There's a common trope in movies where a panhandler or religious zealot rants about the end of the world, either via cardboard sign or sidewalk sermon. If that guy were to walk on stage at The Dynasty Typewriter in Los Angeles, it would be Eddie Pepitone's special, For the Masses. The 61-year old comedian described his special to VICE as "'Boy, am I a fuckin' flawed person,' interspersed with 'Look at what these fucks are doing to us.'"
In For the Masses, Pepitone often addresses his audience as if they are fools or simpletons, as shown when he prefaces mundane activities like going to Starbucks or driving on the 405 with "not to brag." He slips between the voice of a manic Bernie Sanders and a sedated public radio host, providing footnotes as to why he's yelling. It's fitting for Pepitone, whose nickname is "The Bitter Buddha," a comedian who's made a name for himself in railing against capitalism, corporate America, and apolitical comedians. He has a longstanding bit on Twitter that captures this voice well.
A regular at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, Pepitone said he felt very alone with his political material there, as other comedians spent more time making jokes about eating ass. (That's a big one, right now, he says. New York comedian Ted Alexandro agrees.)
VICE spoke to Pepitone on June 3, after several days of Black Lives Matter protests, which erupted across the country after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for over 8 minutes until he stopped breathing, and has since been charged with murder and manslaughter. Pepitone described the current energy of the country as an "incredible shift in consciousness," one of which "we have to put others ahead of ourselves. Or else this is not gonna work."
VICE: Corporations and politics are so intertwined, especially in this country. And it's tough to divorce that when you have to think about how you're going to get your work seen. It's like when you criticize capitalism, people will point out you did so from an iPhone. How do you think about that, moving around as a political comedian and trying to get your work out there?
I look at myself as a big hypocrite a lot of times. I always justify it. I have the iPhone, the latest one, and I say to myself, 'I need it for my career.' [laughs] You need technology to navigate this world. When people come at me, 'Oh, said from his iPhone,' I know exactly what they're talking about. Until we become one big small fishing village, I don't know what else to do.
I watched the special before the protests started and watched it again, today. It feels more timely.
It has? I have to watch it again.
There's a part where you describe a scene of guys, gathering around having shots of urine. And then they say, "Let's hope fascism comes, and there are shootings every day."
What did I say? I forgot.
I'm pretty sure it was, 'Let's hope fascism comes, and there are shootings every day.'
[In For the Masses , Pepitone describes his father as a salt-of-the-Earth man who didn't have the luxury of flower-adorned lattes, he lived at the docks and drank his own urine. The above phrase is a toast that Pepitone acts out.]
I love to improvise when I'm on stage. I have the strong foundations of the bit, but when I feel very on, i.e. when I feel loved by the crowd, which by the way is one of the biggest downfalls of a comedian like me, I need to be loved by the crowd. To say things that really put people's nose in reality, you have to know you're not going to be loved by everyone. Other comics like Doug Stanhope, he will just walk the room, and not give a damn, where I am always trying to please. And so that's a big sticking point with comics. I've been critical of other comedians, I've even posted on social media saying, I'm sure when all this is over, the great majority of comedians are still going to be talking about dating and pizza crusts. Because they're afraid.
VICE: Some comedians might have a bit, while our whole country's on fire, about the quirks of the Domino's delivery app. I'm curious to know how you think about that, not being a "pizza crust" comedian.
I saw a comedian, I won't say who he was, 'You know, I don't want to deal with any political comments on here,' I think it was Facebook. 'I never post about politics.' And, I'm thinking, 'But everything is political.' I think that has come home to roost. It'll be interesting to see if comedians get more political now, what their take is on this. It's just wild to me. When comics are just talking about pizza crusts and the vagaries of the Domino's pizza app, that can be funny. But it's gotta be done in the context of an awareness of what's going on in the country. I was doing that before all this shit hit the fan. And I felt very alone.
You've said your comedy comes from a place of insecurity, which I think is interesting especially for your kind of comedy, where it's often political. Comedians talk about being "allergic" to clapter, where people might agree with the message, but not the joke.
I always have in mind to be funny first, and then get the message in.The bits I do on corporate hegemony, the war machine [laughs] by the way, you'd be very hard pressed to see comics attacking the Pentagon war machine. I have a couple of bits that attack it. [Pepitone performs the below bit, almost word-for-word, over the phone.]
I understand that the average soldier is just somebody who couldn't find a good job because of the society we live in. And there's no fucking manufacturing base or no real good blue collar jobs anymore. And they come from this incredible poverty and most of them go in to get some money and some college benefits. And yet it's clap, clap, clap, clap, clap.
There's so much stuff that we have programmed as our default without it being thought of as political, like fighter jets flying over our football stadiums.
You've heard my bit on that, right?
I don't think so, actually.
I go, "I wish the announcer, when the Air Force flies over football stadiums. I wish they would be truthful, and they would go [announcer voice] 'Ladies and gentlemen, flying overhead is the Fort Bragg Squadron, these are B-52 bombers! Each one of these B-52 bombers could be 50 libraries in your community! Or you could have healthcare and education for all!'" And I go on and on and I finally end the bit by going [announcer voice] "But instead you have a manifestation of imperialistic evil! Enjoy the game!"
Why do you think you've remained the same, when often people will become more moderate or even bend right as they get older? Your material really seems to resonate with young people today who are politically active.
I wish the studios would see that. They're always like, 'he's too old,' meanwhile my fanbase is younger people. I just had an awareness when I was young about how the game is rigged, and I've always kept my eye on that element of our world. My father, for a brief time, was a union leader in New York City. I don't know if you remember Albert Shanker. He was the United Federation of Teachers union leader and they were striking back then in the early 70s. My dad, for a while, was one of Albert Shanker's right hand men. My dad instilled in me this very pro-union, pro-worker [perspective.] He gave me a book that totally changed my life when I was 13 or something. It was called "The Rich and the Super Rich" by Ferdinand Lundberg. I love authors who are scathing in their critique of the corporate system.
My favorite right now is Chris Hedges, who I think articulates it better than anyone. I think the guy to listen to right now is Cornel West, particularly with Black Lives Matter. He's amazing.
I've always been anti-authoritarian. I think a lot of comedians are people who have felt the injustices of life. A lot of male comics will be misogynistic, because they feel completely fuckin' rejected by women. I try to channel my anger that I feel in this life toward the people in power. That old adage, punch up.
To that point, in the special, you have a bit on adult coloring books [and stress balls] that could have easily gone the way of the "coddled generation, participation trophy" kind of thing. But you tie it back to people trying to fill the gaps in their healthcare.
I am such an impulsive buyer. I bought this squeezy ball, you know the balls you can squeeze in your hand? And there was a little tag on the squeezy ball and it said, "Will reduce anxiety." I was like, "This could be a really good tool." Of course I used it for half a minute, if that. I just realized, it's because we don't have a humane society that they give us shit like squeezy balls.
There's been such a shift in the news cycle since you recorded this special. Do see what's happening now as encouraging?
Yeah, I do. This had to happen. It had to happen with the fucking incredible transfer of wealth, it's been going on forever and accelerated under Trump, and the fucking CARES act, which was this six trillion dollar transfer of wealth to corporations while we get 1200 bucks. And the horrible murder of unarmed Black people, it is the perfect storm. It's day-by-day now, what is going to happen, right? Chris Hedges said that if electoral politics worked, they wouldn't be legal. These demonstrations and protests and unrest, they're gonna fucking change some things that wouldn't have been changed.
[At end of interview] Did you get everything?
One thing I noted but it didn't fit in anywhere: Across two specials, you reference jerking off to hockey fights-
[laughs] I'm a big hockey fan. I'm actually a big sports fan and I always look at that as complete hypocrisy. Because sports have become so fuckin' corporate and the NFL is commercial for the military and yet I'm still rooting for my team.
For the Masses is currently streaming on Pandora and SIRIUSXM, and will be available on video via Amazon, Google Play, Xbox Video, and Vudu on June 23rd.