'Bitter Buddha': Spotlight's a bit brighter on pair's return

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'The Bitter Buddha'

'The Bitter Buddha' (March 14, 2013)

The last time I spoke with comedian Eddie Pepitone was June, just prior to the world premiere of his movie "The Bitter Buddha" in Chicago, where it screened during the Just For Laughs festival. Nine months and several tour stops later, he and director Steven Feinartz (a Buffalo Grove native) return to town this weekend on a triumphant wave of social media fervor. Both will be at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, with Pepitone performing a set Saturday at the Lincoln Lodge.

I was unfamiliar with Pepitone before seeing the film last year. Long an underground comedy favorite (and championed by comics including Marc Maron and Patton Oswalt), he is an entertaining and complicated man whose "epic grumbling has a lovely, vulnerable, crazy poetry to it," I wrote back in June. If Jackie Gleason and Larry David had a love child, Pepitone would be his name. He proves to be an ideal documentary subject. There is nothing slick about the man. If he held anything back it doesn't show.

Feinartz followed the New York-born, LA-based comedian for about a year (the film includes footage from a performance at The Hideout), capturing Pepitone's disheveled yet discerning sense of the absurd that exists side-by-side with a genuine quest for enlightenment — hence the film's title. What comes through is a person simultaneously explosive, vulnerable and positively buoyant, onstage and off.

Consider his "shirts-so-fresh" bit from his act:

"I'm in a commercial audition and the casting agent says, 'All you have to do is say, "Honey, how'd you get the shirts so fresh?" And then improvise, whatever pops into your head.'

"So the things that popped into my head were: 'Honey, how do you get the shirts so fresh when each year a hundred species go extinct? Yet you still get the shirts so fresh!' And it builds to the point where I say, 'Honey, how do you get the shirts so fresh? I mean, yesterday your sister came over and took her life in front of the children, yet you still get the shirts so fresh? How do you do it? Actually, the question isn't how, but why? Why do you get the shirts so fresh when the world is crumbling?"

When we caught up, he commented on such riffs: "A lot of times I'll listen to myself and think, 'I'm just so full of s---' after I finish. That's my problem: I believe in things, but only for a few seconds." He punctuated that last part with a rolling giggle, which (for a man who has built a career based on rage) is as unexpected as it is delightful. "To me, my rage onstage is a parody of rage. I take it to a level where I try to show how absurd it is to be so rageful. What's underneath it is just a guy who is scared. And also laughing."

Which doesn't mean the man is a picnic. "He hates the airport," Feinartz told me. "He hates anything that has to do with transportation. It really stresses him out. Anything to do with the airport security line or waiting for people to sit down on the plane, that's Eddie's Kryptonite. It's like clockwork, every time. I fear for him. I don't want him to have an outburst. 'Eddie, keep it together — we're promoting a movie, you don't need to make a scene here.'"

Though they didn't know each other before filming began, the pair have become friends. Feinartz thinks that made for a better movie. "If I had been close with him it probably would have been a completely different film. I would have guarded him a bit more. So I'm kind of happy I had distance initially. I could show all his sides and not be completely protective."

There have been some changes in Pepitone's life since filming ended. He married his girlfriend in November, which might come as a surprise to audiences watching the film. (Her on-camera appearance is so brief, you worry their relationship has run out by the end.) They have moved out of the apartment seen in the film, the one I described as "a few precarious piles short of a hoarding intervention." (Pepitone's wife hated that footage, by the way.)

Pepitone's regular appearances on "Conan" (heckling the talk show host from the crowd) coupled with the film's release have combined for a modest career boost. "I've already seen it. I can tell when I'm doing stand-up, the crowds are there specifically to see me, and the crowds have been good. When I get introduced in clubs now, there's a level of applause that I never had before. It's definitely notched things up. It's interesting. But it certainly hasn't turned me into an overnight success."

After his stop in Chicago, he leaves for extended tour dates in Australia and then the U.K. I asked how his New York-accented act works overseas. "Really well because I think they like seeing an unhinged American. So I'm just going to go and (expletive) be me."

Comedian Eddie Pepitone and director Steven Feinartz come to the Music Box Friday for a screening of "The Bitter Buddha." Go to musicboxtheatre.com. Pepitone performs his act Saturday at the Lincoln Lodge. Go to thelincolnlodge.com.

Casting news, part I

Pilot season continues with the casting of former Second City players Keegan-Michael Key (of Comedy Central's "Key & Peele") and Brad Morris (a staff writer on "Cougar Town") as the male leads in a new USA single-camera comedy created by Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair (of last year's short-lived NBC series "Best Friends Forever"). Fellow Second City alum Stephnie Weir (also a consulting producer on "Raising Hope") joins the cast of an NBC comedy pilot starring "The Office's" Ellie Kemper.

Casting news, part II

This week it was announced that Steppenwolf ensemble member John Malkovich will star in the TV adaptation of the book "Republic of Pirates," set in the 18th century. And both ABC pilots shooting in town this month added recognizable names to their casts, including Christian Slater and Steve Zahn in "Influence" and James Cromwell in "Betrayal." The networks won't announce which pilots have been picked up for series until May.

Casting news, part III

In local movie news, the big-screen adaptation of "Divergent" (the first in a trilogy of the best-selling dystopian novels by Evanston resident Veronica Roth that begins shooting in Chicago next month) has added actors Maggie Q (star of the CW's "Nikita") and Zoe Kravitz ("X-Men: First Class").

Some enchanted movie

Chicago native and "South Pacific" star Mitzi Gaynor comes to Chicago for a screening of the 1958 movie musical Tuesday at the Music Box Theatre, where she will be interviewed by film historian Leonard Maltin as part of Turner Classic Movies' annual "Road to Hollywood" tour. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.

SXSW

Among the Chicago films that screened this week at Austin's South by Southwest festival were "Born in Chicago," a documentary tracing the musicians who made their way to Chicago during the Great Migration. Also at the fest was Joe Swanberg's "Drinking Buddies," the local filmmaker's first project featuring name actors (including "New Girl's" Jake Johnson, also a Chicago guy; Olivia Wilde; Anna Kendrick; and Ron Livingston) that filmed in town over the summer. The early reviews for the improvised project are positive if not overly effusive, with the Hollywood Reporter declaring that "Swanberg escapes the mumblecore ghetto with a sexy relationship comedy." It has yet to be picked up for distribution.

nmetz@tribune.com

@ninametznews

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