Today, there’s not only an expectation for comedians, as a breed, to be troubled and perhaps a little unstable, there’s also a strong desire to delve into their issues with them, using, among other resources, new media. A comic might have a Twitter with thousands of followers, do a podcast with even more listeners, write a blog-post that pinballs across the entire Internet, and then come back to the bread-and-butter of a comedy club to a do a show for a couple hundred people who might not even be fans. The Bitter Buddha, a documentary by Steven Feinartz, explores these themes as it follows 55-year-old Eddie Pepitone, a “your-favorite-comedian’s-favorite-comedian” whose resentment towards the entertainment industry is matched only by his workmanlike commitment to eventually break into it.
The film is generally hands-off when it comes to constructing a narrative. There are a few through-lines, such as Pepitone’s relationship with his father and some of his peers, as well as a loose build-up to a headlining stint at the Gotham, but beyond that Bitter Buddha is content to cycle through anecdotes and disconnected events, presenting its subject not as a case-study, but as an individual whose life is fascinating by its own merit. Stand-up routines and media appearances are sprinkled throughout, some favorable and others not so much. It’s not important that you find the material funny; it’s, for the most part, an examination of the behavior and drive of a comic who has yet to find large-scale success. It’s a chance to see what that guy with the bit part in The Muppets movie does all day.
A brilliantly, effective inclusion occurs roughly two-thirds of the way through the movie, when fellow comedian Marc Maron, after a bit of dubiously tense back-and-forth, jokes that “the cameras following you around are really doing something to your personality,” and asks “how are they gonna get a real documentary if you can’t be honest when a camera’s on you?” Pepitone and his interviewer laugh at the pseudo-seriousness of the question, and move on. This small moment, though, showcases how irony and the need to mine comedy from anguish can be emotionally destructive and can caricature your turmoil. The viewer can’t be sure that Eddie’s really crying when he feels overwhelmed, or if he’s really angry that Whitney Cummings got her own TV show, because his on-stage persona indulges that same sadness and rage. Where does real life start when you get emotional for a living? Is there a real life left at all?
Also divorced from the tangible world are Pepitone’s tweets and podcast appearances, which appear here with accompanying animation. Although it’s likely there just wasn’t another good way to represent the non-visual media, the cartoons are further reminders of the distortion a comic persona must face, in both basic performance, and in embracing an Internet venue. One could hope to transcend this lack of control, especially later in life, but despite Eddie and his colleagues’ suggestion that he has developed wisdom and serenity, he loses his temper when he discovers a typo, and shouts at his self-help tapes. He’s a Bitter Buddha. Or maybe it’s just a bit he’s doing. Would that be more of a letdown than a titular punch-line about his body-type?
The subject matter and the questions The Bitter Buddha raises are so formidable, there’s little room for Feinartz to go wrong in the sculpting process. In fact, the film is more successful when it’s less story-driven, and less assembled. To that end, it’s possible that, in the spirit of unfiltered, behind-the-scenes access, the purest version of a project like this would involve watching the film’s raw footage. To allow engagement with the unadulterated elements behind the piece would be to truly align the medium and the message. But it might be really hard on the person trying to make it work.