One would not assume, given his powerful performance in Big Fan, that actor Patton Oswalt is a stand up comic. His ferocious, profoundly emotive portrayal of a sports-obsessed loner who lives with his mother, has received rave reviews since the film’s premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The 40-year old writer/actor grew up in a military family, moving frequently during his adolescence. His career in comedy was set in motion by many of the same influences that modern stand-ups would later cite as their own inspirations – the comedy LPs of Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Jonathan Winters – not to forget the classic Warner Bros. Looney Tune cartoons. Oswalt was also a voracious comic book reader, developing a taste for horror films while in his early teens. Writing and comedy became his goals while in high school and he slogged through a series of day jobs to make ends meet, including work as a paralegal and radio disc jockey. The drudgery of these and other jobs helped to cement Oswalt’s desire to make a living as a comic.
Oswalt made his stand-up debut in 1989 while still in college at William and Mary, and proceeded to make appearances at any open mike night or small-time club he could find in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C. While there, he met and befriended fellow aspiring comic Blaine Capatch, with whom he would collaborate frequently with in the following years. Oswalt graduated from college in 1991 with a degree in English, and after hearing Capatch’s stories about the comedy scene in San Francisco, moved there in 1992.
There, while honing his own act, he fell in with many of the popular and upcoming comics of the period, including Brian Posehn, Greg Proops, Janeane Garofalo, Dave Attell and Dana Gould. In 1994, he and Capatch moved to Los Angeles to write a series of short comedy films that Comedy Central ran on a program called “Small Doses” (1996-98). He also made his first forays into film and television with bit parts in the unsuccessful Kelsey Grammer big screen comedy “Down Periscope” (1996), as well as on the smart sitcoms “NewsRadio” and “Mr. Show with Bob and David”.
Oswalt returned to San Francisco in 1995 and began touring nationally with Capatch; that same year, he and his comedy partner were hired to write for “MadTV” with Oswalt making a brief appearance on the show as well. By 1997, Oswalt’s stature on the comedy circuit was substantial enough to warrant his appearance on an episode of HBO’s “Comedy Half-Hour”. After this landmark gig, the up-and-coming comic alternated between stand-up gigs and television appearances for the next few years.
In 1998, fellow funnyman Kevin James tapped him to play nerdy sidekick Spence Olchin on “The King of Queens” – which quickly blossomed into a popular primetime sitcom. The exposure afforded by a role on a network show boosted his profile, providing Oswalt with more inroads into more substantial film and television work, including supporting roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (1999), Milos Forman’s “Man on the Moon” (1999), and the Ben Stiller comedy “Zoolander” (2001). He also indulged his love for comics and cartoons by providing voices to numerous animated shows, including “The Fairly OddParents”, as well as Comedy Central’s rude puppet series, “Crank Yankers”.
Oswalt’s humor got a bigger showcase in 2004 with the Comedy Central concert film “No Reason to Complain.” He released his first comedy album, Feelin’ Kinda Patton, that same year; a longer, unedited version of that disc was also released under the title 222. Seeing that the stand-up business was growing increasingly self-serving and unwilling to challenge the status quo, he organized the Comedians of Comedy tour, a national stand-up tour with Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford and Zach Gallifinakis, that played rock clubs instead of comedy spots. The tone of the tour and the comics’ material appealed to a younger, more alternative-minded crowd, and was documented in a likable 2005 documentary, “The Comedians of Comedy.”
A six-episode television series followed, and aired on Comedy Central in 2006, and a comedy CD was released the same year. Though mainstream audiences who knew Oswalt from “King of Queens” were occasionally surprised by his material – which was vigorously critical of both the Bush administration and the lax, thoughtless side of youth culture – and found it to be heavy with objectionable language (all of which got him booed off stage in Pittsburgh and San Francisco) – Oswalt quickly became a favorite among younger, hipper comedy fans. This status was solidified by Entertainment Weekly naming him the “It” comedian of 2002.
When not busy with touring or “The King of Queens,” Oswalt filled his hours with countless voice-over roles for animated series ranging from the Disney cartoon “Kim Possible”, as Dr. Dementor, a jealous mad scientist who competes with the show’s main villain, Dr. Drakken; to more mature fare like “Aqua Teen Hunger Force”, on which he was billed as “Shecky Chucklestein;” and the controversial video game series “Grand Theft Auto.” He also made frequent appearances on “Reno 911!” and appeared in the “Reno 911!” feature film, “Reno 911! Miami” (2007) . Oswalt even managed to find time to write for several comic books, including JLA and Batman, as well as contributing (though uncredited) to the script for the surprise comedy hit, “Borat” (2006).
In 2007, Oswalt released his second comedy CD, Werewolves and Lollipops. A national tour with Janeane Garofalo followed to promote the CD, as well as his latest animation effort – the feature film “Ratatouille,” for which he voiced a determined rat blessed with innate cooking abilities. Oswalt also had two other features in release that year – the broad comedy “Balls of Fury,” about the competitive world of ping-pong, and “All Roads Lead Home,” a drama for young adults that also marked the final film appearance of Peter Boyle.
He is about to release another comedy film and will stun fans for his very dramatic work on the indie drama “Big Fan” and talked to PAUL FISCHER in this exclusive interview.
Question: This character in Big Fan must have just leapt out at you when you read this. I mean, how did it get to you in the first place?
Oswalt: Well, I share an agent with [director] Robert Siegel and he thought of me for it, and sent it to me. Now this is going to sound kind of contradictory, but what leapt out about this character is how even on the page, you can sense him trying to scurry away from the sunlight. It was like – this is a guy who is on a very active quest to stay disengaged from life. And the fact that Robert kind of made that active, just on the page itself, made me go, “Oh, this might be really cool to do.”
Question: Could you understand a character like this?
Oswalt: Could I? Well, yeah. I mean, you see people like this all the time. If you go to, like, junkets or premieres, especially in this world. Think of all the people that just kind of live their lives by the Leonard Maltin’s guide, or – you know, just, “I want to see every movie.” And their lives are just 40-foot icons on a glowing screen. That’s the world, to them. And the world around them of actual people is a little fuzzier, so you must see that. I mean, there are people like that, I think, in every kind of sphere. Of anything that can have fans, you see those people. But a lot of times – to give credit to Robert – you tend to kind of either ignore them, or you see them and go, “I want to get the hell away from that.” He wanted to stop, and, “Let’s look at this guy.”
Question: How do you play a character who’s so emotionally cut off from the world around him? What are the challenges, as an actor, to tap into that?
Oswalt: You know what’s really weird? That was the most active part of the part for me, was to constantly kind of remind myself that this guy – it’s not that he’s actively disengaging. He just doesn’t have to tools to engage. And it’s almost like people are coming to try to fit him with the – you know, the – accessories that will help him do that, and he’s trying to fight that off. So I guess the way that I did it was, I tried to picture what it would be like to have, like, the one true blue love of a thing, rather than a person. A thing that never – like, it’s like, a God that never answers. You know? In a lot of the Bergman movies, these people are in love or in thrall to this thing that they will never see, that will never acknowledge them. Or if it does, it does so through disaster or bad luck. Which is kind of what happens to this guy. Not that I’m comparing myself with the actors in a Bergman movie. But it’s that same idea of, there’s a God that will not answer. And so, what is it like to have the energy to love that thing every day of your life?
Question: Do you think that those who are obsessed with sports – and that’s probably as big as those who are obsessed with celebrity culture – will be able to understand what this guy is going through?
Oswalt: Yeah, because I think that everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, has something like this in their lives. That it’s a way you want to broaden your place in the world, and broaden your effect in the world. Here’s a guy who has no effect on life and on the world, but his team does. This epic battle every year of his team for the championship. Their epic failures and epic victories. This guy has epic nothing. He’s got the same thing every single day. So, to link to this team is – “I’m a epic hero.” You know, “I’m the epic hero in this saga, because my team is.” So, it’s just a way – I think everyone does this. They want to take up more place in the world than they do.
Question: Is an independent film the way to go if you want to play characters that are as richly-defined as this guy?
Oswalt: Right now, for the most part, it seems that way. Even though every now and then, you get filmmakers like a – like a Steven Soderbergh, for instance, who can do big budget movies and sneak in, I think, really, really well-written characters. But, yeah, at least independent films nowadays seem to be the ones with the patience to let a character like this breathe and develop.
Question: I mean, you’re a character actor. In an industry which is full of leading men, what are the challenges for you to differentiate? Because your biggest movie is a movie that –
Oswalt: That I’m not in. [LAUGHTER]
Question: So. What are you looking for, as a character actor, that you would not be looking for if you’re a leading man?
Oswalt: I’ve always been way more drawn to the kind of parts that character actors get to do. You know, people like a Paul Giamatti, or a Philip Seymour Hoffman. And when they are a lead in a movie, it does tend to be a little smaller and odder, and more risk-taking. So – what I’m looking for, really – I mean, if I’m going to be totally honest with you, I’m looking for steady work. So, I’m looking for the money, and I’m looking for the anecdotes. Those are the two things I want. I want a lot of money for doing what I do, because I love doing it, and I want to be able to keep doing it. Have the freedom to keep doing it and choose my projects. And then when I say anecdotes – I want to do really interesting movies. And interesting movies, to me, doesn’t necessarily mean good movies. I either want to do – you know, work with directors who I love, like a David Gordon Green on a Coen Brothers – someone like that, or a Kathryn Bigelow –
Question: Or a Soderbergh.
Oswalt: Or a Soderbergh. Although I worked with Soderbergh. Or I want to be in just movies that are so fucking insane, the production of – of such – I mean, like, the re-make of Island of Dr. Moreau with Brando and Kilmer, but could you imagine, like, being there day to – like, watching this insane shit go down? That must have been amazing. Or, I just watched this documentary called Not Quite Hollywood. I was like – again – I mean, a lot of amazing films came out of that era. You know, like Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and My Brilliant Career, and stuff like that. But could you imagine being on something like Turkey Shoot day in and day out?
Just how insane that must have been. Again, just the stories and the experiences, because at the end of your life, you know, you want to have – “Wow, I got to really travel and do what I want to do, and things were either great, or so fantastically horrible that they’re great stories.”
Question: Do you have anything like that? Do you have a fantastically horrible experience?
Oswalt: So far the one I’ve had that comes close to that was working on Blade: Trinity. I’m sure it wasn’t fun for the directors or producers, but for me, it was such a fun disaster to watch how cra – like, that’s one of those movies that, if you watch it, it’s like a C-minus. But if you know what they went through to get it made, it’s an A-plus-plus, the fact that it actually is finished. If you know what they had to go through day to day to get the movie done [LAUGHTER] – it was crazy, and I love it. So, I love stuff like that.
Question: Tell me about Informant!, because I’ll be seeing that, I guess, in Toronto.
Oswalt: Yeah, people have started seeing that. I haven’t seen the movie yet. I just know that the script was so entertaining to read.
Question: Who do you play?
Oswalt: I play the role of Ed Herbst, who was a Treasury Department agent. What I am is, I call it the Gallery of Incredulity, of just faces of the different FBI agents and Treasury agents and law – lawyers and cops, that just deal with this guy who is the kind of coming-apart vortex in this insane – you know, agribusiness scandal case, which I love.
QUESTION: Was Soderbergh who you expected him to be?
Oswalt: You know what? He actually was. He was the most breezy kind of laid-back – “All right. We’ll just set this up, and do that, and do another take, and – all right, we got it.” Boom. Just like – just, calm – you know, lets the actors do what they want to do. Was not – was just – wasn’t really – didn’t seem to be too worried about lighting or camera. Because he just kind of was – you know what he reminded me of? Not that I’ve ever met these guys. He reminded me of what it must have been like to work with, like, a Michael Curtiz, or a – you know, one of those studio guys that – they’ve done so many movies, they can walk into a room and go, “Oh, yeah. We’ll just do this” – like, just one of those calm pros.
Question: Full of confidence.
Oswalt: Yeah. And what’s weird is, he is an auteur, but without all that auteur angst, do you know what I mean, because his movies are very idiosyncratic, and each one is very individual. But he – from what I saw, he just had this – “Yeah, we’ll just move that, and we go, and there, we got it.” And, “Let’s move on.”
Question: You also are in an episode of Bored to Death that sounds interesting.
Oswalt: Well, Jonathan Ames is one of my favorite writers and it’s sort of semi-autobiographical, about when he was a struggling writer, and sort of worked as a PI, kind of, on the side. And just how everything just got – he wants his life to be a cool noir movie, and it’s a sad little farce.
But it was really fun. It was Jonathan Ames and Jason Schwartzman and Zack Galifianakis, and Ted Danson. Everyone was just relaxed and fun.
Question: You’ve done some really cool stuff for television as well as film.
Oswalt: I’ve been very lucky. Very, very lucky.
Question: It must be hard to come up with some of these really wonderful little characters.
Oswalt: Well, what’s really – I’ve been very lucky in that when I get brought into stuff like – you know, Dollhouse, and I just did a thing on Caprica, which is the Battlestar Galactica prequel. And – and – you know, it’s usually a creator who is – I’ve been very lucky, in that they’re either a fan of my stand-up, or they’ve seen me do other stuff. And they come in, and I talk to them about, like, what – there’s a show coming on CBS called FlashForward that I just met with the creator about. Like, “Create a character for yourself, and let’s talk about what you might want to do in a couple episodes.” So, it’s that kind of idea of – they trust me. And also, I’m very, very open to, “Give me suggestions. I would love to play around with that.” Because I do punch-up on so many movies, that now that’s starting to go the way of my acting, where they’ll suggest a character, and then I can just kind of punch it up in my head.
Question: Do you miss stand-up, or do you still do it?
Oswalt: I still do it. Like, I have an album coming out in two weeks, and I’m going on a tour. So, I’ll never miss stand-up, because I’ll never stop doing it.
Question: What’s the name of the album?
Oswalt: My Weakness is Strong.
Question: And what is your weakness?
Oswalt: I have too many to name. That’s why it’s so strong. It’s a legion. I don’t have a weakness. I have a full regimen of weaknesses, with a hard-bitten Colonel Weakness, and a Special Ops team of weaknesses.
Question: Is your stand-up material purely personal, or is it observational as well?
Oswalt: It’s both. I mean, and anything, it’s observational about my personal life. Does that make sense? Like, I’m very suspicious of stand-ups where all of their bits are about how they – “Here’s another story about how I got the better of someone and put them in their place and had a really clever thing to say.” That just seems very insecure to me. My stand-ups come from, “Boy, did I f–k this up and say something dumb, and here’s what I learned about” – hopefully I can unveil an actuality.
Question: Which comedians do you admire the most, and do you think you got your inspiration from?
Oswalt: Well, I mean, overall, there’s – you know, there’s the kind of classics that inspired my generation. But if I’m really going to be honest with you, it’s my circle of friends. It’s people like Louis C.K. and Maria Bamford and Dana Gould, and – Brian Regan and Todd Glass. You know, those are the kind of people that, because I know them, and kind of have them in my head, it makes me a better writer and a better performer. Because I’m not as funny as them, and I’m always aspiring to that level.
Question: Where are you performing?
Oswalt: Everywhere. I’ll be in San Francisco and New York and Minneapolis, Chicago. You know, all over the place. And I do LA a lot, too.
Question: Would you like to do a concert movie for television? Are you developing?
Oswalt: I did do a concert movie for TV. That’s what’s coming out on the 23rd, is this concert I did in Washington DC, as the Lisner. And then that will – they’re going to air that two nights before the DVD and CD come out.
Question: Where is that going to be aired?
Oswalt: Comedy Central. So, it’s a big one-hour – it’s a one-hour distillation of a 90-minute show. And then the DVD itself is much longer.