Interview: Eddie Pepitone, comedian

Eddie Pepitone is a bit lost, but the Bitter Buddha’s never felt so good, he tells Kate Copstick

Eddie Pepitone is a bit lost, but the Bitter Buddha’s never felt so good, he tells Kate Copstick

AUSSIE comedian Adam Hills is doubled up beside me in the basement of The Tron. His face is creased with what could be pain, but isn’t. He is holding his ribs and rocking back and forth. “OK, that’s enough f***ing frivolity,” bellows the man onstage.

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“Where are you from?” he demands of a man in the front row. “I do amazing crowd work,” he points out to the rest of us.

One of the many great things about the Edinburgh Festival is that it acts as a ­talent magnet for the kind of performer who would never otherwise come to the UK. The kind of talents who are bordering on the iconic in their own countries. Eddie Pepitone is such a talent. This is not just the American’s first trip to Edinburgh or Scotland, it is his first trip to Europe – “my world has just got so much bigger” he enthuses when we meet over lunch. Unlikely as it seems, he is a vegan (primarily as a stance against factory farming), so we find ourselves at Edinburgh’s default beans’n’broccoli specialist, Henderson’s on Hanover Street. While I am glaring at the salad selection muttering “£1.50 for a tablespoon of cabbage?”, Pepitone is delighted. He has something brown. For a man famous for his rants, off stage and out of the podcast, he is incredibly sweet. “I am so nervous,” he says. “I worry.” About what? I wonder. “Will people like me?” he says. “I do want to be liked.”

I pause, wondering if I have the wrong Eddie Pepitone. He is, after all, the Bitter Buddha. He has just been the subject of a film documentary of that name. But here, chewing chickpeas, he doesn’t seem a Bitter Buddha at all. More a Worried Wenchang or Slightly Depressed Dizang.

On stage, Pepitone is sipping water after a brilliant and damning attack on magicians, and gearing up for another attack. “New Age remedies…” he begins and it kicks off. Coriander, Slippery Elm and Sleepytime Tea lead on to his old school approach to tweeting and his loathing of motivational speakers. The room is entirely his. I look around at upturned, open-mouthed ­faces like baby eagles, waiting for the next scrap of torn flesh to be given to them. Politicians make for particularly tasty morsels.

Back at lunch, he is essaying the trifle and musing on the fact that “it has taken me this long to come through…” He took the scenic route to stand-up legend status via ­improv, one-man shows and character work. On the bright side, he notes: “The longer you have lived, the more you have to say.” It took him until he was 40 to leave New York. But maybe that is genetic. “My ­father has never left the States,” he says.

The documentary follows Pepitone back from LA – where he has based himself for the last 12 years – to see his father, a history teacher, and to look at their fraught relationship. He talks about his ­father on stage and, as ever, the more difficult a relationship is, the better comedy it makes. “I am fuelled by rage,” smiles Pepitone, offering trifle on a spoon, “and tremendous self doubt.”

In the Tron basement, he is now offstage altogether and heckling himself from the ­audience. He is demonstrating what it would be like to be heckled by someone who really knows you personally. It is awesomely funny.

Pepitone’s grasp on comedy fame became properly firm with his appearances on Mark Maron’s podcast WTF With Mark Maron. He is also a regular “New York Heckler” on Conan O’Brien’s shows. In fact, name an American comedy, sketch or late-night show and Pepitone has popped up there ranting and heckling and berating the world in general.

He has embraced the cybersphere like an NBF (albeit he regards it as “a big propaganda machine”) and is a prolific tweeter, famous for shooting acerbic, agonised questions like “Why?!” off into the digital ether. And now he is here. The cultural divide holds no fears for him (“I was raised on Python”) but the Festival ­itself leaves him in awe, he says.

“It is the immensity of it,” he says, eyes popping. “I mean it is huge… and the sheer logistics of putting on a show here…”

Pepitone also worries about getting lost. I draw him a helpful grid map of the new town but it does nothing to allay his fears. However, he is loving Edinburgh. “I can’t ­believe how beautiful this city is,” he says. “I just walk around feeling like crying all the time.” But he doesn’t really feel like crying. Pepitone is in “a good place” right now. He is engaged to be married to a lady called Karen – whom he met when she came to one of his shows in LA as a fan (“and we just hit it off”). And his first album, A Great Stillness, was an instant, enduring and massive success when it was released last year, and the film looks to be heading to Film Festival fame after its showing in London.

Plus he is getting a handle on his neuroses. “For the first hour of every day I have no phone and no computer,” he says. “It just gives me some quiet time to get my head sorted for the day.” Now that is more like a Buddha, although I don’t think that is what the nickname refers to.

Having seen him tear the Tron apart, I then get lucky enough to see him take on Set List. You can feel the tingle of excitement run through the tagline of comics standing at the back of the Big Cave as Pepitone takes the stage to be gloriously, hilariously, passionately outraged. He loves the show, which has comics flying by the seat of their pants held up only by a list of five surreal and meaningless topics which they have to weave into a comedy set.

“It’s like a Rorschach Test for comics,” says Pepitone. “You have to be there, in the moment, with the audience. You have to be honest.”

“When you next see me I will be clean shaven,” says Pepitone. He is off to gear up for his show. “I suffer from the nerves,” he says, a frown reappearing. “The nerves. I can’t eat before a show but afterwards I get terrible munchies.” He pauses. “Will there be places open to eat that late?” I reassure him. “For vegans?” I recommend fried pizza. He looks disbelieving. As we emerge from Henderson’s basement the frown comes back once more. “Which way do I go?” he ­worries. Just the way you are going, Eddie.

FYI, Adam Hills made it to the end of Eddie’s show without serious laughter-induced injury. But only just.

• Eddie Pepitone’s Bloodbath,
Just the Tonic at the Tron, 
until 26 August, The Bitter Buddha followed by Q&A with Pepitone and director Steven Feinartz, Just The Tonic Caves, tonight, 11.15pm.