so many of my favourite comics have come out of Brooklyn.
I think Brooklyn is known for artists and comedy because it is such a melting pot of people. It is extremely working class and a hard place to grow up and thrive. Very crowded, very intense. You need strong survival skills. Therefore, it’s a breeding ground for humour. Humour as survival. Just being exposed to all the different races of people coupled with the struggle is a great place to develop a strong sense of humour.
You have a long-standing relationship with Conan O’Brien, he is such an interesting man, and seems so generous, still curious with the world at large, and that curiosity never seems to be sated, how did you two meet, and can you recall some of your fondest experiences with him?
I met Conan by being hired to do my first big television role. I know so many of the writers on Conan who love to write for me. My first big spot on Conan was written by a guy named Andy Blitz – a funny stand up and great writer- and ever since the first spot I did I have been a staple on the show. My bits are now mostly heckling Conan from his studio audience. Which is so much fun because I get to scream at him on live television. Conan is a funny funny man who really understands what is funny. I love that he has an edge to him because that’s what I love to do. Our relationship is real professional; I do my bits on show and we get along great and then off I go. We don’t hang out offstage.
Were you nervous at all when The Bitter Buddha came out? How do you feel about it now? You are so very honest, and I think that is often why I am drawn to comics – there is a direct sense of honesty with the best comics.
I was nervous about how The Bitter Buddha would come out because it was so personal. I didn’t want to look bad, I wanted to come across well. But when I saw what Steven Feinartz, the Director, had done I was very pleased. What was great was he captured what I do onstage because he really gets my comedy. He gets what I am trying to do up onstage and the film reflects that. As far as being honest onstage, I feel that the biggest thing I have is my honesty.
I was also thinking about Alone Up There – do you think that comedy is hard to make sense of in a way, hard to make documentary out of? It is hard to capture the atmosphere of an audience, and that sense of being completely out on a limb, although there are some great comedy documentaries/capturing stand-up, like Richard Pryor’s.
Yes I do think it’s hard to do a comedy documentary. My favourite is also Richard Pryor: Live On The Sunset Strip – really a concert film – but I feel the best thing is to see the stand-up live and capture that on film because that what a stand-up’s life is: the performance. My life can be boiled down to the performances in a sense. It’s all onstage, really, that I try to distill my life into.
Your work is littered with a sense of anger against injustice, recently I read The Guardian piece where you said you are a “flawed hypocrite” – I think we are all flawed, but you see things more clearly than most and rail against things other people are very apathetic about. Did you grow up in quite a politicised household, or when did this sense of things come about?
I did get politicised by my Dad who, early in his life, was very involved with the Teachers Union in NYC. He gave me a book by Ferdinand Lundberg called The Rich and the Super Rich. I was so struck by the unfairness of the polarisation of wealth – which keeps getting worse and worse – in the US. So for some reason I always had a political bent. And I am glad I do although it’s so easy to say “fuck it, who cares, I’m just going to have a cake and watch tv.”
Your podcasts are very successful, I wonder if it is something that you really enjoy? I always think that listening to comedy is always quite effective, when I was growing up comedy vinyl was some of my most prized possessions, and that hasn’t really changed – so I wonder if the podcast is a very satisfying thing to do?
I also enjoyed listening to comedy albums! Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, Shelly Berman, George Carlin. There is something about just listening that is very comforting. You close your eyes and are transported. I do like doing podcasts because there is no one editing your content and you can basically say what pops into your head and, depending on who you are doing them with, they can get on a roll. It’s like a great chat session with a friend when they work well. And no television executives telling you to not talk about this or that.
Going back to that, you have released work on record such as The Big Push, more about your characters, and then A Great Stillness – do you feel that it is as important for you to have documented this work, as for the audience? Great comic writing is such a craft.
It is such a great feeling to have work documented because it gives me a sense of relief that the work will be here forever and not lost. I do so many bits off the top of my head that I don’t remember later and I sometimes feel such a sense of loss. There is something about knowing your work is there in some form that is quite comforting.
Fairly recently, the writer Howard Jacobson was at a reading event, talking about what is perceived as “serious” writing and “comedic” writing, and he won the Booker prize a few years ago for what he said is regarded as “serious” writing, yet has written more comedic novels that didn’t win anything, yet he said he is more proud of those novels, and they were actually harder to write, yet comedic writing is seen as a poor cousin in a sense – what are your thoughts?
I think comedy writing when done well is great art and deserves to be taken as seriously as any writing. I think the best writing of any form has to have great comedy in it. Any book or film that doesn’t have a deep sense of humour, a deep sense of the absurd, is only half a book or film. Life is a comedy first and foremost. When we lose our sense of humour, we are doomed.
Following on from that, who are some of your favourite writers?
My favourite writer is a Brooklyn boy: Henry Miller. I also love Kurt Vonnegut. Douglas Adams is my favourite comedy writer. I also love a novelist comedy writer, Mark Leyner.
You have a background in improv, do you credit that with providing a good basis for comedy?
Yes, improv helped me stay with moments that don’t work onstage and then not panic and work toward being funny again. Improv helped me always be in the moment onstage. I got into improv because when I first started doing stand-up comedy I was terrified of it. I was so alone up there. So improv was getting to find my comedic abilities with others onstage. Less frightening than stand-up.
You have talked before about the Occupy movement, where does it stand at present in America?
The Occupy movement was crushed by the police state here, plain and simple. The brute force of the police was too much for a small movement. However, there is tremendous dissatisfaction here in the States with the status quo and I feel that it will come back – the movement that is – in a bigger way. It is still active in stopping people’s houses being foreclosed. I think it’s an awareness and activism that is still building. We shall see….
Sometimes I worry about how things at present seem so immediate and equally disposable in the world, advanced by the over-reliance on technology and fragmented way of communicating. I know that you have a relationship with social media, but you seem to have an ambivalence about it also – I don’t just blame the medium, although it doesn’t appeal – but I think it can often allow people to exist in an echo chamber. What are your thoughts?
Yes, I also feel that the saturation of the Internet makes people into spectators rather than participants. I think social media gives the illusion of participating as opposed to really engaging. It is a rabbit hole of narcissism that is easy to go down.
So much of your own work springs from a kind of pain, and I have always felt that the best comics are ones who are struggling within themselves as well as the world – what do you think? And does comedy provide you with a kind of cathartic platform?
Yes, I feel like the best comedy comes from intense self-examination and the pain of living. Comedy coming from thoughts and concepts doesn’t make me laugh as hard. For me, comedy is very cathartic. I feel like I can breathe again when I am on a roll onstage. All of my pent up energy, angry and frustration has a place to be acknowledged and received. I don’t feel ignored and shunted aside anymore.
Puddin’ is so wonderful – was it that Matt Oswalt just approached you directly? Did you know instantly he was someone you could work with?
Yes, Matt had the same dark, repressed rage sensibility that I have. He was writing for me and the tone was something I immediately related to. Dark and biting and no apologies.
You live in Los Angeles, what on earth is it like? One of the reasons I love Larry David so much is because he always seems like a fish out of water, in Curb when he is wandering around Los Angeles, all crumpled up, he seems so out of place, it is all sunshine and fakery, and he is so rainy and true. New York has always seemed to represent the latter. Woody Allen explores that too in Annie Hall, where Annie goes to Los Angeles and meets the the Tony Lacey character (Paul Simon) to “work on her music” and it is so creepy. What is your relationship like to Los Angeles? And have you ever struggled with living there? Do you miss New York, and what is your relationship like to New York?
My relationship with Los Angeles is definitely love/hate. I love the creativity of the place – there are so many artists from around the world that come and seek fame and fortune. I love the eccentricity of all the artists there. On the other hand, it’s so hard to be surrounded by all that competition and constant onslaught of who got what show and feeling that you have missed out on something. It is also too damn sunny for me! I like rain! I like clouds! You get to rest in bleak weather. I do miss NYC and how vibrant it is. L.A. is a giant suburb with no centre, so I miss the heartbeat that NYC has.
Your show in Edinburgh last year was wonderful – how did you find the experience? It must have been very special to you as you had never performed there, and if I am correct, had never been to Europe before.
Edinburgh was an amazing experience. I had never done that many shows in a row in such a scrutinized environment. It was draining and rewarding. I had no energy or voice left by the end of the festival but it was well worth it. I am not going this year but plan on going in 2014. The city itself is so beautiful and old.
What are you reading?
I am reading about 10 books at once these days: Flowers for Algernon, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Hell, The Tao, it goes on and on.
Lastly, what are your plans for the next year?
My plans are to write a new hour of material and get that filmed, to keep traveling and hopefully develop a couple of TV shows with me at the centre of them!