Patton Oswalt - From Atrocious To Competent In Under A Decade

Words & Photos by Jason Anfinsen

For nine seasons and over one hundred episodes Patton Oswalt played Spencer, the friend of the fat guy who screamed every week at his psychotic-Scientologist wife inside a tiny bunker where the Heffernan's held George Costanza's father hostage, on The King Of Queens. In July, Sub Pop released Oswalt's second comedy album Werewolves And Vampires right around the time when the stunted joke-slinger starred as Remy in Pixar's Ratatouille, which has made well over 200 million dollars to date. His squeaky voice can be heard on television shows, video games and major motion pictures by ears connected to a diverse fan base of young tykes and heavyweight tokers. He's sharp and business oriented with a passion for thrusting upstart funnymakers into the comedy kiln, allowing them to bake or burn, in his punk rock comedy extravaganza The Comedians Of Comedy.

After being introduced as the little guy in front of a sold out crowd at the Showbox Theater in Seattle America on October 3, Patton Oswalt strolled out, grabbed the microphone and viciously ripped open the first night of the 2007 Comedians Of Comedy tour. The pudgy quipster perused the excited crowd, determined to find a punching bag dressed in ironic apparel to complete his "hipster t-shirt" bit. Oswalt found gold in the front row after targeting a Capitol Hill cutie pie whom he quickly pegged an "Alterna-Barbie from Ghost World." The girl who surfed through a wave of stoned Seattleites only to be drawn and quartered by Oswalt's ruthless barrage not only loved the hell out it, she also braved the frigid Autumn winds of the Puget Sound on an otherwise dull Wednesday evening and paid $25 to boot.

Backstage at the Showbox, amongst a room full of treats and comics holding notebooks and doing bits, wearing my own hipster garb in the form of a Bukowski shirt, I cornered the pudgy jokester and rifled off an onslaught of my own. My questions quickly began to feel like amateur hour at the Spanish inquisition as his answers were delivered with a borderline tude that some find amusing while others take offense as they dream of pounding him and his sarcastic brand of humor into emergency room putty.

JA: 2007 has been a pretty good year for you so far.

PO: It's a very busy year, but fun.

JA: Take me back ten years to when you did your HBO special in 1997.

PO: (laughs) Oh god.

JA: Go with me here. When you got off the stage, before the show even aired, before you landed on The King Of Queens, how did you feel about your set?

PO: I just remember being so happy. It wasn't that I was relieved that it was over, it was that I was happy that for once in my career. Never again did I just focus on one specific thing for a number of months and then just deliver it. And it's so sad that I cant just remind myself: if you just concentrate on one thing, it comes out really really well. Because I am openly proud of that special, not in a bragging way, but it was something that I really wanted to do and I did it exactly the way I wanted to do it. I just remember that is what I felt and unfortunately it's a feeling that I have allowed myself to forget.

On May 14, 2007, over thirteen million television sets tuned in to say goodbye to the series finale of The King Of Queens for a send off episode called 'China Syndrome,' written by the show's creator Michael Creighton, the same saint responsible for providing almost a decade of financial security and drama school for the young Oswalt after catching the comic's aforementioned HBO special.

A: On your website you posted a nice goodbye to The King Of Queens. That must have been a warm sendoff.

PO: It was great. That show, having been on the air for nine years, we really lucked out. We didn't think we would be on the air for nine years like that. And for the creator to get to finish the show the way he wanted and to bring it home in whatever way he felt, that must have felt really good. That was nine years of his life and nine years of something that he created. That's got to feel great.

JA: What kind of polish did you walk away from The King Of Queens? I'm sure you aren't the same now coming out of it as you were going into it.

PO: Oh yeah. Just from getting to work with Kevin James and Jerry Stiller and the whole cast and the director Rob Schiller, I learned how to act. I didn't know how to act when I got that job. I went from atrocious to merely competent. Not a bad arc.

JA: I smell a new bumper sticker.

PO: Yeah. Atrocious to competent in under a decade.

In 2004 Patton Oswalt nailed a comedy killing triple play. Sub Pop released his debut ha-ha disc Feelin' Kinda Patton and Comedy Central captured his one-hour special No Reason To Complain which was then pressed onto DVD. 2004 was also the year the acerbic Oswalt cleverly developed the idea for a cheaper, more compact, punk rock circus of laughs called The Comedians Of Comedy which has become a financially successful and artistically gratifying tour, television series and independent film.

JA: Not only is 2007 a huge year for you but 2004 was also a monster one as well. You seem to be in the orifices of the different media.

PO: I'm in the orifices of the different media? Yes, I've prison raped entertainment.

JA: And they keep coming back for more.

PO: Yeah I guess 2004 was just one of those years where a lot of stuff lined up that I had been working on for a long time. I worked on Ratatouille for two years. I worked on Sunshine And Werewolves for about two years after the first one, in between doing The Comedians Of Comedy tour, television show and the movie. So yeah, it was a lot of quietly working on things and all of them coming out at once. It felt really good.

JA: And when you created the comedians it's like now you got a band.

PO: What I like is TCOC is that it's not a set clique. I have a kind of a brand name that can fit all kinds of new comedians in what I want people to see. So it doesn't have to be just the same group. And I think audiences are starting to realize that when you see it says The Comedians Of Comedy, it will be not necessarily the original four (Zach Galifianakis, Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford), but comedians you should see. Almost like a roving music festival.

JA: Yes. Taking an idea that Rodney Dangerfield as well as a ton of established comedians have done in the past but packing audiences into indie rock clubs. How has that against the grain decision paid off?

PO: Well David Cross had done a version of it and other comedians had done rock clubs. I had been doing rock clubs for a while. So I wanted to do it with my friends and boy did it click.

JA: Hell yeah. It's been three years with no end in sight.

PO: Well it's been four years. We started in 2003 a very small tour me and Zack and it kept building exponentially after that.

In addition to Bumbershoot and SXSW, TCOC were the first comedy assassins to slay the burning bags of skin in the Californian desert at this year's Coachella fiesta.

JA: Tell me about Coachella. What the hell was that?

PO: I don't know what it was but boy did it work. They invited us out and we were on this little side stage for 3,000 people in the hot sun and I just kept thinking this is the biggest mistake. This is us being excited about Coachella and its not going to work, but it really worked. And then of course afterward the booker said 'hey we should have you guys on the main stage next year and it's like, people get so excited when comedy works that it needs to get five times bigger than it is and that's how it dies. It's got to stay small and intimate.

JA: Don't you think that is the beauty of performing in the technology age where you can create a quick snapshot and it may come out on DVD, or...

PO: Oh yeah. You can do that even if it doesn't come out on DVD. It can be accessible on the internet and expose people to what you do. It's great for comedians because they are not at the whims of what a comedy club will demand or what a club owner will demand.

JA: So that being said, in 2007 when one of the biggest bands in the world Radiohead plans on releasing In Rainbows on the internet as 'pay what you can,' why are all comedians like Eugene Mirman, Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black making records?

PO: Because we do not have the machinery behind us that a Radiohead has. Even though they are saying free or pay what you can, they still have an amazing distribution machine behind themselves whereas we don't. So having a Sub Pop get behind us and if someone hears my CD they'll hopefully go to my web site where I'll list other comedians that you should be seeing or web sites that you should be visiting and the kind of comedy that I do, I'll make the environment more friendly to what I do by promoting other people.

JA: And that seems to be your crusade as of late.

PO: I'm trying to, yeah. I've been doing that for four years now.

JA: I felt like when Chicken Little came out, all of the advertisements said Chicken Little staring Zach Braff. Do you feel like Pixar didn't pump you up enough?

PO: I think the star of Ratatouille is Pixar and Brad Bird. I was just a lucky dude that got the role. I don't think people associate the character with me in that if they come to our show they say 'we wanna hear Remy.' That's what's great about a Pixar movie is its what I am trying to do with TCOC done much bigger, much better and much smarter and for a much longer time. It's everyone doing they best to contribute towards a flawless work of art. That movie is going to age so well.

JA: When you spent the two years doing it, did you think that it would turn out as big as it did?

PO: Of course I didn't know for sure but the fact that it was A) Pixar and B) Brad Bird, that's a pretty good indication. They've done, what I am trying to do with this tour, is create a name which equals a level of quality. So it gets to the point where they say if its Pixar I'll see it. It doesn't matter if I'm not interested, I'm sure they'll make me interested.

JA: With such a successful voice over career for children's programming, how would you approach an angry mob of crazies who said 'I saw his show and he was swearing!'

PO: Well then they are idiots. You can do both. You can totally do both. Shel Silverstein did kids books and adult records. If you saw Richard Pryor on Sesame Street wouldn't you at least read a little about him before you saw him live? Just because anyone does one thing, doesn't mean they have to stay there forever.

Patton Oswalt - From Atrocious To Competent In Under A Decade