Much has already been said about the vast gulf that separates Eddie Pepitone’s on stage persona with his real personality. Heck, there was an entire documentary—2012’s The Bitter Buddha—that revolved around that very subject. But something else that came out of that film and that comes out when talking with the 56-year-old comic and actor is how intertwined those two character traits are. The reason that Pepitone’s latest stand-up special and album In Ruins is so potent and cathartically funny is how deeply felt his material is. Whether that’s talking about his relationship with his dog, his anger at the ongoing Iraq war, or dealing with his ongoing insomnia, the raw emotional core of each bit is palpable.
Pepitone is also quite aware of this public perception of himself, and often embraces it. That’s why he was more than willing to jump on board with Matt Oswalt’s web series Puddin’, which, according to legend, was written solely to get Pepitone to portray the dark heart of a nameless office space. I think even he knew he was perfect for the role. And that’s why when I made the silly joke on Twitter that my first question to him for this interview was going to be “Why so glum, chum?” he grabbed it and ran.
Eddie Pepitone: Why so glum, chum?
Paste: You saw that!
Pepitone: Why so glum?!? I’m working on that! Because I wanna be the guy who’s very aware of all the injustice in the world but himself doesn’t get too depressed. I read a lot of Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges. My dad who was a union leader in the New York public school system gave me a book when I was 12 called The Rich and Super Rich, which is basically about the fucking people who are fucking us. Environmentally things are bad. But to be funny with it…it’s tough because I try to keep my rage absurd. There’s something inherently funny about a guy who loses his shit all the time because he thinks being angry is going to give him power. C’est la vie. I try to keep my internal and external worlds in balance while also accepting that the world is a pile of shit. So that’s why I’m so glum.
Paste: Now, maybe more than ever, stand-up comics like yourself have to be constantly on and constantly busy with podcasts, keeping up social networking feeds, and doing a bunch of shows every week. Is it hard for you to keep up that level of activity?
Pepitone: That is a pain in the ass. I was talking to my wife about that last night. I just want to take a break from Facebook and Twitter but there’s a part of me that thinks I have to keep spitting out jokes or I’ll be left behind. I remember when there was no Facebook or Twitter. George Carlin and Richard Pryor didn’t have those things to worry about and they did fine. I guess, in a way, it’s good. It’s good that you can get your voice out there. You do have this immediacy that’s nice. But a certain type of obsessive person like I tend to be, it gnaws at you. The tyranny of email. That’s another trap of it: the constant validation thing. You want to see who retweeted me or who is saying what about this.
Paste: Tom Scharpling was just talking the other night about how he wants to ease back on his tweeting because, as he put it, that’s creative energy that he could be putting towards something like a book or a script. He already deleted his Facebook account.
Pepitone: That’s funny because I saw him being very emotional on Facebook about his dad dying, and people were giving him all this love and then he deletes it. [laughs] There’s something funny about that. I get it, though. I worry about the creative energy that goes into Twitter. Does that mean that creative energy doesn’t go into a book? I mean, I feel like that with just my stand-up stuff.
Paste: So many other stand-ups tend to work material on the road, record a special, and then basically start over from scratch. Is that difficult for you to do considering how extemporaneous and “in the moment” you are on stage?
Pepitone: It’s hard for me to put stuff to bed. I seem to work thematically, like right now talking about getting screwed by society and my deep love for my dog. I’m in and out of those themes. Some of it I would really like to retire. When I’m on the road, I feel like I have this big bag of material to access whenever I want to. In L.A., I tend to be working out my thoughts and working on how I feel about things. I riff a lot and tape every set and listen back for a really good vein to hit.
Paste: Do you enjoy that process of listening to yourself or, when you were putting together In Ruins, watching yourself perform?
Pepitone: I hate it. It took me a while to be comfortable with that. I’m really happy with the special but I don’t like watching myself. I just get so critical. Just yesterday on a film set, I had some time, so I listened to three 15 minute sets that I did and I’m, like, “Jesus Christ, Eddie. You really need to tighten this up.” I do it because it’s good for me. It’s an educational thing for me. It teaches me to look for those bits that I can expand on and to try to not be so loose. In the moment, you get the feel of the crowd and you’re going with it, and I think, “That’s a great five minutes.” But then I listen back and I think, “That five minutes really could have used a punchline.”
Paste: You’ve been very vocal about your disgust with the military-industrial complex. But if the USO came to you and asked you to go overseas and perform for troops stationed in Afghanistan, would you do it?
Pepitone: I don’t know the answer to that. I might. I don’t know if I’d be able to be myself. I like to be really critical of what we do militarily so would it be hypocritical of me to do that? Then again, these troops are just like pawns in it. They need to be entertained. The troops are this massive amount of people that see this as a way for them to get jobs and get out of their towns. I’d be a little scared because I don’t want to offend anybody. It would be a tough call.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.