SxSW: Bitter Buddha

Eddie Pepitone feigns interest as Bell dominates convoMy quest to connect with comic Eddie Pepitone, aka the Bitter Buddha, in person at the 2013 South By Southwest (SXSW) Festival proved to be quite the challenge.

First off, the North Door, where he performed on two nights, wasn’t exactly situated in a “desirable” location. Catching Pepitone in the act required missing a sizable chunk of SXSW “official” parties that promised free drinks and possibly barbecue (or so it seemed). Second, his panel, aptly titled “Why Comedians Don’t Give A F*ck If You’re Offended,” conflicted with a number of viable options, including catching Willie Nelson on the red carpet for the film premiere of When Angels Sing, a chance to witness Matthew McConaughey carry on some semblance of a conversation, an event kicking off the JASH comedy platform featuring Sarah Silverman, and even a panel titled “Biology of Weight: What Men Need to Lose the Gut.” Also, as Pepitone’s documentary The Bitter Buddha  was not part of the SXSW “official” line-up, I did not learn that the flick was premiering until about ten minutes before showtime. Hence, I arrived more than a bit drenched, with only warm Lone Star beer to comfort me.

During his too-brief foray at SXSW, Pepitone puffed from panel to stage like a sluggish Tazmanian devil who consumed one too many bean burritos, leaving me standing around going WTF? (and not in a Mark Maron kind of way). I do hope this represented a one-time faux pas; last month, I had witnessed one of my comedic idols put on a performance that more closely resembled the tail end of the late comic Lenny Bruce’s career instead of the creative genius depicted by his publicity machine. (These comedic encounters did serve as harsh reminders for me of how even a seasoned Buddha-killer can fall into the traps of idol worship.) So, despite comic Paul Provenza‘s recommendation that I catch Pepitone, I began to wonder if actually connecting with comics represents an exercise in futility.

But with each repeated encounter of the Bitter Buddha, I understood why Provenza insisted I track Pepitone down. Within this Willy Loman-like man lies the soul of a tortured man-child who resembles the spiritual offspring of Andy Kaufman and Sam Kinison.  Finally, a comic who refused to become—in the words of the late comic Bill Hicks—“a capitalist shrill, another whore at the corporate gang bang.” Most comics who claim to have picked up Hicks’ mantle focus on Hicks’ anti-God bits. They proclaim “No God! No God! No God!” with the childlike glee of rebellious teenagers sipping their first beer. But in the end, their goal appears to be to entertain the masses, a move that ends up American Idol-izing even the most original voices.

Like Hicks, Pepitone’s explosive rants go for the jugular behind the joke. His work cuts through the hypocrisy inherent in our 21st-century Christian-capitalist culture, and shows us how living in reality can be attainable for those who dare to venture outside the confines of the media deemed safe for populist consumption.

When I learned Pepitone would be going even further off the grid joining Provenza and some other comics in LA on March 30th for Set List, I wished I didn’t have to leave Southern California two days earlier. Nor can I journey down under to catch them this month at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. But I sense that like the Bitter Buddha, Set List is an experience well worth pursuing for those who seek to move from the prepackaged to the prophetic.  And my chase for satirical voices I can believe (though not worship) in continues …

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).