Stand-up comic rats on the making of ‘Ratatouille’

[2 July 2007]

By Barry Koltnow

The Orange County Register (MCT)

Unlike his namesake, Patton Oswalt is an unlikely candidate for military glory.

Then again, Oswalt is not a retired Marine colonel like his father, who named his son after the legendary World War II general, George S. Patton Jr.

Oswalt is, however, a longtime animation fan and he is enjoying his own kind of glory this week as the star of the new Disney-Pixar animated film “Ratatouille,” which opens Friday.

The stand-up comic (his latest comedy album, “Werewolves and Lollipops,” will be released next month) and sitcom actor (he played Spence on “The King of Queens” for nine seasons) lends his voice to the movie’s lead character Remy, a lovable rat who dreams of becoming a great French chef.

Remy’s family doesn’t understand his passion for gourmet food—they prefer garbage—and the humans in the kitchen of the Parisian restaurant he hangs out in don’t particularly care for the unwelcome rodent in their midst. He is torn between two worlds. What’s a rat to do?

“Ratatouille,” written and directed by Brad Bird (“The Iron Giant” and “The Incredibles”), is the latest from Pixar Animation Studios, which has an unblemished record of churning out computer-generated family blockbusters, from “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life” to “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.”

Oswalt, 38, is a newcomer to the Pixar world, but he is not new the world of films. He has appeared in “Starsky & Hutch,” “Man on the Moon,” “Reno 911: Miami” and “Magnolia.”

But, as the Portsmouth, Va., native explained over a breakfast of huevos rancheros at a trendy Hollywood coffee shop, movies and television place a distant second to his first love—stand-up comedy. In 2004, he created the “Comedians of Comedy,” a national tour that played rock venues instead of the more conventional comedy clubs.

Married to writer Michelle McNamara, Oswalt writes an occasional column for The New York Times Sunday magazine.

In this interview, he also recounts how Bird discovered him while driving around Los Angeles, what it means for him to be in a Pixar movie (here’s a hint: It’s bigger than a dream come true) and why a movie about rats may be the feel-good family film of the year.

You graduated from the College of William & Mary with a degree in English. What were your career plans?
I wanted to become some sort of writer, although my parents were hoping for pre-med or pre-law. Then, in my sophomore year, I realized that I wanted to take my four years of college and go tell jokes to drunks in nightclubs.

Have your parents gotten over the disappointment?
They really weren’t that disappointed. They knew it was something I really wanted to do.

Describe your childhood.
It was just a boring, normal childhood.

And that led to your offbeat and sarcastic sense of humor?
I think because of the stability in my home growing up, I craved chaos and weirdness.

Your comedy seems to have an angry edge. When did you get so angry?
It was never real anger; it was more of that teen anger after a fashion. Looking back, I had nothing to be angry about. It just felt good to pretend to be angry about everything.

But it sounds as if you’re still angry in some of your more recent comedy routines.

OSWALT (surprised): Really? I think I’m more disappointed than angry. My approach to my observations is more like: “This situation could be so much better; why isn’t it better?”

Is it all about stand-up for you?
Yeah, it really is. I love doing movies, and I love to write. But everything I do is meant to increase my profile so that I can do more stand-up. In the long run, I think that’s what I always want to be.

Why do you like it so much?
It’s a real autonomous position. You can do whatever you want. Where else can you do what you want?

How did “Ratatouille” happen?
According to Brad Bird, he was riding around in his car listening to a radio station that was playing one of my comedy bits from my album.

Which bit?
The one where I go off on the Black Angus steakhouses (we won’t bother to repeat it here but you can listen to the entire Black Angus routine on iTunes).

Did Brad ever tell you what he heard in your voice that made him want to cast you in his film?
He said he liked that I was talking passionately about food, but he also said my voice sounded like it was coming from a smaller being. That’s what Remy is—a smaller being who talks passionately about food.

Did he tell you what role he had in mind for you?
No, I assumed it was a small role, and I was fine with that. When I found out it was the starring role, I was shocked.

What does it mean to be in a Pixar film?
I’ve been asked if this a dream come true, but it’s not a dream come true because it’s so far beyond what I could have imagined for myself. I’ve been a Pixar fan since day one, and I’ve been a Brad Bird fan since the days of “The Simpsons.”

I assume you didn’t do any research to play a rat?
I’ve been researching for this role my whole life, but it has nothing to do with rats. It’s about the food. I love food, I’m addicted to the Food Network and I can identify with any character that loves food. Remy is a nonjudgmental enthusiast about what he loves, and I think that describes me, too.

You love Pixar animation so much that I assume you would have done the movie even if the script was lousy. What did you really think of the script?
It’s a wonderful script for so many reasons but I especially love it because it’s a different take on the typical movie you see about families. In so many family movies, it’s always a one-way street. Your family has to accept you for what you and that’s it. Well, that’s partially true, but you also have to accept your family for who they are. You are part of that family and you don’t have to change. And they don’t have to change. But you have to learn to live together. In this movie, the members of his family don’t become gourmands. They still like their garbage, but in the end, they accept Remy for who he is and are happy for him. That’s beautiful.

What can such a high-profile summer movie do for your career?
I don’t care what it can do for my career. I’m in a Pixar movie, man. That’s reward enough.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/stand-up-comic-rats-on-the-making-of-ratatouille/