FUNNY FLASHBACK: PATTON OSWALT

4 Dec

If there’s one thing I love as much as music, it’s comedy. And my family. And cookies, too. So that’s three things …

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to interview some of my favorite comedians, and since I started this stupid website … I figure it’s as good a place as any to stick the ancient transcripts, for the sake of posterity and general amusement.

In anticipation of his soon-to-be-released book, “Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From An Addiction to Film,” here’s a transcript of the September 29, 2002, phone chat I had with the always inspiring Patton Oswalt.

 

What year did you first start performing stand-up?

1989.

And how old were you then?

Nineteen.

Was this during college?

Yeah.

And you attended William & Mary?

Yep.

And you’re from Virginia, originally?

Yeah, Northern Virginia.

What drew you to stand-up initially?

Uhhhh . . . I don’t know, I was always trying to be funny, around people and around my friends. And I guess I had a lot of confidence that I could do it because around the time I entered into it, the comedy scene was really very saturated.

What surprised you most about stand-up at the beginning?

It was hard to be personal.

In what way?

Bringing that element of personal reality to it. That was a lot harder than I thought. And I was also surprised to learn that it was actually an art form.

How long did it take you before you began to view it as an art form?

I think I realized it was an art form at the beginning, but it took me a really long time before I was able to view what I was performing myself as an art form.

How long was it before you had confidence in what you were doing an part of the art?

Oh, God. It took a really long time. I really didn’t feel good about what I was doing until about 1995 or ’96, around the time I moved to Los Angeles.

What were the biggest hurdles in performing for you to clear personally? Were you uncomfortable on stage …

I was a little uncomfortable at first, and then I became very, very focused on what would work for me to help my career. Things like how should I look, what should I wear, what should I be doing, as opposed to focusing on the actual stand-up, which I think I had a pretty good handle on.

Marc Maron said the biggest challenge is going from faking fearlessness on stage, to actually being fearless on stage. Does that ring true to you?

Yeah, but I like to keep a little bit of the fear. I like the idea that things could maybe go wrong. I think that brings a different element to stand-up. You don’t get the courage to do whatever you do in stand up if you know that people are always going to laugh at you, every time.

Do you feel you usually excel when maybe the audience isn’t quite with you?

Yeah. I like the feeling of winning people over, and that’s one of the things that you get by going out on the road. I don’t believe in the “hot house” atmosphere. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with a room like Largo or The Uncabaret. They’re great rooms, but for the most part you really are preaching to the converted. I like winning people over that are completely separate from what I am doing.

When you achieve a certain amount of name or face recognition, can audiences ever be too willing to laugh at you?

Sometimes. Sometimes, but I’m not that recognizable. I mean, people see me on “The King of Queens” and they have this certain thing in their mind, and what I do is not really that, but it’s not something that they can’t accept.

What is the perception that audiences have if they know you from “The King of Queens”?

I think it’s actually a lack of perception. I think they like that character on TV and that’s about it. I don’t know. I’m not sure how to articulate that.

What was the best advice you ever received about performing stand-up?

Don’t get too high on the highs and don’t get too low on the lows.

And by contrast what was the worst advice?

I don’t think I ever really received any really bad advice, but I remember one night a guy was onstage and he was doing a bit about how he was a non-smoker and he didn’t like smokers, and when he got off stage, the club manager came over to him and explained that the prevailing notion was that people didn’t like non-smokers, or people who were actively anti-smoking, and what he needed to do was find a way to put that point of view across on stage, and one day maybe that would change, and then he could just change it around again, but right now what he needed to do was to pay less attention to his material and more attention to what was going on around him. I mean, the guy was just clearly insane. And I overheard the whole thing and I was just blown away with what horrible advice he was offering. And this guy used to do stuff like that all the time. Actually, he wasn’t even the club’s manager, he was the owner’s husband. And he would sit people down all the time and tell them nonsense. It was actually pretty entertaining after awhile.

When you first began doing stand-up, did you ever get sucked into doing something really lame like taking a course on stand-up or anything like that?

Nothing like that. The only thing I ever did was I got sucked into doing were things like radio gigs and charity events that I probably wasn’t appropriate for. There were a lot of cable TV programs I did coming up when there was this huge explosion of comedy on cable TV that, in retrospect, I’m glad I did, but when it came to do my half-hour special or Conan, the ones that really counted for something, I was already very, very comfortable with performing on camera.

What was the downside to doing those TV shows?

There wasn’t really a downside. There was a risk of me getting a really bad idea of what I needed to be doing as a comedian. Luckily for me, those tapes don’t seem to have survived, and the shows have all disappeared, and I have learned not to do that sort of thing, especially in re-watching the tapes and saying, “Boy, that was bad.”

I think there’s something amazing about original comedians who make it through the beginning and intermediate stages of a comedy career without quitting or killing themselves. What do you make of that? Is it just sheer persistence? Was there a time you thought, “You know what, I’m just not fitting in with these people, this isn’t working …”

Yeah, there were a lot of times, but there were also things that just kept me going. There’s the fear of failure, there’s the idea that you don’t want the assholes to be right, there’s a lot of spite in it. There’s also a subconscious sabotaging, like you can’t go back to the beginning anyway, so you just have to press on. There was a time when I was living out in San Francisco, and things were not going well, and I was thinking I would just come back to Virginia. I was engaged, and I broke up the engagement to move out to San Francisco, and I was going to go back to Virginia and just beg this girl to marry me, but I didn’t do it, and I’m not really sure how I did it. I can’t really give you details of how I managed not to quit, but I didn’t.

How would you say stand-up comedy has changed since you started? For the better or for the worse?

It’s definitely changed for the better. It died. Everything that people thought stand-up should be, in the late eighties and early nineties, proved to be wrong. All the sort of impersonal, jokey, crafty thing, it all just kind of failed. I think right now is the best time for stand-up, ever. I sincerely do.

Why is that?

Because there are so many amazing people doing it right now. And there really is no clear entry way to a saturation point. In other words, there is no more “A & E’s Evening At The Improv,” or “Caroline’s Comedy Hour,” where they just plug comedians in until people just get sick of them. There’s nothing to really give people a bad idea of what stand-up is right now. It’s really just for the connoisseurs, for the people that really want to go see it. And there are comedians that have day jobs, and they want to go out and do it anyway. I mean, the death in the late eighties and early nineties really shook out a lot of hacks. The pond just sort of dried up for a lot of really bad comedians.

At the tail end of the boom, before the hacks were shook out, as you said, did you ever begin to sort of hate stand-up, and hate where it was?

Yeah, there were a few years in the early nineties where I really began to hate what was valued as funny and just sort of what was valued in stand-up, period. That was starting to piss me off. I remember one time I was performing in this comedy competition in Newport News, and there was this little comedy magazine that got published, and there was this one comedian on the cover, who shall remain nameless, and there were a bunch of comedians around, and I picked up this magazine and said, “Hey guys, you know what’s funny?” and they said, “What?” and I pointed to the picture of this comedian on the magazine and said, “Not her.” And they all went, “I don’t see you on the cover of a magazine. She’s rich. I don’t see you on TV. Where’s your TV show?” Like, as long as you’re on the cover of a magazine or are making money, that erases everything else that is wrong with you.

Financial success is the ultimate indicator of whether or not a comedian is funny.

It really was. And there was this thing where, now, luckily, or hopefully, I hope, this has died out, but the thievery of material was just rampant, especially at the tail end of the boom, and it increased that feeling of the end justifies the means. There really was this feeling of, “Whoever does the joke the best, that’s their joke.” There really was a point, and it didn’t last long, but it really was about acquisition and not about creation. Which probably paralleled the go-go eighties stock market. I remember a comedian who had a lot of heat on him, who has now mostly crashed and burned, who blatantly stole just huge chunks of material from a friend of mine named Blaine Capatch. I mean, just huge chunks of material. And Blaine and I were still MC-ing, while this guy was featuring. And this kid was only like twenty or twenty-one at the time, and he started featuring with Blaine’s material. And Blaine confronted him about it and the guy was so shameless about it. He wasn’t angry at Blaine and he wasn’t trying to defend himself. The guy’s argument was, “Look, I’m doing feature gigs and I don’t have a half-hour of material. If you were doing feature gigs, I certainly would let you do your material. But I’m the one featuring right now, and I need the material. You’re only MC-ing right now, you only need ten minutes of material.”

Completely unremorseful.

He completely saw no wrong in what he was doing. He had no ill feelings towards Blaine, and he wasn’t even being sneaky about it. He was only shocked at Blaine coming to him saying, “What the hell are you doing?” And he’s saying, “What do you mean what the hell am I doing? I’m featuring! I’ve only got five minutes of material!” Like Blaine was an idiot. And that was literally his reaction.

Do you think his theft was sort of a function of the amount of work that was available at the time? Like, anyone who could cobble together thirty minutes, whether or not they created it, could feature?

Yeah, there was just so much work. Now, luckily again, when the boom died, all of that died. And a lot of these guys . . . well, there were so many reasons . . .

Hello? Hello? [PATTON’s CELL PHONE DIES … HE CALLS BACK]

Sorry about that.

No problem. Can you recall the first time you heard the phrase “alternative comedy”?

Ummm . . . no. I must have been living in L.A. at the time, but I don’t remember.

Did the term ever mean anything to you at all?

No.

Should it ever mean anything to anyone?

No. I mean, all alternative comedy is are comedians that have being doing it for so long, for so long, that they were relaxed enough to start becoming personal on stage. I had been doing it for about six or seven years before I started doing places like The Largo and The Uncabaret. I mean, ninety percent of all comedians are just boring people, and ninety percent of alternative comics are shitty comedians. You take the good ones in the ten percents between the two, and that’s where you get the good stuff. So I’ve never differentiated between the alternative and the mainstream. There are plenty of alternative comedians, and I mean ones that sort of started off as alternative comics . . . that’s like saying, “I’m going to start off as a jazz improvisor.” Well, do you know how to play scales? “No. I’m going to start off by improvising.” It’s like a guy saying, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to start off as a four-star chef.” Well, can you cook a cup of rice? “No.” Can you cook an omelet? “No.” Well, why don’t you start off learning how to cook rice, and by the way, that takes about a year. Four star chefs take a full year learning how to cook rice and how to cook omelets. “Well, I’m not going to do that.” Well, then you’re never going to be a four-star chef. So many guys start off going, “Well, I’m just going to be alternative, like Janeane Garofalo.” Well, Janeane Garofalo was banging away for ten years. She was a brilliant joke writer, a brilliant comedian, and then got so good that she could do it in her sleep, and started to challenge herself. I mean, it’s the same thing with Richard Pryor. Guys watch Richard Pryor and think, “I can do that. He just goes up onstage and says ‘motherfucker.’” Not realizing he had been doing it for fifteen years. I mean, guys go up on stage thinking, “I’m just going to go up on stage and talk about my day like Janeane does.” Uhhh, no, you’re not, actually. You should actually go and write a joke first. You know what? Go and write a knock-knock joke first. Seriously, can you write a fucking knock knock joke? I remember one time I was at Largo and a guy said, “I love seeing mainstream, headlining comedians come in here trying to be alternative, because they just sweat, sweat, sweat and say, well, it doesn’t really have to be funny! Hahaha.” And I went up after him and said, you know, that is fun to watch, but you know what’s even more fun? Watching an alternative comic out on the road. That’s hysterical. They’re on stage going, “Yeah, me and my friend Terry … you guys know Terry, right? … Huh. Well, we went to Blockbuster and Terry rented “The Wedding Planner” … I mean, if you guys knew Terry … Hell-oooo? Ok, fine, you guys are fucking idiots.” That’s my impression of an alternative comic on the road. Here’s my other impression of an alternative comic on the road: “Ok, you guys aren’t listening to me.”

“The Wedding Planner” is the punchline for their joke. That’s all they need.

“Uhhh, I mean, if you guys knew Terry, you would know … I mean, weren’t you guys there when we all went and played Putt-Putt? Ahhh, you guys are morons. I can’t believe that my thirty friends are not in this room in Ohio right now. This is the shittiest comedy club on the planet.”

At the same time, I think you’re an original comic, whose jokes are somewhat intricately worded, whose premises take a fair amount of thought to get …

Hang on. [To cab driver] Get off on Olive, and then over to Buena Vista. No, you should have gotten off on Olive. Ahh, fuck it take … no, no, that’s the wrong exit. Get off on the next one and take me back to Burbank. Yeah, Lincoln. But not the Lincoln exit … no, no, no. Take Burbank Boulevard. Jesus Christ. Yeah, go west. [To me] Where were we?

I think I’m going to skip where I was going, ‘cause I may just be covering the same ground. I found something online called the ChildCare Action Project . . .

The CAP Alert.

Yeah, you’ve seen that?

Oh, yeah. That guy’s got a real hard-on for me.

But why you, of all people? I thought the funniest part of in was at the beginning, it says, “ A family’s sixteen year-old child was developing a strong interest in Patton Oswalt.”

Ahhh, let me be! Creepy. I like when he says I focus on the male demon anatomy … [To cab driver] Go down to Olive … no, Olive …then right on Buena Vista, right on Park, and then a left on Lincoln. Not Lincoln up there, Lincoln down here. Oh, Jesus. Keep going straight. Stay on Burbank Boulevard. {To me] So, the CAP Alert …

I thought it was funny how absolutely filthy it makes you sound.

It makes me sound ten times filthier than I actually am. I don’t think anything I do is all that controversial. I’m not the type of guy that sits down and says, “I’m going to piss some people off so bad.” My thing, the hat trick to getting people to laugh at things they normally wouldn’t laugh at. I mean, anyone can go out there and be offensive. That’s the easy part. Anyone could do that. I could go out there and go, “Hey, Nigger!” Boom. I win. You know? But …

This thing makes it sound like you walked on stage, talked about stomping midgets, talked about necrophilia, talked about golden showers, and said good night.

Well, you know … if anything, that should attract more people to my show.

You mentioned before people knowing you from “The King of Queens.” Are they then ever offended by what you say on stage?

Yeah, a couple times. I mean, usually if they are offended, they don’t tell me.

Do you ever consider that reaction beforehand?

No. Like I said, I don’t think I’m that type of person. If someone is going to be offended, I don’t think it’s because of me, I think it’s just …

They would have had a problem with whatever comedian they saw that night.

Oh, yeah. Good lord … [To cab driver] Take a left on Buena Vista, take a left on Clark, take a left on Lincoln. [To me] I’m sorry.

No problem. There’s a new book out co-authored by Tom Shales …

Yeah, about “SNL.”

Right. Do you think there could ever be a book like that about “Mad TV”?

No.

If that book ever did exist, what would your role in the book be?

Minimal. I was only there for the first two seasons, and I was kind of an asshole.

You were kind of an asshole?

Yeah.

Why do you say that?

I was just very contentious with what we were doing. I had a lot of problems with the show the show was set up and structured. I don’t think anyone there would have much to say about me.

Before that, did it feel like, “Wow, this is going to be great.”

Yeah, I was very excited.

When it turned into an unpleasant experience, did it feel like, “Well, that was my big shot.”

At the time, it certainly did, but now I feel like, if I’m not enjoying myself . . . I just figured I really don’t need that much money to live. And that way I don’t get sucked into doing things I don’t really want to do.

How did it come about that you toured with Aimee Mann and Michael Penn?

They saw me perform at Largo, and they asked me to open up for them, and just do the banter for them. It kind of just happened organically.

Did they say, “Come along and do it like this,” or more like, “Come along and do whatever you want.”

They said, “Come along and do the tour,” and that was that.

It seems like everything I read about it had a really positive reaction to having a comedian as part of the show.

Yeah, all of the gigs went really well. The only one where I had a problem was one in London, and that’s because the manager didn’t let people in the door until five minutes after I started performing. He was like, “Well, you do your comedy while they’re sitting down,” and I was like, “No, you don’t.” And he was like, “Well, it will work if you’re funny. If you’re funny, they’ll laugh.” And I was like, “Oh, Ok. You’re one of those guys. I remember guys like you from back in the eighties.”

[CELL PHONE DIES … PATTON CALLS BACK]

Hello?

Sorry about that.

No problem. I wanted to ask you how your role in Magnolia came about.

Paul Thomas Anderson was hanging out at Largo and saw me perform, and said, “He do you want to go do this thing for my movie?,” and that was it.

That was a big laugh for me, seeing Magnolia for the first time in the theater, and within the first five minutes, there’s Patton Oswalt on the big screen.

Thanks.

I thought the thing you did with Jimmy Kimmel for “Crank Yankers,” the radio team of “Boomer and The Nudge,” was just really, really great. So what is it about radio that just sucks so bad?

Yeah, I don’t know. It’s just so awful. I mean, there are a few radio shows that I think are really great, like “The Phil Hendrie Show” and a few others, but for the most part, it’s just awful. It’s just like, why do they have to talk like that? Why can’t they just play music? And I’ll never understand why comedy club owners insist comedians go on local radio shows. It never enhances the comedians work at all, it never gets people interested in seeing the show. I just don’t know.

Well, I think I’ve wasted enough of your time.

Hey, thanks, man.

I really appreciate you taking the time to do this and I’ll email you a copy of it when it’s done.

Yeah, great.

Take care.

I’ll talk to you soon.

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