Asking comedian Eddie Pepitone to help promote anything, even if it is his own upcoming show at VisArt Video, feels ironic.
After all, one of the funniest bits in his latest stand-up special For The Masses, named 2020’s funniest special by The New York Times, sees him acting out a hypothetical Downy commercial audition where he improvises, diverting from typical ad patter to ask his wife, “I don’t wanna know how you got [these shirts] fresh, I wanna know why; why are you burying your head in fucking laundry when the whole world is collapsing?!”
Pepitone, who first arrived on the scene as a contestant in the first season of Last Comic Standing in 2003, excels at this sort of juxtaposition. He delivers his bits with a quiet-loud-quiet performance style, like a stand-up comedy version of The Pixies.
But even if he is an unnatural pitchman — it definitely sounded like he was putting away dishes for the majority of our phone interview — his talent and relatability are beginning to do all the necessary advertising for him. We spoke about his Nov. 14 gig at VisArt Video, an unusual venue to say the least; his recent rise to more mainstream popularity after a long career that built him a cult-like following; and other recent goings on before he arrives in Charlotte.
Queen City Nerve: The Charlotte show is taking place at VisArt Video, a video rental store with a small performance space, making it an outlier on this tour schedule centered around larger, more traditional venues. How did this booking come to be?
Eddie Pepitone: Well, I don’t do the booking, my tourmate JT does, so I really couldn’t answer you that question, but one thing that me and JT Habersaat love to do is perform in different venues — or not as big. I actually like that because stand-up is so much fun and intimate then, you know what I mean? There’s smaller and different venues, too.
It’s always fun to play with the space of a different venue. I performed in a brewery in Pennsylvania the year before the pandemic happened, and I remember climbing up on a ladder to — you know, they use it to get to the vats that they’re brewing the beer in or whatever — and I climbed up and I gave the whole performance from up on top of the ladder, and it was so much fun.
In a video store, I’m already thinking of, who the hell is renting videos? Is this a front? Literally, even DVDs seem to be over. So that’s kind of a funny thing already that I’m sort of thinking about.
You’ve been doing stand-up for a long time now, but your profile seems to be more on the rise, right alongside the further breakdown of society. Are we to take that as a coincidence, or are you just the right man for the right time?
You know, The Boston Globe actually did a story on me that was titled, “Pepitone is finally getting his due, all it took was complete societal collapse.” And I don’t — you know, that makes me feel two ways.
One, how much could you enjoy your success when the world is fucking collapsing? Because lately, I’ve been reading about the supply chain, and I’m like, “Wow, how am I going to enjoy this success if I can’t get my favorite potato chips,” you know what I mean?
I’ve always been kind of a guy who talks about how society, how our government, how our system is designed to kill us. And now it’s just very in people’s faces and people have been saying, I’ve actually had friends who said, “You happy now, Pepitone?”
I’m not happy. I didn’t think it was going to come this quick! I also didn’t see a virus thing coming. I wasn’t on that page, you know? So, it’s good to feel like you’re getting successful and you’re getting more recognition, but I don’t want to die in a wildfire.
No, that makes sense. So how surprised are you, then, to arrive at this moment where you are getting so much more mainstream attention?
Um, I love it. Am I surprised? Yes, I’m always surprised at any success I have. That’s just the way I’m built. Maybe it’s part of why I always focus on societal malfeasance, is that I have trouble accepting success. So, I’m always surprised at it. But I gotta tell you, it feels great.
The New York Times saying I had the funniest special of 2020 was kind of a big thing, and I make fun of it on stage. I go, “And who knows comedy better than The New York Times? Did you see their coverage on Syria? It was a laugh riot.”
I make fun of the fact that The Times said I had the funniest special, but it has been — what’s the word? — redeeming for me and validating for me. For sure, it has.
We seem to be moving into an era of less image crafting and more honest vulnerability, since it’s hard for anyone to successfully get across that everything’s going perfectly amid all of the shit that’s happening. Do you think that’s maybe also part of your work finding a larger audience? Because you’ve always been very vulnerable and open.
I think so. I think that’s a good analysis. Except, I have to say, watching comedians, and I watch a lot of them, they are still — a lot of them, not every one of them — but a lot of comedians are still pretending like nothing is wrong.
I swear to God, they’re pretending like nothing is wrong, and I get it. I get it because especially when I’m performing live and I’m in the back of the room waiting to go on, and I’m watching the show and some kind of comic is talking about something silly and just not addressing the fact that the ecosystem is collapsing, or, you know, that half of America is in dire poverty, and fascism is perhaps something that may happen soon, I just look at the audience sometimes and I’m like — they just, they’re just laughing. That’s not a bad thing.
And so I go up and my goal is, I get them laughing as well with silly stuff, but then I always start talking about, “You know we are in the end days, right, folks? And we’re having a good time here tonight, but let’s face it, it’s all crashing down around us.” And mention species extinction; and this is like on a Saturday night, I’ll mention species extinction for these people who are out on dates. I’ll mention just the fact that half the country is in dire straits, and then I pause and I go, in this slow voice, “Thank you for coming to my show.”
So I kind of suck them in by being funny first, and also I’m pretty self-deprecating and I think that reads.
Your Twitter account touches on this, too, where you juxtapose dystopian reality with the typical advertising copy. Have you ever heard from any company about that, or been contacted to do commercial work?
I have been contacted to do commercial work, but years ago, and I’ve made a point to stay out of commercial work because of the sentiment you see on my Twitter feed. So I haven’t gotten contacted by corporations, but … Snickers, they did a thing where they completely ripped me off; where they said something to the effect of, “Your life is an existential hell. You know you’re just waiting for death. How about a Snickers?”
A lot of my fans contacted me and said, “Is this you? Are you writing for Snickers?”
So I threatened Snickers, but there’s only so much you can threaten Snickers. Snickers seems to be in a world of its own, and also I don’t have the time or desire to sue anybody.
We look at corporations, they are hilarious to me, because when the Black Lives Matter massive protests started happening, all of a sudden you had, like, Chase Bank having ads about how Black lives matter to them. It’s just very funny to me how corporations will just co-opt any popular movement or trend.
This is an interesting time to be working on building a new hour, I’d imagine. You’re able to do shows, but they’re limited as to the number and capacity I’m sure. Is that impacting your ability to build a cohesive hour?
I tell you, the way I work on building an hour is very, kind of unorthodox. I’m not an unorganized person. My mind is all over the place.
With my last special, the director, Steve Feinartz — who directed a movie about me called The Bitter Buddha, a documentary about me — he directed all my specials … and I tape all my sets … on the phone, and he asked for the tapes and he went through with some people and they picked out themes and stuff, and that helped me a great deal. I’m hoping to be a little more organized this time around, but I haven’t really started buckling down with that.
But I am starting to think about, okay, what would a new hour look like? Because I think things have gotten bleaker since my last special, if that’s possible. The pandemic hasn’t gone away, the economy is crashing. Everything is, you know, things are changing big time. Like the fact that people don’t go back to work. I don’t know. It’s a very shifting time right now.
That’s definitely true. So then is there any message you want to leave us with that we might have left out?
No. You know, I think my message with this show I’m doing in Charlotte is that we should start looking at video tapes again. I mean, the Zapruder tape was something you could only watch on video, and you could get it at VisArt Video. The Zapruder footage is the biggest rental at VisArt Video right now.
Catch Eddie Pepitone with fellow comedian JT Habersaat at VisArt Video on Nov. 14.