Interview With Patton Oswalt
The performer talks about writing, acting, and the Golden Age of Baltimore comedy
Published: December 14, 2011
It’s easy to think of Patton Oswalt as simply a standup comedian with 20-plus years in the business until you reflect upon his CV. He has appeared in a pile of televisions shows, including Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist; Dollhouse; Reno 911!; Community; Caprica; and Seinfeld, as well as a run as a recurring character on King of Queens, and recently on HBO’s Bored to Death. He may also be found in dozens of movies, notably Blade; Trinity, Balls of Fury, The Informant!, Observe and Report, and yeah, he was the voice of the rat in Pixar’s Ratatouille. But wait, there’s more. Mr. Oswalt is an author of comic books and the recent book-book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, now available in paperback at finer bookstores near you. We sat down with Patton Oswalt in a subterranean silo located at an undisclosed location deep within the historic Georgetown neighborhood of our Nation’s Capitol. Seriously, there’s a hotel that has a silo in it, with weird acoustics and everything. Our transcribed conversation begins right after we voice some OFF-THE-RECORD SPOILER ALERT stuff in regard to Young Adult, a new movie about an unhappy fiction writer trying to unblock her work and her life. Mr. Oswalt stars, with Charlize Theron.
Patton Oswalt: One of the things I like about this movie is that I’ve seen people leave screenings and they start arguing with each other about it, how dark was this, how funny was this, so it’s the way real people react to real life, which is, one person is like, “That person needs help, we shouldn’t be making fun of them,” and the other person is like, “Yeah, but she drove her fucking car into a . . .” so that was really interesting to me.
City Paper : Did you have a lot of input on your character?
PO: I didn’t really need to, it was so well written. I didn’t want to do too much input and then get my fingerprints all over the thing, when I thought the thing was so of a piece. There were a couple of minor suggestions, but it was never coming from me going, “This could be better.” I remember at one point he originally just collected action figures, in the script, and I said, “Well, you know, there’s this subculture of people who cannibalize figures, and modify them,” and I thought, how subliminally symbolic is that for what Matt wished could happen to his life, like, “Why can’t I have a better pair of legs, on a better torso?” that kind of thing, and to Diablo [Cody]’s credit, because she is such a confident writer, she said “Yes, I love that.” She loves natural stuff like that, she had no problem with that, but for the most part, I wanted to read the script as written because it was really good, and if I read it as written, I’m gonna be a lot better than if I’m like (pouty voice), “I wanna add my joke here,” which, if you have something great, fine, but why don’t you read the script? It might really be good.
CP : So, you’re an actor.
PO: I try, I mean, I still feel like such a neophyte, but people are calling me an actor, so all right, fine, I’m an actor. That’s for other people to decide, not me. Isn’t it?
CP : Yeah, sure it is, but you are. Look at all the stuff you’ve done. You’re an actor.
PO: Thanks, man.
CP : So we’re looking at what’s been done, not realizing it’s been done, you know, six months ago, so we’re behind the curve on the way this stuff gets produced, and also what you’re doing for yourself, so it’s like (dumb-guy voice), “How come you’re not doing standup anymore?” That kinda thing. You are an actor, that’s why.
PO: (laughs) And also, I am doing standup, I just put an album out in September [Finest Hour]. I’m doing sets all the time, but they’re just little sets you don’t see, because I don’t have a whole new hour yet, and I can’t ask people to give me money to perform something that they probably have already bought on an album. That’s unfair, so, I do standup all the time, just not so that you can see it. Most standups are constantly doing standup. That’s like telling a filmmaker (dumb-guy voice), “Yeah, you had a movie out eight months ago. You haven’t made any movies. Didja stop makin’ movies?” No, he’s working on the—they don’t just come out every day, so, I have to work on the new one.
CP : Well that’s good news. I’m glad you’re not like, “I’m not doing that anymore.”
PO: Oh, fuck no, I will never stop doing standup. Ever. Ever, ever.
CP : Last time I saw you was—did you ever play at the Comedy Factory in Baltimore?
PO: Back in the day, ohhh yeah.
CP : I probably saw you, I can’t remember, not because I was hammered all the time or anything like that, I just went there a lot, when it was like—
PO: Late ’80s, early ’90s—
CP : Chris Rush.
PO: Chris Rush? He was in the first set of short films I did for Comedy Central. I co-wrote them with this guy Blaine Capatch, a Baltimorean, and we used Chris Rush, he played our boss and he was amazing, love Chris Rush. “You’ve only got three brain cells and two of ’em are holdin’ your asshole shut” was one of his heckler comebacks. One of my favorites. (laughs)
CP : I had never seen live comedy before.
PO: What year was that, what year did you come here?
CP : Like, ’85, ’86.
PO: Oh, that’s when there was Mark Voyce, Bob Somerby, Blaine Capatch, Darryl Knight. There were so many good people doing it then. Yeah, there was a great scene, man.
CP : Yeah, there was more than one place, there was Tracy’s—
PO: Tracy’s, Comedy Factory, Charm City—which became Garvins—literally across the street, up that little alley, at Winchester’s Pub, which all comedians called “Lose-chester’s Pub,” there was Slapstix—with an “x,” which died. God there were so many, and we’d all do our sets and go up to Gampy’s.
CP : Yeah, which is gone.
PO: I miss Gampy’s.
CP : Yeah, and the place the Comedy Factory used to be on top of, Burke’s.
CP : That’s gone. That’s gonna be a Royal Farms.
PO: What’s where the Comedy Factory Outlet used to be, just nothing?
CP : Yeah, there’s a club now in Timonium called Magooby’s [Joke House], and Comedy Factory Outlet moved to Power Plant Live on Market Place. I saw you at the Recher, for Comedians of Comedy.
PO: That was fun, me and Zach [Galifianakis].
CP : So with Charlize Theron, how many days before she’s a regular human being?
PO: Well, we met at the table read, and we got along so well, that’s what I think Jason [Reitman, director] said he really liked, our chemistry. The first day of any set, it feels very formalized, but, I can’t give you an exact moment, but very quickly, she was somebody I could just hang out with and joke with and mess around with. We’d just give each other shit all the time, it feels really comfortable. She’s a great actress who happens to look like a movie star. She can’t help that she looks that way. She drinks, she eats, she’s not doing weird exercises, doesn’t eat sea kelp and drink weird mineral water. She eats exactly like us, drinks, and that’s how she looks. It’s not her fault.
CP : I read your book [Zombie Spaceship Wasteland].
PO: (in the manner of talking to a child) You did? Aww . . .
CP : Yeah, just to sort of prepare. A lot of that book seems to be about being young and wanting to be something, wanting that catalyst, to leave, or to stay. I talked to Brian Posehn, and he talked about how having a baby changed his act, but he didn’t want to be goofball-cutey about it, but it did change his act because he talks about having a baby, you know? So getting past that, what about getting old?
PO: The thing is, everything in your life changes your act, including what if you didn’t have a baby while all your friends had babies? That would change your act, going through the arc of a life changes your act, or should change your act. If I see a comedian and 10 years down the road he’s doing the exact same word-for-word material, or still is in the exact same subjects, either you’re not paying attention to your life or you’re not bringing a lot of your life into your comedy. You’re just not very present, so everything changes your act, or I think it should. I love the fact that there’s things on my early albums, I say, “I’ll never have a kid,” you know, all this stuff, because that is exactly how I felt at the time. They’re like issues of a magazine, and here’s how it is. Now you can look back, and he felt this way, and obviously he changed his mind because now he’s got a kid and he loves it.
CP : You’re a critic of things. Of culture, of stuff you consume, like a comic book or a movie. Not like conflict of interest, but you’re in Hollywood. Do you ever get a twinge, ever think you should check yourself?
PO: The people who want you to lie to them or be nice, you don’t want to hang around with them anyway. I’ve never seen myself as a critic so much as an advocate, for stuff I love, and if I criticize something, it’s because it’s something I love that has gone wrong.
CP : Public radio.
PO: Yeah, I love public radio. . . . You’ve been in love with people, and you never see someone’s flaws better than someone you love, like “Oh, why the fuck do you do that?” You know, I love, absolutely love Star Wars, so that’s why the prequels were so enraging to me. You cannot criticize something unless you truly love it.
CP : What do you think about this John Carter movie?
PO: I have really high hopes, because I love those books, and I’m so behind anything Pixar does.
CP : Did you read that article about the guy in The New Yorker, the guy who’s doing it, the guy who did Wall-E?
PO: Yeah, [Andrew] Stanton, I read some of that article. I didn’t get to read the whole thing. I loved Wall-E, and look, Pixar, to me, is like Paul Thomas Anderson, or Errol Morris, or James Ellroy, they are a brand name, and anything they put out, I will consume, because it’s always—even if it doesn’t quite work—it’s still brilliant.
CP : Have you heard about their process? They just continuously reshoot, constantly reshoot.
PO: That’s when I was doing Ratatouille. They would constantly rewrite the script, and tweak it, and I’d go back and re-record something. Their thing is always in a state of development, and they have projects that are coming down the pike they have planned 12 years ahead. It’s a fascinating company, and I really love it.
CP : If you’re gonna write anything, you write it and then rewrite it and fix it. Why not do that with a movie if you have the technology?
PO: They’ve got it, and there’s a lot of people that have the technology and don’t do that, so good for them. They should do that.
CP : Do you wanna be less of an actor and more of a writer?
PO: I’d like to do both. I love writing as much as I love acting as much as I love standup, so I’ll always try to do all three in balance.
CP : Did you think acting was the thing that was gonna be the thing? Right now it’s turning out to be the strongest thing.
PO: For now, but who’s to say writing won’t then go in the lead, or standup will come back again? They’re always competing with each other, so I’ve resigned myself to never make the now the forever-after. I’m still writing and I’m still doing standup and I love doing those.
CP : That’s good, I’m glad, as a consumer.
PO: (laughs) Thanks, man.
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