‘Pep Talks with The Bitter Buddha’ Brings Brutal Honesty to Podcasting
They say you never really know a person until you’ve crawled into their skin and walked around in it. I’d like to update that to say that you never really know a person until you’ve listened to their podcast. Podcasting may no longer be in its infancy (I’d say it’s a toddler by now), but it is shaping up to a medium that rewards total, brutal honesty. After all, it could be argued that podcasting’s popularity was kickstarted by Marc Maron’s in-depth, soul-piercing interviews with iconic celebrities on WTF. It’s easier to be your authentic self in an audio-only format. You don’t have to worry about what your hair looks like, what hue your skin is, or what’s stuck in your teeth. I often wonder how many podcast hosts have recorded episodes of their shows naked. I am sure there are more than a few.
Pep Talks with The Bitter Buddha, however, takes the concept of brutal honesty in podcasting and shoots it up into space. It is hosted by one of my very favorite comedians, Eddie Pepitone, whose specialties include screaming, absurd observations, bizarre non sequiturs, wacky cartoon voices, and slashing political commentary that is by turns both depressingly real and whimsically surreal. But he jettisons all of that on his podcast, which is not so much a comedy so much as a chronicle of one man’s baring of the soul.
Though the format once included guests, the episodes as of late have become solo chronicles of Pepitone as he paints a full picture of his real life with all of its fears, angers, joys, and sadnesses. Pepitone’s thoughts spill out of his mouth with seemingly no intervention from his brain. He lays it all out. His anxieties about the life and the world, his chronicling of his various physical ailments, his terrifying fears of death and old age, expressions of his far-left political leanings, and occasional thoughts on British television, comic book shows, and sports. He brings up the journalist Chris Hedges in just about every episode and refers to him as “my guy.”
As in his standup, Pepitone does not stay on one topic for very long. He jumps around, goes off on tangents, and makes sudden dives into random thoughts flitting by in his mind. It can get a little exhausting to keep up with the bullet train that’s in his head. But, ultimately, out of his stream-of-conscious ramblings emerge a portrait of a spiritual, endlessly creative soul whose pursuit of enlightenment is challenged by neuroses, anxieties, and a lingering fear that we live in world of chaos and pain. I really am at a loss as to why Pepitone keeps expressing fear that listeners downloaded the show expecting a comedy podcast. Of course it’s a comedy! It makes us laugh hysterically because we would otherwise collapse into a deep depression and drown in a typhoon of our own tears.
The podcast is not recorded in a studio. Instead, Pepitone takes the listener on journeys through the phone in his pocket. We rove around with him from week to week. We travel to trailers on television sets, coffeeshop patios, the middle of LA traffic. He’s done episodes while doing his laundry or while making coffee. He sometimes even records early in the morning while his wife is still asleep in the other room, speaking so quietly that you have to crank up the volume as high as it goes. In this way, the podcast becomes an audio diary.
The level of audience-to-host connection is higher than any other podcast that I can think of. You kind of have to stop yourself from considering him your best friend. He begins each episode by saying that he’s “checking in” with us. It’s like your dad calling every week to make sure you’re doing okay. He wants to make sure his listening audience is hanging in there during these dark, chaotic times. And he not only encourages listeners to E-Mail him, he pretty much demands it. I once E-Mailed him to recommend the movie A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. He actually responded and I’m thinking of putting it into my framed collage of E-Mails from other podcast hosts.
The quality of the audio varies from episode to episode. Sometimes it’s relatively clear, as Pepitone seems to be in a studio, but most of the time the sound is filled with poppy crackles which explode into clipping whenever Pepitone screams his angry-banshee screams, which is pretty often. The rebellious defiance of crisp audio works completely in the show’s favor. That raw, imperfect feeling that such audio creates adds to the idea that we are hearing the unvarnished truth. Yet, the audio is never to the point of un-listenability. It’s just another way of really keeping it real.
The most important function of this show, however, is the way it reminds the listener that they are not alone. Pepitone dives so hard into the truth of his anxiety that it makes his mental illness wholly relatable. I dare you to listen to but one episode and not say “Yep, I’ve felt that, too”. Whenever I feel alone, I always turn on this or The Mental Illness Happy Hour. There are times when Pepitone seems to be on the verge of tears. With Pep Talks, Eddie Pepitone defeats the patriarchy by throwing a gigantic middle finger to the idea that men should not display emotions.
Pep Talks, insanely, seems to be both incredibly easy and incredibly difficult to produce. Anyone can pick up a phone and start talking into it, but how many people can go this deep and remain funny while doing so? Since the podcasting medium is so accessible, there are loads and loads of people doing just that. And how many of them do you think are actually good? That’s because Pepitone is so in touch with his unique perspectives on life that it can always be accessed. He is the only person who can make throat-shredding, red-eyed, blue-in-the-face screaming feel like a rebellious act of pure joy against a world gone mad.