Stand-up comic Eddie Pepitone is central casting’s dream: the angry, middle-aged New Yorker. You’ve seen him play that stereotypical, outer borough rageaholic in countless TV shows. Heck: on Conan sketches, he literally plays “angry New York guy“. A cult figure in stand-up circles, Pepitone was scratching out a living with occasional TV work, until a documentary on his life (2012’s The Bitter Buddha) and episodes of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast first broke him for a wide audience. At 55, he’s now building a fan base of non-comedians, drawn to his reputation as a comic’s comic. He’s taping his very first TV stand-up special at The Bell House this Tuesday and Wednesday. We spoke with him last week by phone from Los Angeles.
See also: Top 10 Stand-Up Comedy Specials of 2013
How are you, Eddie? Sorry about being late for this call.
Don’t worry about being a couple of minutes late, because in Los Angeles, there is no time. It’s just sunny 24/7. There is no night time. It’s just blazing irrepressible sunshine. So we have no concept of minutes.
Excited about the special?
Very. I’ve never done a formal comedy special like this. It’s funny when you get pumped like this, you kind of have to ignore it. I’ve been watching the Rangers make a run for the Stanley Cup, and this is a like a Stanley Cup-type thing for me: I have to keep my emotions under control to play well. I can’t get too crazy about it, because I’ll drain my energy. It’s a dance I do with myself mentally. I say: “Oh, this is nothing, this is just another couple of nights with some shows”. But then another part of me says: “Holy shit, this is a big deal… a five-camera shoot, and this could be really be good.” You have to kind of pretend it doesn’t mean a whole lot.
Will the show be largely improvised or material-based? What kind of show can people expect?
A combination of both. My best shows are when I’m so connected with the audience, that I’m riffing, in the moment, on the state of my mind. I’m constantly letting off steam. I’m one of these guys with a built-up angst. I’m a New Yorker trapped in LA. I have all this angst and it comes out on the stage and if the audience is really into me, stuff will just start coming out. I have a defined set list too, but well see how much I get to.
Steven Feinartz made a feature-length documentary about you in 2012. The Bitter Buddha. You must be proud that exists.
It was a bizarre experience because it’s all me, and it’s all about me and it’s a very intimate thing. So it’s tough to watch sometimes. But I am proud of it. It’s a wild thing to have a documentary made about you. I recommend it.
The “angry guy” is a classic trope of stand-up. But you’re atypically angry. You’re savvy and knowing. Call it a therapized rage. Where does the rage stop and the self-knowledge begin?
I try to make a point with my anger. I don’t just vent with it. I use my anger to make statements about anger. I make it a cartoonish rage. When I’m on stage, I’m actually the opposite of angry. I’m kind of in a blissful setting and I can deal with my anger in an insightful way. Ultimately, rage is a waste of energy. It drains me, so I am highly therapized about it.
People call you a comic’s comic. How do you feel about that label?
Hmmm. You know, I like it. I like getting the respect of my peers. But usually attached to that label is “not great mainstream success.” I like the fact that other comics like to see me perform. There’s no greater honor, in a way. But on the other hand, I know that a lot of people equate it with not being successful. And that’s a little annoying.
Maybe in comedy, just like anywhere else, everyone just wants what they can’t have. Jeff Dunham has millions of dollars, but probably just wants to be applauded when he walks back into the green room.
You play the “everyman guy” on TV, in countless shows: King of Queens, 2 Broke Girls, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, etc. etc. But many comics don’t want to be an everyman. They want to be a unique voice. How do you feel about filling that pissed-off, “guy on the street” role so often?
On television I do a lot of that. I’m at peace with it, but I know I am not an everyman. I’m not the average guy who just goes to work and really doesn’t analyze his life. I’m all about trying to get insights on how the everyman is getting screwed. I’ve read a lot of reviews about myself lately, and I’m not upset about people perceive me anymore. There are some people who really get me, and some people who, frankly, can’t get past the way I look.
I’ve grown a thick skin.
What’s the worst part you’ve ever auditioned for, in terms of the description of the character on the call sheet?
I remember I once was asked to audition for a commercial… it was for a product to combat anal leakage. It was some kind of product that fat people, or people who overeat are supposed to use. And I just remember being so fucking humiliated. Like, “what the fuck am I doing here?”.
Show business thought America would see you and think “Oh, yeah: I buy a guy like that having anal leakage”?
There’s a great moment in the documentary when you scream at a billboard for NBC’s Whitney, decrying the show. Then, cut to you, playing a role on that show. It’s hypocritical, but human. Art and commerce are always at war in your business. Who’s winning today: the artists or the moneymen?
The commercial world is winning. I feel like the state of Hollywood comedy is very mainstream and not very interesting. There’s not too many shows or movies pushing the envelope. It’s very safe stuff.
Is comedy in a new golden age creatively, but studios aren’t capturing it?
I think so. Louie has managed to capture it, because Louis C.K. has complete creative control. But it’s not being captured in big films, for sure.
Well, you’re pandering to a New York show. And we always love that. So, thanks. You’re a native new Yorker. It’s changed a lot since you lived on Staten Island. Best and worst part of the change?
Manhattan has become an island of wealth. It’s become a boutique borough. Is that a phrase that’s used?
No, I think you’re coining it.
There are all these little specialty shops that are completely divorced from reality. All kinds of different gourmet macaroons, but where did the grit go? The best of it is still how many people give energy to New York and make it such a dynamic place. When the New York comics come to L.A., I think they’re always funnier than the people here. The New York comics stand out because they always seem to have an edge and a heightened sense about them.
Is New York the funniest city in America?
Maybe. I think because you’re rubbing elbows with so many different types of people, you’re exposed to so many ideas and cultures, and it’s a city of great extremes… if you’re inclined to see the absurd in the world, this is the place for it.
Not many comedians invent a new kind of “bit.” But I think you’re the first ever comedian to self-heckle. You leave the stage, sit down in the crowd, and lob insults and observations at the stage. Then return get back on stage and respond. Is this a creation of yours?
Yeah. It went over really well at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a while back. I developed it years ago and people love it because it’s so unorthodox. The choreography of it is so strange and compelling.
What’s the best it’s ever gone?
It’s captured in The Bitter Buddha. There’s a moment when I start to philosophize about there being no God. Screaming “I don’t know if there’s a God! But your sports team won today, so I guess that’s kind of a wash!” I was in a dialogue with myself, turning my whole heckle into a theatrical play, like a Pirandello piece where I’m wondering who I am. Am I the guy onstage, or the guy looking up at a guy onstage?
Plus, in the movie, the Giants had just beaten the Eagles. Which is always a religious experience.
A lot of your persona is about a quest for success that has so far proved elusive. What would it be like if you became huge?
You know what? I would really like to find out. [Laughs]. What I’ve found about the little success I’ve had, is that success is often very difficult in ways that failure is not. You’re wanted more. There is a different stress… the stress of constantly being busy, which I find to be quite annoying.
Do you have a name for your special yet?
“Stand-Up Tragedy.” A lot of my act exudes a tragic-ness, because I’m always in a hyper-angry state, and I yell about a lot of horrific things. I came up with a bit, that since the U.S has lost so many jobs, and the economy and ecosystem are crumbling, we should close the comedy clubs and open up tragedy clubs. There we can perform stand-up tragedy, going onstage and telling tales of horrific tragedy, trying to get people to cry.
That sounds like NPR.
A parody of stand-up comedy? Could well be.
Eddie Pepitone tapes his stand-up special at The Bell House this Tuesday and Wednesday.