Shut Up Little Man!: An Audio Misadventure is a documentary account of a series of viral, pre-Internet tape recordings of Raymond Huffman and Peter Haskett, two raging alcoholics who engaged in hilarious, drunken, verbal (and sometimes physical) brawls in their San Francisco apartment. In 1987, roommates Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell “Mitch D.” Deprey, two punks from the Midwest, moved into a building that they dubbed the Pepto-Bismol Palace due to its off-putting pink veneer. Upon moving in, the absentee landlady warned them that their next-door neighbors could occasionally be loud, but that turned out to be a bit of an understatement. After being repeatedly awoken in the middle of the night, the two began to surreptitiously record the feuding old men in the adjacent apartment. “Shut up, little man!” was perhaps the tamest insult hurled forth (this was Peter’s go-to catchphrase). Raymond would respond with furious homophobic vitriol and abuse, and the two would go back and forth telling each other to shut the fuck up in a variety of ways. Sausage and D began circulating the tapes amongst their friends, and they were an instant hit. Several years later, comic book artists like Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) and underground filmmakers became fans, and the tumultuous relationship of Peter and Raymond took on a life of its own.
The film, directed by Matthew Bate, has been compared stylistically to Errol Morris’s work, and it’s an accurate assessment. Bate uses recreations and old movie footage to punctuate the interviews with Sausage, D, and others involved, much as Morris has been known to do in the past. And the subject matter seems perfectly suited to Morris’s off-kilter tastes. But Bate certainly makes the material his own, as much as possible. In fact, that’s one of the central questions of the film: What right do Sausage and D, who have developed something of a cottage industry around the recordings, actually have to it? Can you copyright or claim ownership to conversations others have had in the privacy of their own home, even if it is blasting through your walls? These issues came to a head in the mid-’90s, when Hollywood came calling and various projects based on the tapes circulated. Ultimately, nothing came of it, and both sides give their views, each essentially blaming the other, about why talks broke down.
In his interviews, artist Daniel Clowes sums up the relationship between Peter and Raymond best, comparing it to a form of domestic bliss that in some ways was no different from any marriage. Of course, that would have to be one hellish marriage, but the point is clear—the two relied on each other for companionship and support, albeit through a opaque haze of alcohol and cigarette smoke. It’s remarkable that this piece of “audio verité,” as it’s referred to in the film, spread as far and as quickly as it did. Nowadays, YouTube and Facebook provide instant outlets for sharing material, and the ubiquitous cell phone-camera ensures that nothing can stay private for long. But this is proof that even in the old days of zines and cassettes, any form of pop culture would find its way to its particular niche.
Near the end of the documentary, Sausage and D attempt to contact a third man, Tony, who was a sometime roommate of Raymond and Peter’s. They also recount finding Peter at a bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood a decade earlier and offering him a royalty check from sales of the recordings. Peter and Tony seem genuinely confused about the fact that they were recorded, and even more so about Raymond and Peter’s celebrity. The inevitable question of morality is broached, and the filmmakers allow everyone involved to give their opinion about the ethics or lack thereof. It’s clear that Sausage and D see the recordings and the larger life they’ve assumed as art, but it’s highly likely that Peter and Raymond would not share that view. And we, as viewers, are complicit in this debate just by watching a documentary about this subject, a fact that makes Shut Up Little Man! even more interesting to watch.