"If you wanna talk to me then shut your fucking mouth!"
"Shut up little man!"
"You shut up you little cocksucker!"
"Shut UP little man!"
Such was a typical exchange between Raymond Huffman and Peter Haskett, a pair of alcoholic roommates who, despite being a raging homophobe and a preening, needling queen respectively, lived together in San Francisco though the '80s and early '90s. We would know nothing of Ray and Peter, nor their remarkably vile and utterly absurd exchanges were it not for two punk kids from Wisconsin, Mitchy D (Mitch Deprey) and Eddie Lee Sausage. After absconding from the frigid north, the pair found themselves in a low-rent, Pepto Bismol pink apartment complex in San Francisco in the late '80s. Who should happen to be their neighbors, but Ray and Peter.
The noise of Ray and Peter's constant booze-soaked bickering eventually became too much to bear for the pair, but after a failed attempt to engage Ray--the more provocatively cantankerous and threatening of the two--went nowhere, Mitch and Eddie decided to just go with it. Jury rigging a microphone to their stereo system, they began recording the nightly rows between their less-than-neighborly neighbors. Eventually, they began to disseminate the tapes among their friends, who apparently found the exchanges equally as hilarious as they did. Then more friends got it, then radio DJs started using the material, then comics began appearing using the fights as inspirado. It kept snowballing, and snowballing, and snowballing until suddenly, Eddie and Mitch had accidentally created a bona fide viral phenomenon.
Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure is as mostly a documentary about this specific story, though it also digs in a bit to the audio verite concept as a whole. Audio verite covers everything from simple prank calls to obscure, found audio of some historic (or at least comedic) value. Everything from The Jerky Boys to all those recordings of drunken Orson Welles angrily decrying the writing quality of a frozen pea commercial he's been tasked with providing voice overs for qualifies under the banner.
In the early days of audio verite, everything was passed around via underground tape trading networks, consisting entirely of enthusiast crazies who demanded to hear the latest in weird, surreptitious audio comedy. Thus, Eddie and Mitch entered the scene with their great work, which they appropriately titled "Shut Up Little Man!" in honor of Peter's favorite insult to Ray.
What follows is a detailed cataloging of everything that happened to Eddie and Mitch following the course of their sudden success as accidental comedy merchants. At first, the pair opted to distribute the tapes with a fair use copyright that allowed pretty much anyone to do whatever they wanted with it provided they notified them. Then that turned into an actual copyright, which has been a subject of some debate. Can two men who recorded two other men mostly unknowingly actually legally make money off of the endeavor? It's a question that this film never quite manages to answer.
Instead, director Matthew Pate spends a great deal of time reenacting the constant bickering with everything from actors that look vaguely like Ray and Peter, to 1950s stock footage selections, and even an old Hitler speech. It's a cute touch at first, especially given the relatively limited cinematic quality of the audio recordings themselves. Then it becomes clear that Pate really doesn't have any other tricks up his sleeve. Interviews with various fans and artists that made use of the material--including comic artist Daniel Clowes and director Mike Mitchell--are interesting enough, but by the time the film starts diving into the bizarre Inside Baseball-esque deliberations that went on in regards to turning Shut Up Little Man into a play, and eventually a failed movie deal, it's hard to care too terribly much.
After all, as amusing as Eddie and Mitch themselves are, the far more interesting characters in all of this are Peter and Ray. Both of them had passed away long before this documentary ever came to fruition, but when Eddie and Mitch talk about them, and discuss both their time in the apartment, and their subsequent attempts to track them down and explain to them the situation, the movie feels like it has a greater purpose than to simply talk about two men who did a thing and how it all went sort of wrong.
The self-inflicted tragedy of both Ray and Peter is simultaneously laughable and a little heartbreaking. You don't hear about it in the film, but evidently Peter had once been a fairly prominent ad executive during the 1960s. How he got to a stage where he found himself living with Ray is perhaps inexplicable, lost to years of alcoholic half-remembrances. One particularly harsh piece of footage shows Peter years after Ray's death, holed up in a fleabag residential hotel in San Francisco, being told of his own notoriety. Seeing his face, and hearing him jovially slur the "Shut Up Little Man!" line to his interviewers is like a way, way more tragic real life version of that Simpsons episode where Bart becomes famous for saying "I Didn't Do It!' over and over again. Even more compelling is the final interview with a man who actually spent a great deal of time with the pair, often breaking up their fights. Despite his own alcoholism and mental imbalance, he gives a context to their relationship that is both heart-wrenching and fascinating.
There is an amazing story in Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure. You'll have to wade through a lot of fluff and irrelevant storytelling to get there, but it's ultimately worth the trudge.