Comedy Meets Tragedy in Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure
There's something hilarious about eavesdropping on an argument between strangers, but if you learn enough about the people involved, you stop laughing and maybe start feeling sorry for those people. And that's the arc of Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, which explores the 1990s underground comedy phenomenon and explores the all-too-human side of it.
Director Matthew Bate takes us back to the dingy San Francisco apartment where two Wisconsin-ites moved in the late '80s, only to discover that their next-door neighbors -- one gay, one straight -- had a frequent tendency to get roaring drunk and abuse each other in full-volume arguments. The new tenants decided to start tape-recording these screaming matches, and before long, their "Shut Up Little Man!" audiocassettes were taking the 'zine world by storm.
The film explores the voyeuristic appeal of what it calls "audio verité," which can include anything from overheard conversations to taped prank-calls. And while the tapes went viral in the slow and steady way that used to happen back in the old analog, pre-internet days -- the point is made in the film that this is the sort of thing that nowadays becomes the biggest thing of YouTube before disappearing in two days -- the recordings also inspired comic-books, stage plays, and at one point, three proposed film versions.
While the tapes are admittedly funny -- "If you wanna talk to me, then shut your f*ckin' mouth" is so absurd it almost feels like a Zen koan -- the "stars" are very, very sad people. And when we see footage of the drunken neighbors outside of their element, tragically drinking themselves to death, you feel a little guilty for laughing.
But Shut Up Little Man! knows and understands this dichotomy, and it's one of the things that makes the film so effective. It could stand to lose about 10 or 15 minutes in its final act, but beyond that, it's a funny, fascinating, and bittersweet documentary that deserves a theatrical life after what will no doubt be a successful festival run.