Thursday, April 21, 2011

Patton Oswalt

My interview with Patton Oswalt is in this week's WE.

Patton Oswalt makes'em laugh
Patton Oswalt makes'em laugh
Credit: Supplied

Laughing out loud

Making comedian Patton Oswalt laugh, even if for just a second, is like high-fiving a unicorn. There’s something magical about hearing the chuckle of a person who has made you laugh. And, frankly, Oswalt hasn’t just made me laugh. On countless occasions, either at his stand-up shows or on his comedy specials or via his new book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, he’s inspired me to erupt in rib-bruising, eyes-watering, disturbing-the-peace laughter.

Over the phone from his home-base in Los Angeles, the 42-year-old Oswalt is pleasant, polite and smart. He answers questions directly and efficiently. He’s not the type of person who feels obligated to fill silences, or who wants to analyze his own processes. His confidence and ease belie some of the characters he’s inhabited so memorably when wearing his actor hat: the schlubby nerd-sidekick Spence on King of Queens; the sad sack nurse in Magnolia. Oswalt the comedian is clever, edgy and insightful — a fairly stark contrast to the roles in which he’s most often cast.

But Oswalt dismisses suggestions that his stand-up is likely a bit of a jolt for audiences used to seeing him acting on screens small and big.

“For the most part, I hope people that watched me on King of Queens know that’s an acting role for hire and that’s probably not how he is, if we go see him in a night club it will probably be different,” Oswalt says. “But, it’s not my job to worry about that. I would hope people understand, but if they don’t, I just gotta go do what I do.”

This is the attitude that seems to have propelled Oswalt since his first stand-up at an open mic on a Tuesday in Washington, DC roughly two decades ago.

“It didn’t go very well, but it was fun and I wanted more,” Oswalt recalls. “Even though I wasn’t getting any real positive feedback, it was still really fun, so that’s why I kept going back.”

The years of rejection never deterred him, and Oswalt estimates that it took a long time before the audience was having as much fun as he was.

“[Probably] not until I was six or seven years into it, when I was more comfortable with my own voice and with myself on stage,” Oswalt says. “That’s when I was able to do what I wanted to do. Once you get comfortable with yourself, then people will be comfortable with you.”

By 1997, Oswalt had his own HBO comedy special. In 2004, he released his full-length comedy album, Feelin’ Kinda Patton, and co-ordinated his Comedians of Comedy tour which featured a slew of fellow stand-ups including Zach Galifinakis, Brian Posehn and Maria Bamford. Over the years, Oswalt’s stand-up has become the stuff of legend, resulting in sold-out shows in almost every city he visits. This particular tour that brings him to Vancouver coincides with the publication of his first book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, a brilliant collection of everything from essays to comic panels to poetry. It’s like a goody bag from Oswalt’s brain, running the emotional gamut from bittersweet to joyful.

“I try to just sort of talk about what’s on my mind,” Oswalt says. “Not everything I think about is comedic all the time, so I was going along those lines.”

Oswalt describes the collection as different pieces of things he’d been mulling for years, but he didn’t dig in to the writing process until the book was sold. And, even then, it didn’t come naturally, per se.
“[Stand-up and the book are] different mediums,” Oswalt says. “Stand up I tend to write more on stage riffing, going on over and over again every show, kind of refining what I do. Writing, it all has to be edited and refined on the page.”

Now that the book is behind him and he’s in the midst of this stand-up tour, Oswalt’s mind is occupied by other things. He’s reluctant to discuss any one element of some of the topics he’ll be talking about on stage, insisting it’s impossible to take them out of context.

Instead, politics and social issues come bubbling up. Oswalt, an outspoken critic, says he was always more curious than critical. “Then, when your curiousity isn’t answered or engaged, that leads to frustration.” His frustrations are numerous.

“The Democrats fumbling on the majority and not acting on it and not getting the things done that they were elected to do, whereas the Republicans can seemingly just ram through the most unpopular stuff and not care about what the public thinks,” Oswalt sighs. “The Democrats, who actually have the public on their side and don’t go and push things through that would actually benefit people. I’m a big fan of like, dragging people kicking and screaming into the 21st century. I don’t know why the Democrats didn’t do it this time, but I guess that’s how it is right now. It’s frustrating.”

Legalizing gay marriage, which has also been a contentious issue in much of the US, is another thorn in his side.

“With gay marriage, I’m beyond even wanting – I don’t even care about gays being allowed to be married anymore. What I care about is that in 40 years, history’s going to look back on this time and it’s going to be so embarrassing that we even were debating it. That’s what’s going to seem embarrassing. It’s going to be like looking back at the time we were doing the first moon shot and finding out people were debating whether or not witchcraft was real. You’ve got to be kidding me! It’s crazy. Same with evolution, climate change, the fact that the debate is happening is going to be so mortifying.”

History tends to have a lot to apologize for, and often times it’s comedians that remind us of that, pointing out the ridiculous and the false and the hypocritical. Oswalt is one of those voices of reason, sometimes, when hysteria threatens to overtake the masses. He gives language to things that are sometimes indescribable, be it serious issues like civil rights or not-so-serious ones — like how I made him laugh at the beginning of our conversation.

“I have to thank you for a phrase you coined: nut fog. It’s perfect. It’s really helped in my life,” I tell him.There’s a second of stunned silence, then a chuckle.

“Oh wow. Ooh. I’m sorry? Cool, thank you.”

No, Patton. Thank you.

Patton Oswalt performs Saturday, Apr. 23 at the Vogue (918 Granville), 7pm. $24.99-$49.99 from

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