Shut Up Little Man!: An Audio Misadventure details a pioneering viral-media phenomena, a series of tape recordings of two profanely bickering old San Francisco men, Ray Huffman and Peter Haskett, that were made in the late ‘80s by their young neighbors Mitch Deprey and Eddie Lee Sausage, then passed around to friends, and eventually became an underground sensation. Titled after Peter’s most famous insult to Ray, Matthew Bate’s film raises the question of what the fate of these works of “audio verité” (i.e. recordings made in secret, and often of a pranky nature) would have been in our modern YouTube age, but never cops to the most likely answer: They would enjoy 15 seconds of fame before again receding, like “Charlie Bit Me” and “Evolution of Dance,” into world-wide obscurity.
Even as a nascent example of a now-burgeoning trend, however, this initially intriguing doc never manages to justify its own superlative praise for Ray and Peter. The duo’s arguments—surreptitiously made by Mitch and Eddie sticking a microphone out of their cruddy apartment window—are a monotonous litany of swearing, threats of violence, and homophobic taunts from straight Ray to gay Peter, the latter leaving Mitch and Eddie, even decades later, to track down Ray and Peter’s occasional third roommate in the hopes of answering the ever-so-crucial question: Were the two argumentative curmudgeons actually lovers?
It’s beside the point that Mitch and Eddie’s interest in their subjects is so juvenile, since the very nature of enjoying “found material” requires some measure of immature voyeuristic fascination with strangers’ crazy (if relatable) behavior. More problematic, though, is director Bate’s attempt to address the legal issues stemming from the fact that the recordings, which Mitch and Eddie ultimately copyrighted, led to plays, film projects, and comics (including by Daniel Clowes). This avenue proves fruitless, because despite their laughable denials to the contrary, Mitch and Eddie’s behavior was so obviously exploitative, and yet irrelevant to the tapes’ ability to capture a sliver of the collective imagination.
Given its refusal to examine the subsequent Jerky Boys-aided mainstreaming of audio verité, or seriously consider the ethical dubiousness of profiting from drunken, destitute nobodies’ heartache (when Eddie expresses teary regret over Ray and Peter’s sad lives, it reeks of phony after-the-fact posturing), Shut Up Little Man! fails to legitimize its topic as one of any significance. Mitch and Eddie are merely a shrewd pair intent on franchising their covertly created tapes, Ray and Peter are no different than the hordes of creeps and exhibitionists crowding the Internet, and Bate, stuck with material too flimsy and shallow to elicit laughs or warrant moral handwringing, succumbs to copious dramatic recreation-and-cartoon-graphic gimmickry to mask his vacuously celebratory POV.