Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure

By Jeff Farr

Matthew Bate’s documentary on the underground phenomenon of the “Shut up, little man!” recordings covers a lot of ground. This is an arresting and moving examination of audio verite, voyeurism, alcoholism, homophobia, aging, business ethics, intellectual property, entertainment law, and what oh what might constitute art.

Bates has given himself a tall order here, but the director holds it all together by never forgetting the human element at the heart of this twisty story. “Shut Up Little Man!” is, in the end, about one mysterious relationship between two unknown men, Raymond Huffman and Peter Haskett.

Bates has surrounded that core with a fast-moving and fun hodgepodge of archival footage, film clips, reenactments, old photographs, incisive interviews, and investigative reportage that debuted at Sundance this year.

What are the “Shut up, little man!” recordings? When twenty-something Wisconsin escapees Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. landed in San Francisco’s Lower Haight in 1987, they wound up with next-door neighbors they never could have imagined back home. Every night, homophobe Raymond Huffman and queeny Peter Haskett, who for unknown reasons had decided to throw in their lot together, had long, loud, profane, Vodka-fueled arguments that the Wisconsin boys, their sleep interrupted, started to surreptitiously record as a kind of revenge.

Peter’s refrain of “Shut up, little man!” never failed to crack Eddie and Mitchell up, who started to share their tapes around and invite friends over to listen to the proceedings in real-time. After assembling fourteen hours of material over a two-year period, Eddie and Mitchell were surprised to watch their recordings take on a life of their own internationally through the pre-Internet world of tape traders.

The tapes ultimately became a pop culture reference point, an “urban folktale,” as the grownup Eddie succinctly puts it.

“Shut up, little man!” spawned comic books, songs, CDs, major articles, a theatrical production, and numerous film projects—one of which had Raymond and Peter as puppets, the Ernie and Bert from hell. Back in San Francisco, the real Raymond and Peter remained oblivious to the notoriety they had unwittingly achieved.

There was ultimately money to be made off Raymond and Peter’s story, even though their real story remained unknown, no one ever having talked to them in depth. Eddie and Mitchell tried to gain control of the situation by retroactively copyrighting their recordings but soon found themselves in development hell in Hollywood and in a legal drama they could have never imagined back in the Lower Haight.

By the mid-1990s, many reporters and producers were searching out Peter, Raymond having already died. One producer, representing one of three teams vying for the film rights, was even determined to have Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando star in the film version.

People got greedy, relationships were ruined, youthful dreams died hard—and it all started with two old drunks abusing each other on tape.

At first blush, Raymond and Peter’s fights, many excerpts of which are worked into the film, may not sound all that funny. They are certainly disturbing, but the humor is to be found in the extreme language the two constantly played with and their amazing sense of timing, the masterful rhythm to their conflicts.

It was almost as if Raymond and Peter were performance artists with no audience. And underneath all their expletives, there was clearly some kind of love going on between the two. This of course raises the questions of “How much love?” and “What was the real nature of their relationship?”

Were they basically a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” married couple? As their battles were often over sex (Peter’s homosexuality), meal preparation, and money woes, the answer would seem to be along those lines.

The two were sometimes joined by a third roommate, Tony Newton, who while several degrees more sinister and dangerous than his counterparts would often offer stabilizing commentary at the height of the fighting.

With Peter also deceased, Tony turns out to be the only living survivor in this documentary. When he finally, very reluctantly, grants the filmmakers an audience, his plainspoken account is illuminating and horrifying in unexpected ways—a real coup for the filmmakers.

Peter also makes a haunting appearance late in the film via video footage of an interview near his death. Trying to make sense of how he has become, in a certain sense, famous, he insists on Brad Pitt playing him in the Hollywood movie and matter-of-factly reveals what he really thought of Raymond.

“Shut Up Little Man!” leaves no heart unbroken.

Credits

A Tribeca Film release.

Directed and written by Matthew Bate.

Produced by Sophie Hyde and Michael Bate.

Cinematography and editing, Bryan Mason.

Original music, Jonny Elk Walsh.

Running time: 94 minutes.