The wry comedian sounds off on shtick-shifting, sucky pop culture, and why hating everything is exhausting.
1. People change. Embrace it.
Patton Oswalt is lucky. Lucky that he’s been successful as a comedian, writer, and actor, and lucky that he chose a profession that embraces contradiction. Audiences have stuck with the 43-year-old comic, from early albums where he’d get drunk and rant about why anyone would ever have kids all the way to his present incarnation: married with a three-year-old daughter. “I think what’s most important for a comedian is to be absolutely honest with whoever you are at that moment, and then your stand-up becomes a chronicle of all the changes you’re going through,” he says. “I like the fact that stuff I said earlier completely contradicts stuff I’m saying and doing now. That’s what life is supposed to be. In a lot of professions, you have to create a persona and stick with it. In comedy, the laughter comes from tearing that persona down and going, ‘Oh boy, was I wrong.’ You have a better chance at longevity if you pursue your career that way.”
2. We’re in the middle of a pop-culture wasteland…
In addition to writing comic books, essays, and a pseudo-memoir, 2011’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Oswalt turned heads with a 2010 article for Wired, in which he examined the state of geek culture in the internet age. “In order to save pop culture future,” he wrote, “we’ve got to make the present pop culture suck, at least for a little while.” Two years later, Oswalt says he’s starting to realize that what he had described—a kind of prescribed burn that would lead to a renewal of subculture—occurs at a glacial pace. “It’s happening right now, but in a very slow, no-one-knows-what’s-next kind of way.” For the time being, he remarks, we’re helpless in the face of constant change: “I’m trying to keep a positive attitude within a lot of chaos and a lot of decay and rebirth, which I think is causing stress for people. Like, hey, the iPhone 5’s coming out. ‘Yeah, but in a year there will be another one.’ That’s the pace we’re at now, and there’s nothing we can do. I just try to be a moving target—it’s the only way that I’m comfortable.”
3. …or maybe it’s a pop-culture oasis.
The future of stand-up may be hard to predict, but Oswalt is optimistic about the internet’s effect on today’s aspiring comedians. “In a way, in the ’80s, only a very, very narrow vision of comedy was allowed to be seen by the public,” he says, “which was the kind of stuff you saw at The Improv: guys in front of a brick wall in a sport coat doing observational stuff. And that was fine, but now, because of the internet and podcasts, absolutely every kind of comedy has been allowed to take hold, or at least been given a little foothold. I think maybe this is the first generation that’s seeing that there is no right or wrong way to do it.”
4. Don’t be a 40-year-old hater.
Oswalt’s own stand-up material is not exactly sunny: Go on YouTube and you’ll find him railing against religion, Star Wars prequels, KFC, and his own depression. Lately, Oswalt has been consciously tempering his biting tone. “Well, you do that when you’re 20, that’s how you form your identity, and that’s fine,” he says. “Hate things immediately: It’s a very secure place to be. But just hating things knee-jerk…when you’re in your 40s, it just looks sad, and it’s a sad way to live.”
Patton Oswalt performs as part of JFL42 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (190 Princes’ Blvd.), Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. jfl42.com.