Patton Oswalt: Breaking Out of the Shell

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The world of stand-up hasn’t been the same since the deaths of comic legends Richard Pryor and George Carlin. The King of Comedy’s throne may be vacant, but an underground emergence of rising talent is charging forward and redirecting the spotlight of innovative comedy. As he marches along the frontlines with an arsenal of ingenious wit, eclectic comedian, Patton Oswalt, stands out among the masses with his droll pop-culture references and uncanny dedication to all aspects of the art form. I had the chance to speak with the native Virginian at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival as he promoted his new dramatic feature, Big Fan.

SLUG: You’ve successfully ventured into the comedic worlds of standup, sketch comedies, producing, network television, and film animation, but now you’ve switched to a dramatic feature film. Why do you think Hollywood expects so much of stand up comics?
PATTON: Comedy is really hard to do, man. It’s a lot harder to do than drama in a lot of cases. I think if you get good at it, some people who don’t know enough about comedy may think you have mystical powers, but it comes from years of failing at it that you learn it. I don’t know if they expect so much from us, I don’t even expect so much of myself. I just like doing a lot of different things.

SLUG: It seems you have had an equally balanced career between television shows, cartoons and cameos. Only recently, you’ve been diving into the lead roles of films. Was this a conscious choice or a natural progression of your career?
PATTON: It was progression and people becoming fans and trusting me. I was certainly not going, “I plan in 2009 to be the lead in a really well-written indie.” It just happens or it doesn’t. You work really hard and try to get good at what you do, so you’re ready if the opportunity comes. I didn’t plan to get picked by Brad Bird to be the lead in Ratatouille. I lucked out.

SLUG: Your character in Big Fan, Paul Aufiero, is obsessed with the New York Giants. Did you apply your own comic-fanboy lifestyle in any way to the role?
PATTON: We’re all passionate about stuff. You’re passionate about film, obviously. I’m a huge film buff and book worm. I’m really into stand-up, politics, food, comic books, wine and scotch - things that get me enthusiastic and I want to know everything about. How is that any different from a guy that’s a sports fan? You just want to project a bigger part of yourself into the world through the stuff that you love. I think that that’s just a human impulse. Ever since cave paintings, right? Wasn’t that just another form of fandom of, “Oh this bison. I respect it.”

SLUG: What’s your ultimate goal with Big Fan?
PATTON: I want it to do really well. I want it to get out there, and do really well for Rob [Siegel], so he can write and make more movies. He’s a terrific filmmaker and writer, and I want him to do more stuff. I hope it gives me the chance to work with actors and directors and writers that I like and that people will have confidence in my abilities to do something that I can’t even anticipate right now. I want my life to take another hard left turn like it has these past few years. Really good left turns like Ratatouille, Big Fan and who knows what’s next?

SLUG: Let’s talk about your own style of comedy - your use of descriptive imagery and refined craft for the art of the monologue reminds me of the late George Carlin…
PATTON: Jesus, thank you. My God. I would disagree with you, but thank you.

SLUG: Who influenced your craft of comedy?
PATTON: Before I got into comedy, it was Jonathan Winters, Bill Cosby, and [Richard] Pryor, very, very early Pryor, and Carlin. Then, once I decided I was going to do comedy, it was people like Jay Leno, Steve Martin and Bobcat Goldthwait. Those are the ones I would watch and I really loved what they did. Then, once I started, it was just my circle of friends through the years. I’m very lucky that I’m not the funniest guy in my group of friends, so I’m always having to work harder. I think the reason I am as good as I am is because everyone around me, I think, is better, so I’m constantly trying to do what I do better. Does that make sense?

SLUG: If you have nothing to draw from, then what’s the point?
PATTON: Exactly! It would be terrible to be the funniest guy in your group, wouldn’t it? It’d be like, “Well, I can just kick back. I’ve won this one.” Fuck that. You would just stagnate. You up your game by playing with people who can kick your ass.

SLUG: Which comedians make you laugh these days?
PATTON: Louis C.K., Maria Bamford, Nick Kroll, Paul F. Tompkins, Michelle Biloon, Kyle Kinane and Brian Regan. All for different reasons, but all just because they have such unique viewpoints and really original methods of approach which I think needs to go hand in hand. All of those people I can always rely on to destroy me. SLUG: You always said President Bush could be the one to bring us to the biblical apocalypse…and it might already be here…
PATTON: What if we dodged it?

SLUG: Maybe, but just a few hours ago, President Obama was sworn in. Has Bush finally escaped the clutches of your repertoire? What about Obama jokes, can they even be funny?
PATTON: Of course they can! Listen, Bush was never in my clutches, and if I hear one more fucking person say, “Oh, you’re really going to miss George Bush, man. Sure is going to be hard to do jokes with Obama as the President.” Listen, the ten minutes, tops, I got out of George Bush, I would happily give back if we weren’t torturing people, and we weren’t in Iraq, and our money wasn’t on fire. It’s almost like if in these last eight years there were demons in the sky that would fly down and rape you, and I wrote ten killer minutes about the raping demons, and then a priest came along and banished them to another realm and people said, “You’re really going to miss those raping demons,” and I’m like, “I’ll try to adjust.” Comedy is going to be fine, forever. Comedy is so much better when things are good than when they’re bad. You know what’s better when things are bad? Hip-hop and Metal. Those are better when things suck. Comedy is better when things are good.

SLUG: It appears you overcame your fear of a Stella Dora Breakfast Treats marriage. How has being married affected your comedic range? Will we soon hear jokes about how cute your kids are on stage?
PATTON: I used to be very afraid of being married and having kids, because I thought that once that happens you stop being funny, but I’ve seen so many comedians who did get married and did have kids and talked about that in really original biting ways, why would you restrict yourself from experiences to draw on and from ways to have your ego broken down and your defenses taken down so you can go even deeper? Why would you deny yourself that? You should be afraid of marriage and kids when you’re young, that’s totally healthy, but if you’re still acting that way when you’re like 40 and 50, it’s kind of creepy. You’re trying to act like you’re 19, and you’re like, “You still listen to the fucking White Stripes?” and I’m like, “Aren’t you retiring in 10 years? Isn’t your prostate about to explode?”

SLUG: Please don’t slap me for bringing this up, but the big 40 is looming just a week away. Is there anything amusing about getting older?
PATTON: Oh, yeah! I’ve never cared about age, you know? Thirty, forty, fifty … there’s no indication there. I don’t give a shit. I’ve never been that tied in physically with my appearances, clearly. I mean, I’ve gotten by without them, so what do I care if I get old? I’ll just get even weirder character roles. Getting old his hilarious. People who think it’s scary are just turning away from the loss of life.

SLUG: Hypothetically speaking, let’s say it’s 1995 and the stand-up career path isn’t working, where are you now in 2009 if you’re not doing comedy?
PATTON: Oh, God. [Long pause] Dressed up in a big Ratatouille Remy costume in a shopping mall somewhere signing headshots. [Laughing] I don’t know what I’m doing in 2009. Why would you ask me that? That’s horrible. I want to keep doing stand-up! It seems there’s never a dull moment for the entertainer that dabbles in all. Along with his upcoming roles in Steven Soderbergh’s crime thriller, The Informant, and Jody Hill’s comedy, Observe and Report, Patton continues to tour the country delivering his words of jovial wisdom, forever altering audience members’ perspectives on politics, 80s heavy metal bands, George Lucas’ stupidity, and midgets. The established kings of comedy may be gone, but there’s a new direction on the horizon for comedy, and it’s shaping up to be another great ride.