At age 40, the edgy standup comedian and voice of Ratatouille’s Remy is just hitting his stride., a new album in stores and a book on the way, Oswalt is busy shaking his head at the past and his fist at the future.
"How old are you, by the way?” Patton Oswalt interjects, mid-thought, about five minutes into our conversation.
“I’m almost 27,” I reply, perhaps trying to fake a couple months’ experience. Having surprised myself by not simply saying my age, I follow with the wholly unnecessary clarification, “I’m 26.”
We’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, Patton and me. Following some pleasantries, I launch into what was to be my thesis: Anger and standup comedy, what a pair. I tell him I want to explore the collision point of these two powerful forces. My thinking, going in, was that a guy who has ranted on stage so many times about a popular KFC menu item, calling it a “failure pile in a sadness bowl,” would have some pretty interesting thoughts on the subject. So I lay it all out there: “Why do you think it is,” I ask, “that anger and comedy mesh so well together?”
“Actually, I think when you’re younger, anger and comedy mesh together very, very well,” Oswalt answers, “because there are things that you feel like, ‘Am I the only person seeing this?’ But then, as you get older, I don’t think anger and comedy mesh at all. I remember Chris Rock telling me, ‘Don’t get mad, get funnier.’ Getting mad doesn’t help you as a comedian. Anger eventually cancels out comedy. I think what you have to do is find the things that delight you, and if you really push the things that delight you, then the things or people that piss you off, it just makes them angry. If people you don’t like or people that you disagree with, if they see you on stage pissed off and angry, that’s actually kind of reassuring. Because they’re like, ‘I’m getting to that guy.’ But if you’re on stage, and instead of cursing what you hate, you’re celebrating the alternative and making that seem better, that’s what drives your enemies bugfuck. That’s what just drives them into the red.”
We go back and forth for a few minutes. I present examples of anger in Oswalt’s comedy, and he presents counterpoints explaining why he thinks I’m simplifying the situation. Eventually, as I try to elaborate on my theory, citing what appeals to me comedically, he poses that question about my age. Oswalt explains that he felt the same way when he was my age, but that there’s more to it. “No offense,” he says. “I just think you have a very limited hypothesis here. Comedy is a full-spectrum disorder; it doesn’t just come out of one thing.”
I change the subject.
Patton Oswalt grew up in Sterling, Va., in a planned community built a year after he was born. His family moved there in 1975, and the town has inspired more than its share of his material. On Oswalt’s 2007 Sub Pop release, Werewolves and Lollipops, he verbally thrashes Sterling for just a minute and 19 seconds—one of Oswalt’s gifts is the ability to efficiently dress down anything while on stage, be it a heckler, a reality-TV star or the city where he grew up. While living in Sterling, he was oblivious to the Washington D.C. punk-rock movement less than a half-hour away, a scene that included such legendary bands as Minor Threat and Bad Brains. Instead, Oswalt was buying his first record, Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required, and arguing with his friends that it was “dark” and “totally punk rock.” On Werewolves, Oswalt also calls Sterling “soulless” and “boring” before slamming the local NBC affiliate’s film critic for keeping everything cool away from the townies. The years, though, have softened Oswalt’s view of his hometown.
“I know what I said on my first two albums, but now I don’t know,” he says. “There’s a Facebook group about Sterling, Va., filled with a lot of people from my high school and people I grew up with and was friends with. Reading all of their memories of Sterling compared to my memories, I’m starting to suspect the thing that sucked about Sterling was me.
“Everyone else’s memories are about building forts in the woods and sledding and going on weird adventures and having bike races. I was happiest when I was inside reading or brooding or sneaking out at night, or trying to scam my way into Washington, D.C. and drink underage in bars. Maybe the people around me were about to enjoy the here and now, or turn a faceless landscape into something magical and better than me. It’s something I’ve been thinking of a lot lately—maybe the people who ‘escape from their shitty hometowns’ are less imaginative, resourceful and naturally happy than other people around them. I was so sure in my outlook, and now I’m totally confused.”
Oswalt’s pitiful first attempt at standup comedy was July 18, 1988, at a club in D.C. that no longer exists. “The set sucked,” he says, “the audience was three people.”
Over time, though, Oswalt got much better, and eventually moved to California to pursue his comedy and acting dreams. His first role was a couple of lines on Seinfeld in 1994, and he nabbed a writing job on Mad TV shortly thereafter, which he flatly describes as “not fun.” In ’98 he finally landed a steady gig that paid the bills—his nine-year stint as Spence Olchin on King of Queens.
In 2004, Oswalt co-founded cutting-edge collective the Comedians of Comedy with Zach Galifianakis, Brian Posehn and Maria Bamford, bringing a subversive alternative to hackneyed mainstream comedy to rock clubs all over America. He also took Hollywood writing and acting gigs when he could (he was an uncredited writer on Borat, and had bit parts in Magnolia and Blade: Trinity). But to paraphrase fellow comedian and recent Sub Pop labelmate Eugene Mirman, during this time, Oswalt was busy honing himself into a comedy missile, perfecting the passionate, bitingly witty comedy he practices today—comedy where he fantasizes about killing George Lucas with a shovel before the director can ruin Star Wars with those awful prequels; comedy in which he explains why Cirque du Soleil proves there’s no such thing as red states and blue states. The goal, Oswalt says, is to transcend the bad in this world to the point that the good is the only viable alternative.
“Pointing out that stuff sucks is not edgy or dangerous anymore,” he says. “Everyone knows what sucks. What’s better is to find the stuff that’s amazing and hold it up. Even something like the KFC bowl, in a weird way, I love it. I love that we’ve gotten to the point where [there’s] an actual manifestation of the problem and we actually have it in bowl form. Before, it was scattered amongst 50 different fast-food chains, and it was so hard to make your argument. People would go, ‘Yeah, but there’s salads, and…’ Now I’m just like, ‘Here is the top-selling fast food item.’ Thank you, KFC!”
“What I love about Patton is his precision,” says Paul F. Tompkins, comedian and host of VH1’s Best Week Ever. “He writes these beautiful, rich, textured pieces that have so much happening in them conceptually and have such exact language. When I work on new material, I have to pound it out and do it over and over, cutting and snipping and enduring the blank stares that greet the sections that just don’t work, but Patton just writes these perfect monologues out of whole cloth. It’s pretty amazing.”
Fittingly enough, Oswalt’s turn in new movie Big Fan—his first non-animated lead role—finds him playing 35-year-old Paul Aufiero, a Staten Island sports nut who is beyond obsessed with the New York Giants. He cares about the football team more than anything else in his life; it’s both the best thing that’s ever happened to him, and—as the film’s conflict escalates—the worst. Big Fan is the directorial debut of Robert D. Siegel, who wrote Oscar-nominated film The Wrestler, and who had plenty of reasons to cast Oswalt, from the depth of the comedian’s film knowledge (“He’s an enormous, enormous movie buff,” Siegel says. “Just incredibly knowledgeable, way more than I am”) to the fact that he looked like the character in Siegel’s head. But Oswalt’s tendency towards passionate immersion sealed it.
“He’s definitely in touch with his angry inner nerd,” Siegel says. “He doesn’t know anything about sports, but I knew he could apply his own obsessions and interests to the movie. When Paul would go on some rant about some coach’s decision on fourth and one to go for it, [Patton] didn’t even know what I was talking about, but he knew it was the same thing as [a comic-book fan ranting], ‘In Avengers 115, Galactus…’ He could apply that kind of psychology. It’s just caring way too much about something that most of the world doesn’t give a shit about.”
Oswalt remembers the first time he got really angry.
“I remember being a generally happy kid just because I was so dumb,” he says. “That definitely helped me. I think the first time I remember really being pissed was in middle school when I’d see bullies being mean to other kids. Then, subsequently, to stop myself from getting pounded by the bullies, I would also be mean to the weaker kids. Then I was pissed at the bullies for doing what they were doing, and pissed at myself, like, ‘Why couldn’t I stand up to these guys?’ Someone’s bad memories include me. That’s a drag to realize.”
There’s a self-deprecation to Oswalt’s comedy, and that’s part of what makes it so endearing. From every somber memory he mines a handful of insights about what it means to live on this planet and deal with people who might hate you for something as simple as your opinion. Even at his most frustrated, Oswalt’s irritation is often pointed inward, as if the whole reason he’s ranting is to wrestle with personal demons. Oswalt’s new CD/DVD release, his first on a major label, is called My Weakness Is Strong—yet another indicator of his self-consciousness, his very own failure pile.
“[The KFC Famous Bowl bit] was also from sheer exasperation,” he says. “Like, finally, what I’ve been talking about all along about what is wrong with us. And also, ultimately, what’s wrong with me, you know? I need to lose weight because I eat a lot of crappy food. I think the best anger is the stuff that you are pointing at yourself, rather than, ‘Everything sucks and I’m here to point out why.’“
As our conversation winds down, Oswalt interjects again, this time with an apology. “I hope you didn’t think I was being dismissive or nasty when you were like, ‘I’m almost 27,’ and I went, ‘Ohhh, see, there you go.’ That was more envious than dismissive. That was like, ‘Oh, fuck, I wish I was still in my 20s.’ [When I was that age], it was more about, ‘You still listen to that fucking shit?’ That was me for years, then I just realized, ‘Oh, I’m just going in these little circles.’ Again, it came from anger.”
As Oswalt has grown up, he’s started to see things differently—a change that’s affected his life as well as his comedy. “I think it was in my mid 30s,” he recalls. “I was hanging out with a bunch of people in their early 20s, and we were all busy dismissing albums and filmmakers and TV shows, and I went, ‘Wait a minute. These people are all 10 years younger than me. This is creepy. Why am I still trying to act this way? What’s a better way to piss off people I don’t like? Oh! I’ll start embracing stuff. That’ll drive ’em nuts.’”
And embrace he does, from Paul Aufiero’s football obsession in Big Fan to the myriad references to food and film and other passions in his standup. It’s the kind of embracing that could well continue in Oswalt’s golden years.
“I hope and expect,” Oswalt says, “to look back on everything I think and feel right now and say, ‘Wow, I sure got a lot wiser.’ I hope—I really hope—for that. I still feel wisdom and humility are just specks on my horizon, though. What if I hit 60 and they’re further away?”