“I Cherish the F–k Ups As Much As the Triumphs”: An Interview with Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt
Finest Hour
Comedy Central

“The idea of writing a book, becoming a journalist and then, hopefully, a novelist, couldn’t withstand my sudden ambition to craft a perfect dick joke. Five thousand words a day seemed silly when I could bring a room full of drunks together with 15 perfectly chosen words.”

This statement might very well define the essence of Patton Oswalt. In the past few years, Oswalt has grown from being known as the reigning king of alternative comedy to becoming a multi-hyphenate culture baron. For a long time, Oswalt would be best remembered for his role as Spence on the sitcom The Kinng of Queens, but in the past few years, he’s gained great notoriety for voicing the lead character in an Oscar-winning film (Ratatouille), received a Grammy nomination for his last stand-up album (2009’s excellent My Weakness is Strong), penned the book where the opening quote comes from (this year’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland), and has also worked on a multitude of graphic novels, made numerous TV appearances, and took a striking, dramatic lead turn in the film Big Fan. In short, these past few years have been the busiest in Oswalt’s life.

Yet for fans of his self-deprecating, intellectual standup (riddled with the occasional fart and boner jokes, of course), there’s fortunately much more on the horizon. This month marks the release of his latest album, Finest Hour, and this holiday season will be seen on screen starring opposite Charlize Theron and Patrick Wilson in the Jason Reitman-directed, Diablo Cody-penned Young Adult. Sitting down with PopMatters a few days after his hilarious live-Tweeting of the first Republican GOP debate (“Oh boy — that was a gift from Jesus, wasn’t it?” he remarks), Oswalt talked to us about the intrinsic nature of outsiders taking over the mainstream, how people would be quite wrong for thinking that his stand-up has in any way influenced his work as an actor, and sums up his advice to any aspiring stand-up in five very simple words …

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There’s an idea that I kind of wanted to toss out to you. Before last year’s Oscars, someone pointed out that about ten years ago, there were all these daring, fringe voices that were emerging in world of filmmaking, people like Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan and David O. Russell. Now, a decade later, they were all nominated for Oscars, dominating the conversations and conquering the industry. I would argue that the same thing has happened with alternative comics. Ten years ago, there was you, Louis C.K., David Cross, and Zach Galifinakis all working the circuits, and now you’re the ones in iconic TV shows, Oscar-winning films, writing books, and getting Grammy nominations. So first off, how have you felt these changes over the past decade?

Well, yeah, but that’s how it always goes with everything. It’s the “first you’re the outsider, then you’re the establishment” [thing]. You mentioned the Republican debates: all the people who are the front-runners in the Republican party — at least all the ideas that are making people front-runners — were the fringe, crazy ideas used to keep people out in the wilderness. And now they’re the mainstream. That’s how it always happens. I mean, before the go-to cover artists for The New Yorker were Ivan Brunetti, Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine, and — who the hell does Acme Novelty Library? — Chris Ware, and those guys were underground, stapled-together, doin’ spot-fillers for Penthouse Magazine, just underground comic-book illustrators ten years ago, and now they’re The New Yorker cover artists. So, it always goes that way.

But do you think that’s necessarily because the comedy scene itself has shifted or do you think the American public has become a bit more receptive to voices that are a bit more insightful, if not a bit cynical?

I think it’s because those voices refined and figured out what it is that they do. And not necessarily made it more mainstream but [were] just so committed to what it is that they did that people started to realize that “That’s funny.” The old guard got very boring and safe, and you knew exactly what you were going to get. You weren’t going to be surprised anymore.

Like with Jay Leno.

Well like with anyone. I mean, they figure out the thing that they do and they just kind of do that and play it safe. So yeah, it happens. It happens in any kind of creative or personality-driven medium — that’s what happens.

That’s one of the things that still fascinates me with your standup, is how you’ve almost mastered the art of self-deprecation, as it’s something that becomes more prominent in your standup when you look at each subsequent album. With your celebrity growing on top of raising a family, you ever find it difficult to write in that voice still or has it just become reliable second-hand for you?

I mean, I don’t know that I rely on it; I just try to be honest in the moment as to how I’m feeilng, and that’s how I feel a lot of the time. I just embrace it and accept it.

That does bring me to another point though: you’ve very much found your voice as a stand-up, but now you are making leaps and strides in your growth as an actor. I think Big Fan was quite the breakthrough for you, and now you’re in the next Jason Reitman film opposite Charlize Theron. For you, what kind of parallels do you find between stand-up and acting? Has your background of performing live helped inform any of your on-camera performances at all?

You know, I don’t find any parallels. I think that they are both their own separate disciplines, and anyone that tries to find links between the two — as if they are complimentary — I think that’s where a lot of comedians become bad actors and a lot of actors who try out stand-up fail so miserably. They don’t embrace that journey of a comedian and treat is as such. They go look for ways that one leads to another — but they really don’t. It’s like going after a stand-up who starts painting and asking “So what’d you take from your stand-up into painting?” Nothing — they’re totally different. They’re absolutely different disciplines and should be thought of as such.

So, would you still say that you’re running into any particular challenges with your new film roles or has it gotten to the point where you feel very solid and know what you’re doing as an actor?

No — I don’t feel solid or know what I’m doing as a stand-up! I’m always evolving and changing and trying to learn, so I don’t think of it … each new project is its own challenge. It’s not even acting as a whole: each new movie is a different set of personalities, a different script, a different setting, and it should always be approached as such.

One other thing I’ve been wondering about is what you’d have to say towards those who are just starting out down the road of stand-up. You’ve been taking to your blog recently to rip apart those who have been blatantly stealing your bits (and rightly so), as well as going out of your way to praise your talented openers that you’ve seen develop and own their own comedic voice. Given your decades of experience having worked those circuits before, what advice would you have for anyone just starting out on their comedic career?

Go on stage a lot. That’s the only advice, that’s the only advice that works. Any other piece of advice is a waste of your time and is useless. The only advice you need is to go on stage a lot. It’s the answer to everything, it really is. I wish there was something more exotic to say, but that really is the thing to say. Whenever I say that to people and I see them just go “Oh, I get it!”, then they have a chance. But if they follow up with, “Yeah, but like what’s a thing that I …” — and that person’s not going to make it. They’re looking for tricks and shortcuts and when you’ve been at it as long as I’ve had, and I look back at everything that’s helped me, the only thing that really helped me was going on stage a lot.

It’s not a matter of “What’s the essence of comedy, man?”

No — and the answer is “Going on stage a lot.” And that’s the answer to every problem you have, it’s the answer to every question you have, it’s the answer to everything you’re not confident about — the answer is “going on stage a lot”. And that’s it — there’s no other answer.

It’s trial by fire. That also kind of brings it around a bit I think: you’ve been at this for over 20 years. Looking back on this all, for you, what has been your biggest regret, and, conversely, what has been your proudest accomplishment?

I don’t really regret anything, ‘cos even the mistakes I made lead me to where I am. I mean those were all great. There’s nothing I really regret. I cherish the fuck-ups as much as I do the triumphs. And also, when you look back, there’s never a “proudest moment”. When you really think about it, all the big advances from your career come from little minor things, and not huge gigantic “It all comes down to this!” [moments]. It’s not a gladiatorial sport: it’s a long, winding marathon. So I don’t have any regrets, and I don’t have any proudest moments. I think what I’m most proud of is that I tried to have fun along the way and tried to enjoy myself and not be as competitive as I did when I started off. I got rid of that pretty early, so I guess that’s what I’m most proud of?

Well it’s like what you mentioned to The Onion A.V. Club not too long ago: it’s not the whole idea of having accomplished something, like “Oh, finally I have that Grammy nomination!” — it’s that there’s no definitive goal.

There’s no end, and you don’t organize it — someone else puts it all together when you’re gone. You don’t do that while you’re alive: that’s a waste of time.