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At 53, Eddie Pepitone could be considered an elder statesman in the alt-comedy scene. He has a reputation as a “comic’s comic,” a writer and performer looked up to by people like Patton Oswalt (who’s a vocal fan), Sarah Silverman (who hired him for The Sarah Silverman Program), and Marc Maron (who has Pepitone perform at live WTF gigs). His stand-up style—loud, cutting, and almost gleefully grim—is directly descended from the Patron Saint Of Alt-Comedy, Bill Hicks. Although Pepitone has worked regularly as a character actor on film and in television for 20 years—on everything from The Sarah Silverman Program to Law & Order: Criminal Intent—his roots in comedy and improv go deeper, so it’s curious that he’s only releasing his first stand-up album, A Great Stillness. But it coincides with Pepitone’s rising profile: A documentary about him called The Bitter Buddha is currently being submitted to festivals, he appears in a funny daily web video comic called Puddin’, he co-hosts a podcast called The Long Shot, and he has one of the darkest, funniest feeds on Twitter. If friend and sparring partner Marc Maron can have a late-career surge, maybe Pepitone is due for one too. Just after the release of A Great Stillness, The A.V. Club spoke to Pepitone about the album, the importance of pain in comedy, and why he stopped going on commercial auditions.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been at this a long time. Why an album now?
Eddie Pepitone: I had actually done an album of characters, but not stand-up. I called it The Big Push. It was a compilation of my one-man shows. But this came about because this guy from Chicago, Steven Feinartz, and his producing partner, Mikki Rosenberg, they approached me in July, and they wanted to do a documentary on me. And it’s now coming out, by the way. It was just submitted to festivals—South By Southwest, and it’s gonna be submitted to the San Francisco Film Festival—and it’s called The Bitter Buddha. But anyway, there’s all kinds of things that started to come together for me, like my popularity with WTF [podcast] appearances. I do the live shows with Marc at the Steve Allen Theater, and that’s where Steve and his partner, Mikki, had seen me. Anyway, the reason I mention Steve is because he was the one who suggested that I go to New York and do a big show there, so he could interview my dad and kinda see the neighborhood where I grew up. So the whole thing came together, and this album came out of him filming me at Gotham [Comedy Club], and it was a great show, because Patton Oswalt did me a favor and opened for me, and there was 300 people, and it was packed. I just felt like it was a really good show, and Steve Feinartz gave me a copy of the show and he said, “What do you think of this?” And I said, “Great. Let’s put an album out.” That’s how it came together.
As far as why now in my career, I’ve been all over the place as a comedian. I did improv for years. I’ve done one-man shows. Because if you’ve ever seen my stand-up, I tend to be really theatrical, and I’m not a traditional setup-punchline guy. I’m not even a storyteller. [Laughs.] I don’t like to say, “Oh, I went to a party one time…” I just kind of do this stuff where I come from this emotional place about things. I’ve kind of figured out stand-up, I think, within the last couple years. I’ve been doing lots of shows. I’m 53, and I feel like, “Oh, okay. I think I can do stand-up now.” [Laughs.] I feel like I can go into clubs and make people laugh.
AVC: What about it was evading you before?
EP: I think because comedy-club audiences really weren’t into what I was doing—or, at least, that was in my head—which was these long, long rants about shit. Just long rants about whatever the fuck I felt like talking about. I’m trying to make my selfishness serve me now, because I’ve been very selfish about what I do onstage. I don’t really think of bits for audiences; I just kind of do what I feel like doing, what I feel like expressing myself about, and now, I’m finally, I think, able to get a balance where I can take what I am… by the way, it’s so hilarious when I start talking about stand-up and trying to figure out what the fuck I’m doing. I catch myself, and I’m like, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
AVC: Right. You’re getting into “the art of being of funny.”
EP: Yeah, yeah. I think I just basically have enough confidence now where I can do it.
AVC: You’re releasing A Great Stillness yourself. Why not go through one of the labels?
EP: [Laughs.] You know, that’s a good question. Again, this was with my documentary guy. He said, “We could just do this ourselves.” It’s been a good thing, because I got an email from Billboard last week—they found me through my website—saying, “Hey, we need some information, because you charted on our top 10.” The “top 10” meaning in their comedy and spoken-word category. So it has been a good thing. I think that’s part of my outsider status. I feel like an outsider. I don’t know if every comic feels like that, but even though everybody always tells me, “You’re very loved at Comedy Central,” I never felt that way. [Laughs.] And whatever other labels are out there. You know what it was? We taped it, me and Steve, and it was like, “Yeah, let’s put it up ourselves. What the fuck?” In other words, it was like I didn’t have to deal with anybody, and it was done immediately. And I am a big fan of instant gratification. I really am. One of my big flaws is being patient. “Oh yeah, why don’t you contact Comedy Central Records or this and that…” And plus then, we didn’t have any hassle with content or anything.
AVC: The album has an improvisatory feel, like at the beginning when you’re talking about Twitter, but keep going on these long tangents. It’s like Paul F. Tompkins’ last album, which opened with 15 minutes of riffing.
EP: Oh, great. It’s funny, because I never listen to other people’s albums. First of all, I hate listening to my stuff, just to get that out there, but I hate even listening to other people… not hate, but I hardly ever listen to other people’s podcasts. And they are so out-there right now. I wonder if the popularity of podcasts takes away from things like album sales.
AVC: We’ve talked about that with comedians before. Last year, I interviewed Chris Hardwick, who does the Nerdist podcast, and his theory is that podcasts are the new comedy albums. When you look at people like Hardwick, his podcast got so popular, he can book live podcasts in 1,200-seat theaters; Doug Benson can go on the road and play his Leonard Maltin game from his podcast at his stand-up gigs and people love it; Marc Maron has progressively gotten huger.
EP: It’s interesting, the podcast phenomenon. I think what it means is that people got sick of setup-punchline bullshit. It’s much more interesting to hear people talk about their lives. I think comedians are self-compelled to “be funny” all the time, and it turns out that comedians are pretty fuckin’ interesting, and people dig hearing them in more of a long-form format. But I don’t know if they are the new comedy albums, because there’s so fuckin’ many of ’em, and they come out so often. Comedy albums were kind of a big deal. But I think the podcasts do take away from people’s desire to hear a “comedy album” from somebody they’ve heard a lot on a podcast.
AVC: Because they say, “Oh, I can just get this on their podcast.”
EP: For free.
AVC: Do you have a sense that The Long Shot could be cannibalizing things a little?
EP: Maybe a little. You know what? Who the hell knows? To play devil’s advocate, because my mind always can take the other side of an issue, maybe podcasts have sparked this interest in comedians that has not been sparked for a while, and people all of a sudden are like, “Shit, lemme get this album and that album, because I’ve heard these guys on podcasts. Lemme hear them do a live comedy album.”
AVC: You said you’re into instant gratification. You can tell that on the album, because you have a lot of very recent references, like Occupy Wall Street, or billboards advertising Whitney. Was it always the plan to get the album out right away?
EP: No, and by the way, I think this is one reason why it’s such a fresh album, is that I had no intention of making an album. It was just part of the documentary, and it turned out to be such a good show, so we decided to make it an album. I think that if I was like, “Okay, this is gonna be an album show,” it might’ve not have been as fresh. I don’t know, though. [Laughs.] I’m just playing devil’s advocate.
AVC: It’s hard to say, because if you’re trying to do an album, would you maybe avoid talking about something like Whitney?
EP: Oh, that’s interesting. No, I don’t think so.
AVC: Because in a couple years, maybe people won’t remember.
EP: [Laughs.] Oh, that’s a good point. Well, I find people remember advertising from, like, 50 years ago.
AVC: That’s true. They can’t explain how World War II ended, but they could tell you about a commercial.
EP: [Laughs.] Exactly! When I go to Target, it’s amazing, because I’m so anti-corporate, I rail against corporations, but I love some of the products. I’ll go to Target, and I’ll see a Coca-Cola T-shirt, old advertising, and I’ll be like, “Oh, I would really like to have that.” And then I stop myself from getting it, because I remember who I am. [Laughs.]
AVC: Target’s a good example, because you can think, “goddamn corporations,” but then you see someone like Maria Bamford doing these really weird, funny commercials for them, so you want to be happy for her.
EP: I hate that, by the way. I have finally stopped going out on commercial auditions. I was never into them anyway, but I don’t do that anymore. I can’t be the face of fuckin’ Bank Of America. Are you fucking kidding me? You know what I mean? And the thing is that actors fuckin’ need money, so they fuckin’ wind up [in them]. But to be the face of a bank, or Target? It’s just, ugh, I don’t know. I don’t wanna do that.
AVC: Going back to the Twitter thing on the album, you talk about how much you enjoy Twitter, but so much of your material also attacks the frivolous, and Twitter is often cited as being a megaphone for people who are self-absorbed. So as a comic who goes after frivolity, do you have that ambivalence about Twitter?
EP: Yeah, I do. What happens with me and the Internet in general… This is true, this happened on Monday. I was on the Internet and I was watching some of the Occupy protests on YouTube. The occupiers had gone down to Goldman Sachs, and the media was hassled by the cops, and then I watched another video. I’ve been getting really pissed lately at police brutality against the Occupiers. I get really psyched up. And then I went to Twitter and I saw that Kyle Kinane, who’s a buddy of mine, had tweeted some bullshit about “Fiji water is God’s way of saying ‘fuck you’ to cup holders, ”or some such nonsense. And I immediately said, “Great stuff, Kyle! Way to make a difference in the world with your tweets!” Then I saw Kyle that night and I said, “Dude, I’m so sorry. I get so out of my mind.”
AVC: He had such a great comeback, though.
EP: I know! [Laughs.] However, this is what I say about that. I think I can put out some stuff and that would influence people to take action. Retweet a video. I love retweeting a lot of accounts that are very political, like the 99-percenters and Anonymous Occupiers. I love retweeting their stuff. And I also know that the social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have played a part in these fuckin’ movements. People communicate with each other through this stuff. And I do have a love-hate [relationship] with Twitter, because of the bullshit that’s on there.
And I also feel a tyranny from Twitter. I feel like I have to post funny things every day, or my “fans” will drop away now. It’s a weird tyranny I feel. Today, just before you called, I was like, “Oh, I should do a thing,” because I like formats, and one of the things I do is “Signs that things aren’t going well.” I just don’t feel inspired to do it, but I will probably do it. After I finish talking with you, I’ll probably put a couple out there. Because I realize there’s a good payback for comedians on Twitter. You spend a few minutes. For me, it’s easy to just bang these things out, some jokes out for people. I’ve talked to other comics who are like, “Fuck puttin’ out free stuff for people.” For me, it’s no skin off my nose. I can just go, “Bang, bang, bang, here’s some jokes.” I don’t give a shit.
AVC: How did you settle on doing what you do on Twitter? Did you start out doing more personal stuff, or have you always just been doing this kind of thing?
EP: No, I’ve always been doing it. It’s evolved. I’ve been on Twitter a couple of years now, I think two and a half. I remember, constantly, I would do this thing called “tweets of a moron.” And I would start doing things. It’s a very addictive thing, too. On the one hand, I say there’s a tyranny to it, but on the other hand, I’m thinking, “Wow, this shit I’m about to type out is gonna hit an audience of people.” In my head, anyway, I’m like, “I have this audience of 30,000 people”—because that’s about how many followers I have now—“who are gonna see this joke I just wrote, and I think it’s really good.” And I can’t wait. Again, it’s this fuckin’ instant-gratification thing. I’ll tweet it, and I also put it on my Facebook account, and then I immediately start looking for responses. And I realize that that’s not good for me. I should tweet it, but I shouldn’t really care too much about the response—or at least immediately, because that gets very much like an addict. I’m kind of an addict. I get addicted to everything. I was a huge pothead in college. And the same thing as an addict gets into—you can go to the “Mentions” button and look and see who’s responded, and it’s very titillating. It’s a trap there, because I wanna get other writing done, and other things done. But it’s kinda fun, too, because you’re like, “Oh, this person loved what I did, and she’s cute!”
AVC: There’s nothing worse than if you have it in your head that, “Oh, this is gonna be huge,” and then it just doesn’t hit.
EP: [Laughs.] Oh, that really sucks, too! That really sucks. Then I’ll get mad at my Twitter followers. I’ll be like, “Fuck them! They don’t get anything. Fuck them.”
AVC: There’s a great line on the album early on where you say, “Isn’t that really how life is? Like, it’s the most horrific shit juxtaposed against nice things.” That sounds like the best way to summarize the Eddie Pepitone comic worldview. Because so much of the album comes from the humor of “If you don’t laugh, you’d cry.”
EP: Yeah, that’s the only place I can come from as a comedian. I can’t do what Demetri Martin does, or Zach Galifianakis, like very funny, kinda one-liner-y things. My stuff has to come from this place of anguish. It has to. I’ve also realized that when I’m onstage, especially—Twitter’s been good for me, because I kinda get one-liner-y—if I’m not connected to the material emotionally, I’m just kinda dead up there. I’m not funny when I’m not emotionally engaged, whereas some other comics are even funnier when they’re more aloof.
AVC: You’ve talked about being in pain and forming your comedy. When you were on the Totally Laime podcast, Elizabeth Laime asked you how you got so funny, and you said “Because I’m in a lot of pain.” Is being in a certain amount of pain critical to being a good comedian?
EP: Absolutely. Oh man, if you haven’t struggled mightily, and especially struggled mightily with yourself? I think the best comedians are the ones who have had to battle themselves, besides the world. Throughout your life, you internalize the world. I grew up in just a fucked-up, crazy fuckin’ household, so I internalized all this insane shit, and then at some point in your life, you’re like, “Wait a minute, I wanna be happy.” That’s what everybody wants. But what stands in the way of your happiness is the shit that now lives inside of you, because you’ve internalized all this kind of emotional—I’m speaking for myself—but I’ve internalized all this emotional violence. Now the only way I can be happy is to fuckin’ battle my way through that, or dissipate it somehow, in comedy. To me, this is what it is.
I was in my shrink’s office yesterday, and I said, “I’m a fuckin’ absurdist. Life, to me, is absurd, because I grew up in kind of a loveless, angry household. And that made life absurd to me.” That’s what I feel like is how comedy is forged. You wanna give life meaning against all of this pain and anguish. You’re trying to give it meaning and you’re trying to be happy, but you have all this stuff that is in the way. And that’s the stuff I talk about.
AVC: Are there good comedians who are pretty well-adjusted?
EP: I’m sure. I don’t know, actually.
AVC: Doug Benson seems normal enough, aside from being a big pothead.
EP: I think that normality and comedy don’t really go together, or the guys who are normal aren’t that funny. They’re funny, and there’s a place for everybody, and there’s a place for every type and level of comic. But the guys and the gals who, I think, give you the biggest, gut-wrenching laughter? For me, it was Richard Pryor and [George] Carlin. I think they were tortured. Bill Hicks. Rickles, I think, is a tortured soul. I love Don Rickles, and I think he’s a tortured soul. I think he’s very well-adjusted now, but I think he was a fuckin’ complete misfit. You know who seems really well-adjusted but hilarious is Bob Newhart. He’s a Chicago guy. I love Newhart, that wry sensibility. You can divide the world up into Rickles and Newhart. I love Rickles more than Newhart. I know in real life they’re best friends and stuff, but I prefer the Rickles explosive type of comedy to the observational mannerisms of Newhart.
AVC: You did a road-trip episode of WTF where Marc Maron mentioned that people always ask him, “Why don’t you have Eddie on a full episode?” And his response was, “Have you ever talked to him?” How much of you is onstage? Do people expect you to be this loud, rageful guy offstage?
EP: You know what I get from people all the time is, “Holy shit, you’re really sweet.” They’re always amazed how my offstage persona is so different than my onstage thing. I definitely have lots of rage, most days, but going onstage is a heightened experience. You have to be on. I used to be the guy that was on all the time, but thankfully, in the last, at least, 10 years, I’ve learned I don’t have to be funny offstage. I mean, I naturally am now. If there’s one thing I’m confident in in my life, it’s that I’m a funny person. After that, I don’t have confidence in much.
AVC: Plus, it’s exhausting being around people who are always on.
EP: Oh, yeah. And Maron’s hilarious, because Maron always says that about me. I’m always like, “Fuck you, Marc. You’re the one who’s difficult.” It’s so funny that he says that. “I can’t deal with Pepitone.” He always tells me, “You’re draining.” And I’m like, “No, no, you’re the draining one.” We go back and forth like that. I’m always telling him that he’s fuckin’ draining, and he’s telling me that I’m draining, and whenever I leave him, I’m going, “I can’t fuckin’ believe he thinks I’m draining when he’s so fuckin’ draining.” It’s hilarious.
AVC: To shift gears a bit, how did Puddin’ come about?
EP: Okay, yeah, that was amazing. Patton Oswalt’s brother, Matt Oswalt, is the guy who writes and directs these. And he fuckin’ approached me—I don’t know how long we’ve been doing it now, almost a year and half or something—and he just approached me, like, “Hey man, I got this idea. You wanna meet for coffee?” And I was like, “Okay, yeah.” By the way, in L.A., I get approached by so many people to do their projects and their web videos and their fuckin’ this and their that, so I’m like, “All right, here we go with this.” But I read what Matt wrote, these little monologues that he thought would be funny to set in a corporate break room, and I was like, “Holy shit, this guy…” I felt like I was reading my writing. He wrote so well for me.
AVC: It’s very much in your voice.
EP: It was amazing.
AVC: Until I’d heard that Patton’s brother was writing it, I’d assumed you were writing them.
EP: Everybody does. As a matter of fact, when I first read them, I was like, “Are you stealing my shit?” But he’s not, he’s just a really dark guy, too. A dark comedic soul. And he found another dark comedic soul. [Laughs.] And the rest is history. He does it all. I just show up and do ’em. I do have input into the tenor of them sometimes. I’ve written a couple of them, but I keep saying I wanna write a bunch of ’em, but I never do.
AVC: How do you shoot them? Do you just do a whole bunch at once?
EP: Yeah, we do it once a month, and we shoot about 30—25 to 30 a month. So we do it once. We usually take a Sunday, and we film in the offices of Patton’s manager, and we usually spend about four or five hours.
AVC: So is it one take and move on? Four hours isn’t a lot of time.
EP: Oh, no. We try to nail it in one take, but it’s usually a couple takes, at least. Two or three. I’m fuckin’ exhausted by the end of the day, and I usually get into fights with [Matt] during the shooting. Like, “Where the fuck is the food? How come you didn’t fuckin’ order food?” I just get exhausted and really moody and shit by Puddin’ number 17. [Laughs.] We do about 30 in a day.
AVC: That’s a full day, though, right?
EP: Yeah, I’m so fried. It’s so funny, because when I come back from that—I live with my girlfriend here in North Hollywood—I am just such a fuckin’ basket case. And it’s Sunday, and I usually have taped football, and I just sit and watch my Giants lose, and then I feel like everything is back to normal.
AVC: What kind of reaction have you gotten from them?
EP: It’s been really good. That’s another thing that’s been good for my popularity. WTF and Puddin’… So it’s just interesting how that’s another great tool for a comedian these days, is doing something like that, a little web series, that you can build your popularity. I just did ’em because I liked ’em. I never have any kind of plan. Even though I’m starting to wise up and be like, “Ah, shit, I gotta fuckin’ start writing some pilots.” I’m in the process of putting together a couple of ideas for shows with a couple of people, and pitching shows to maybe Adult Swim or Comedy Central. We’ll see, but I’m the type of guy who’s like, “Oh, this is funny, let’s do this.”