Sean Patton: Fighting Awkwardness with ComedyPhotos by Robin Marchant / Getty Images Comedy Features
He looks normal. Sean Patton is a rarely clean-shaven, slightly overweight white guy: he probably looks like your neighbor. Carrying himself around NYC in daily life, he doesn’t show any of the conceit that would be justified for a man of half his talent. His joking smirk in conversations isn’t a weapon of arrogance; it’s an invitation to join the fun. It’s clear even offstage that he’s concerned for the happiness of those around him. Onstage his underlying good nature makes you want to trust him with your attention, to allow your imagination to be coaxed out. And once he’s captured your imagination, he runs cackling with it so far down the rabbit hole, you’d think he was late for a very important date. Sean Patton is not normal. He’s better than that.
Sean has performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Conan, @midnight, Comedy Central’s The Half Hour, The Meltdown (his favorite comedy venue in the world), This Is Not Happening—the list goes on. The comedy world recognizes his craft and performance of stand-up as absolutely top tier and often on the vanguard of the art. He says off-handed asides that surprisingly segue into larger-than-life characters in wild scenes, and makes emotionally resonant observations that tangent into the bizarre and then tie back into the original observation, like a cacophonous riff placed playfully in a jazz song. “You gotta keep them not knowing what to expect,” Patton says over the phone from a hotel in Nashville, where he was relaxing before a stand-up show. “The moment an audience can identify who you are as a performer, and your pattern—the initial moment they do that is good. The initial moment’s like, ‘Okay, cool. Now I trust this person.’ Then you have to completely throw that on its fuckin’ head. Because if they see it, notice it, and then get used to it—now you’re boring them. But if they see it, recognize it, trust you—but then all of a sudden you completely throw them for a fuckin’ tailspin, then they’re like ‘Oh god! I didn’t see that coming.”
Patton formed this keep-’em-guessing comedic voice by appreciating, analyzing, and collating comedy genres into a style that allows him to switch among them. “From watching Mark [Normand], I’ve had the moments where I’m like, ‘You know? Fuck, I need to look for these little nuggets to just have them in there, ready to throw out there to just keep it moving.’ And when I watch Rory [Scovel] I’m like, ‘Oh man, he does remind you: Think outside the box every now and again. Don’t get so tunnel vision onstage. Break away from that.’ And I’d like to think those guys watch me and go, ‘Jesus Christ, tighten it up, man. What the fuck, Patton. Fuck, you ran the light by five and a half minutes, asshole.’”
Going further back, he attributes his comedic and personal formation to feelings of discomfort around people. “I was a socially awkward guy but in a very different way,” Sean recalled. “I figured if I was louder and drank more and talked more and was more energetic than everyone else, then I was just gonna be the king of the fuckin’ moment, so henceforth I wouldn’t have to feel awkward and weird.”
Being a socially awkward yet hyper social kid helped make Sean Patton, but another important ingredient is his OCD. “Anyone who has OCD I think could tell you, it’s not a thing that goes away: It’s just a thing you get better at dealing with,” he explained. But he has the glass-is-half-full mentality about it. “The best way to live with OCD, I find, is to make it work for you . . . sometimes you just gotta calm yourself down and work through it, but sometimes you go, ‘Oh wait! I would have never thought of that if I wasn’t obsessing about it.’”
Between his naturally obsessive mind, and the volume, energy, talkativeness and drinking he adopted to become “king of the fuckin’ moment”, Sean’s path into stand-up was clearly triangulated. And the drinking especially was good practice for his eventual starring gig on Best Bars, Esquire’s 2-season series about the greatest bars in America. At first glance this might seem like the best job in the world, but Sean assures, “No, it’s not the greatest job in the world when it becomes your job. We all love to drink because it’s fun, and you get to be drunk, and you’re enjoying yourself, but when you’re drinking and you have to do certain things while you’re drinking—drunk—and you gotta be professional, it gets hard.”
Required drinking for a job is difficult, and—in combination with the omnipresent availability of free alcohol at stand-up shows—it can be dangerous. “It’s fucking hard to say no sometimes because if it’s a bad set sometimes you’re like, ‘Yeah I wanna drink that away,’ and if it’s a great set, you’re like, ‘Ha! I wanna celebrate that!’ And if it’s a set in between where you can’t tell, you’re like, ‘Ahh I’ll hang out and have a drink and see how people act.’ It’s always right the fuck there.” How can you have a healthy relationship with drinking in that kind of context? A lot of comics cut it out completely. “If I rattled off a list of comedians who I know factually are sober, you’d be alarmed . . . A lot of people are secretive about it because they don’t want to have to explain why, but the explanation is simple: If they didn’t stop, they would die.” Now that the show is done, Sean’s gone back to a much healthier relationship with alcohol, and back to stand-up, which is where he wanted to be anyway.
“Of my artistic body, stand-up comedy is the heartbeat,” he says.
And it’s a big heart, too. Getting a laugh feels good, but it’s not the only reason he’s in this business. Sean clarifies why stand-up is so damn satisfying for him, explaining “You never know if you’re performing in some random gig in some even more random town, and you’re on stage doing what you do—there may be someone in that audience who’s just had one of the fucking worst days they’ve ever had, and they don’t give a shit about life anymore and they just—they’re hating everything—they just came to this show because they didn’t want to be alone and they got invited a couple days earlier, and they’re there now, but the people who invited them—they’re not really vibing; they’re just kinda sitting there like ‘fuck.’ I mean, life is shit, and you go onstage, and you say something that they completely understand and identify with, and you capture their imagination, and they fucking laugh. And there’s a reason a lot of people say laughter is the best medicine because in a way it is. And they laugh, and they laugh, and when they’re done laughing, they think, ‘Ahh, it’s not that bad.’ And maybe you don’t even say anything—you never even exchange words with them. You. Never. Know. That you made their life a little better, but, you did. And they’re out there, and maybe they wake up an hour earlier the next day and fucking try to have a good breakfast and go to work and actually are productive, and by the end of the week they’re in a much better place. You know what I mean? Like, you don’t know that you’re not helping people. There’s no way to prove that you aren’t, so I just assume that I always am.”
Jesse Fernandez is a half centaur, half man whose comedy writing has been featured on ABC, TED Talks, MSN, StarWipe, eBaum’s World, and Starbucks. Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseFernandez to see what’s really swirling around that cauldron of a brain.