Talking to Patton Oswalt about His New Standup Special and Other Stuff
If there’s a name in standup that qualifies for the “needs no introduction” treatment, it’s Patton Oswalt. The man who describes himself as “America’s comedy goblin” is an A-list comic whose specials – the latest of which, Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time, premieres tonight at 10pm ET on Epix and is available streaming online now via an Epix free trial – are some of the few things in the standup world that approach event viewing. Oswalt is adept at turning run-of-the-mill misanthropy into acerbic fireworks, his best known bits involving rants against KFC Famous Bowls, death beds, self-checkout machines at the grocery store, and the soul-crushing nightmare that is living in New York City. He’s also proven himself to be an immensely talented actor, breaking audiences’ hearts in films like Big Fan and Young Adult, warming them with roles in Ratatouille and Parks and Recreation, and invoking whatever the hell emotion people are supposed to feel when from the mind-melting insanity of The Heart, She Holler.
I recently had the chance to talk to Patton over the phone about his latest special, his various internet exploits, and what his generation has accomplished in standup comedy.
This is your fifth hour-long special. Do you still have any anticipation or nervousness about how people will react to your new standup releases?
I never really know what to expect. I certainly hope people think it’s funny, but beyond whether they think it’s funny or not, all of that stuff is out of my control. And I just have to be pleased with it myself, ultimately.
You’ve said before that your standup specials serve as snapshots of your life at the time you perform them. What would you say this special captures about your life at the moment?
Right now, I’m becoming more comfortable with being in my forties. And time is gonna tell whether that’s a true comfort or a false comfort before some kind of midlife crisis, I don’t know which one it’s gonna be. But right now I’m kind of content, so then we’ll see what’s next.
A lot of your early material came from places of failure or frustration. Has it been at all challenging to develop your standup as you’ve grown more successful?
It would be a challenge if I was simply trying to stay within that viewpoint, but I’m willing to let things that I felt when I was younger fall away and embrace newer things. With me, it’s just that constant challenge of ‘How do I honestly deal with the world and try to make it funny?’, rather than ‘How do I keep my attitude from when I was in my early twenties alive far beyond any reasonableness?’
As you’ve gotten older you’ve approached some vulnerable subjects in your standup, such as your weight and depression. Was it ever difficult for you to talk about those sides of yourself onstage in front of an audience?
When I was younger, it was, yeah, because I didn’t have the confidence to be that vulnerable.
When you talk about something that personal in your act, do you have to try and find the right balance of emotional and funny?
I have to do that with all my jokes. It’s always about finding the balance between the emotional and the funny. How deep do you go, how flippant do you make it? You gotta find the balance.
Are you ever surprised with which bits resonate with audiences? Have you ever felt like, “Really? The KFC Bowl? That’s the one you guys loved?”
Yeah, I mean again, that’s kind of the fun of doing sets. You don’t know which ones are going to have the impact. There’s things that you think are maybe a little deeper and are gonna land harder, but they don’t land as hard as you think or have no second life. And there are other things that you were almost tossing off that kind of take on a life of their own, and that’s the fun of it.
The standup comedy scene is thriving right now. As someone who grew up during a decline in standup during the ’80s, are you proud of what your generation of comics accomplished in reviving the form?
I’m definitely proud of what a lot of the alt comics did, in that we kept doing standup even when it wasn’t paying. We found rooms, we did our own shows, even though the big clubs were closing we didn’t quit because the money went away. We really loved doing standup no matter what, so the fact that we were able to keep that going, yeah, I’m pretty proud of that.
Have you seen any younger comics who were influenced by what your generation was doing?
I see a lot of younger comedians that, definitely, you can see the influence of what was happening in the early ’90s in what they do. Yeah. That whole new generation that’s coming up definitely has a feel for that. They’re just way more disciplined.
Having graduated college as an English major, would you say that your writing background is what allows you to turn a phrase as beautiful and vivid as, “Her dad must have fucked her in a Garfield mask?”
Maybe, but I was never sitting down writing comedy. It was all coming to me onstage and I would work things out. It’s hard for me to sit and write jokes. I just go up over and over again until the thing kind of forms in my head from speaking it, so maybe the background was there as a foundation, but it was never there for me to sit down with a piece of paper and pen and actually write it out. And that stuff never gets written out, it just kind of comes out.
Is it safe to say that you’re an Internet hero? Considering things like your Spiderman Halloween costume with your daughter, your Star Wars filibuster, and your essay after the Boston bombing, it seems like you spread more joy around the Internet than it deserves.
[Laughs] Yeah, but I think that the term “Internet hero” is a contradiction in terms. Heroes are active and outgoing, so if I’m connected to the Internet, that involves sitting in the darkness typing. So I don’t really know how well those terms go together.
But your essay did give people hope. It wasn’t you going out in action, but it resonated with a lot of people.
I’m glad it did. That’s another example of, I don’t know how things are gonna land. I wrote that kind of more for myself just on my Facebook page and then it took on a life of its own.
As someone who has always had very passionate opinions about pop culture, is it at all intoxicating to now have a platform where you can have your opinions heard by millions of people?
I think that’s intoxicating for everyone right now, that’s one of the reasons the internet exploded the way it did. Everyone now has a platform – you can get your voice out there. I’m lucky that maybe I can reach a few more people than other people, but I think that you don’t need to be a celebrity to reach a lot of people. If you know how to write and really express your views, that stuff will catch on no matter who you are. That’s the great thing about the internet, is it’s kind of a great leveler. There’re plenty of famous people who write stuff on the internet all the time and the stuff they write doesn’t go anywhere because they have nothing to say. And there’s plenty of so-called “anonymous people” who, they’ll write things and it really catches on because they’re amazing writers who have really vivid opinions.
As someone who’s really active on Twitter, would you say that service in particular has grown into a genuinely useful breeding ground for comedy?
Oh yeah, especially in terms of Vines and one-liners. There are a lot of people that have started their comedy careers purely through Twitter. That’s where their breakthrough came from.
How much forethought goes into what you put on Twitter?
None. A thought comes and I just write it out. The fun of Twitter is, it’s just a thought and you put it out there. There’s no planning for Twitter, at least not for me.
You were recently on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. If you were able to pick any vehicle out of the annals of pop culture, would a DeLorean have been your first choice?
Let me think. I would have liked to have been picked up in Mad Max’s Interceptor from The Road Warrior. That would have been amazing, but that’s a production car only made in Australia, so that might even be beyond Jerry [Seinfeld]’s grasp. But the DeLorean was still pretty thrilling.
You’re currently the narrator on The Goldbergs. Considering your schedule, is that the perfect commitment level for you right now for a major network sitcom?
Right now, yeah. That’s kind of perfect. Drive in, I do my lines, I go home. It’s great.
Would you ever consider doing something as time intensive as your King of Queens role again?
Yeah, if it was the right vehicle that came along, sure. King of Queens was a ton of fun. And I wasn’t on every episode, so I had time to do other things.
In your more serious roles, and even in your more comedic ones, you’re very good at playing characters who are very abrasive on the surface, but who are more sympathetic and sometimes tragic figures at their core. Are those the roles that you enjoy playing the most?
Those are the roles that I seem to be being offered, so I try to make them fun to play. I like anything that’s well written, whether it’s heroic or villainous. Right now there’s a lot of, especially on TV, there’s just really, really good, juicy writing that an actor can sink his teeth into. So again, I’m just fortunate that I’m getting offered stuff along those lines.
Do you think any acting role you get will ever top The Heart, She Holler in terms of just flat-out insanity?
I can’t imagine how one would. But, again, Hollywood always surprises me, so I’m gonna never say never.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re really excited about doing or that you’ve done and want people to check out?
There’s a couple but they’re kind of amorphous right now, and I’m not gonna say until they’re closer to coming out. I don’t like to promote things too far in advance. I want to let them percolate for a little bit. So I’m just gonna say, “We’ll see.” There’s stuff coming but I’m not gonna say what.
Jeremy Popkin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. His work has been featured on Ology, Nerve, and Destructoid.