Patton Oswalt Talks To Cracked About Reinventing Himself, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, And Ducks
After nearly two years of Covid isolation, Patton Oswalt is back, baby. He’s recovered from his broken foot (sometimes, the curb wins), basking in gobsmackingly great reviews for his SXSW winner I Love My Dad, and killing it across America with his Who’s Ready to Laugh? Tour. Somewhere in the midst of all this winning, the stand-up sage made time to sit down for this ComedyNerd exclusive, dropping pearls of Patton wisdom on Neil Gaiman, wildlife management, and all things comedy.
COMEDYNERD: In the new HBO documentary, George Carlin’s American Dream, you talk about how long it can take for comedians to become themselves on stage. Tell us about that process.
PATTON: You know, I've been thinking about that, actually. That whole process of becoming yourself onstage and finding your voice.
What’s ironic is that a lot of the time, it almost happens against your will. What you will start off doing, not just in comedy but in performing, comes from a sense of insecurity and safety. So you'll create a persona to get your point across. But finding a voice that isn't yours by definition restricts what you're going to say because there are certain parts of yourself that you won’t talk about.
So finding your voice is an act of stripping away – again, sometimes against your will – a very secure and safe and confidence-building persona that you might not necessarily want to let go of.
It starts off as self-preservation, and then what happens is you hit a wall because that could only take you so far if you want to keep growing as an artist. The majority of artists want to keep pushing the boundaries just for themselves.
You really see that with people like George Carlin and Richard Pryor. They created personas and stage presences that weren't exactly them.
Then they had some serious breakdowns because of it. They had to deconstruct the persona they had built to be the person that they actually were. It’s that thing when you're talking to someone off-stage as you really are, and you can literally switch and go right onstage and keep talking, and it's still you.
COMEDYNERD: Was there a point early in your career where you were conforming to what you thought a comedian should be? Or you were imitating your comedy heroes? And was there a transition point where you felt like, “Oh, wait, I’m becoming me”?
PATTON: When I started off, I was just aping my comedy heroes, like Carlin and Pryor and Steve Martin. And then once I got going professionally, it was just people around me, a really, really funny circle of friends. But I still wasn't being me. It was still very much about, “You gotta go on stage and be professional and kill and there can't be any vulnerability.”
When I started getting a little more vulnerable on stage, it came from a really bad period. I remember this very specifically, in 1994. Because I was really starting to get good but I was also getting into my own head about how good I was. And I was starting to think that history revolved around me, that everybody was living the biography of me. I was that egotistical, “No, I am the special voice; I am the one that's been anointed and chosen.”
And I started doing horribly on stage because I was so inside my head and people could see that. That really turns an audience off, when they see that neediness and self-regard and self-mythologizing.
And so from January until May of 1994 -- I remember this very specifically -- I came back from a weekend in Seattle thinking “I am the one!” And I crawled into my own head. And then all my sets began to suffer. The joke among my comedy friends was “How are you going to go on stage and tank it tonight?” It was like a comedian’s version of the yips.
And it wasn't until I started making fun of the fact that I was in my own head, f***ing up and overthinking it, that bigger laughs and the real me started coming out. But it came out against my will and out of desperation.
COMEDYNERD: At some point, do you settle into a comfortable place as a comic? Or is it constantly a process of feeling a need to reinvent yourself?
PATTON: It is a constant process, but there are plateaus along the way. You get to, “Oh, this is where I want to be. Perfect, I'm here.” And then that plateau erodes again, and you either adapt or you die.
You can find a plateau and then just settle and that's all you do. Listen. I remember I was in Vegas at the Riviera during a week, mid-'90s, and one night upstairs the band America was playing. And everyone is sitting down and sipping their champagne; it’s all their fans in their 40s and 50s. And America has a catalog of hits. You forget how many songs those guys wrote.
And they went up and did an hour of the hits and they looked happy as a clam. There's a beautiful life there, but people like to hear familiar songs. It's a wonderful gift you can give to your audience as a musician.
But with comedy, the way that it works is there's surprise and the unknown. So if you have a bunch of bits that work and you just do those bits over and over again, people will stop seeing you. Not that they hate you. They’re just like, “I know what he's gonna do. There's no surprise.”
COMEDYNERD: Talk about your experience working on Big Fan. That movie never got the fair shake it should have gotten. It’s a better Taxi Driver movie than Joker.
PATTON: Look, I think Joker is a fantastic film, but much like Taxi Driver, they couldn't help putting a little bit of Hollywood romance and glamour onto the disturbed loner. Whereas Big Fan really leans into, “This is actually what these guys look like. They're bloated and awkward, and they never have anything cool to say.”
And that was the hardest thing for me as an actor. I had to suppress all of my instincts to say something cool and funny. This guy just doesn't have the vocabulary to do that because he's so focused. And the only time that he feels comfortable is when he's not connected to people.
I’m torn. Obviously, I would have loved for more people to see Big Fan, but it also would have been a really bad comment on society if a mass of people had connected with that movie. If the majority of people connected with Big Fan, we'd be in a lot of trouble.
It's that whole broken vessel thing. The broken vessels are not in the majority census-wise but they're the loudest, most dangerous voices.
COMEDYNERD: You’re considered one of the icons of the '90s alt-comedy scene. Were you aware that people were going to be calling it “alt-comedy” at some point?
PATTON: The closest way I can describe it, it's the same way that film noir became a genre years after they did film noirs. But if you talk to any of the directors, they always say: We get all this praise from the French for only lighting the desk and it just goes to show man’s isolation in the corporate world. And it was like, no, we only lit the desk because all we had was the desk. We didn’t have any other prop. How do we make this look good? We don't have any damn money.
And it was the same with alt-comedy. We weren't going “f*** you, comedy clubs.” The comedy boom had ended. All the clubs f***ing closed so we had to go find spaces.
The two people that were definitely the forebearers of alt-comedy were Janeane Garofalo and Dana Gould. Those were the two. But they didn’t pave the way by saying “I’m gonna book a bookstore or coffee shop.” They were in mainstream clubs. They got so good at what they did that they got bored. And they started becoming way more raw and personal on stage just to amuse themselves.
Then people got so focused on what is the material, what's the rhythm, what's the stance, what’s the look, that they forgot what the two essences of alt-comedy were.
First, it's people that will do comedy no matter what. People forgot that during the comedy boom of the 80s. Andy Kindler says that it’s a joke but it's kind of true: You could make 100 grand a year if you could go, “How you doing, ladies and gentlemen?” Comedy was like a fad that people could go see without even knowing what it was. You could just put a sign out front that said “Comedy.”
Then when it imploded, as it should have, there were a lot of those comedians who were like, “Well, I’ll do this if I’m making a s***load of money but …”
The alt-comics were the ones who were like, “No, I want to do this no matter what.” In a weird way, you could argue that people like Jay Leno and Seinfeld, and even Carlin were the first alt-comics because they had to invent it from the ground up. They didn't even have a comedy club structure in place.
When I started in 1988, I came in just in time to see the structure collapse. So we had to reinvent it. I'll do this even if I don’t make money.
And the other thing is: You have no expectation of the audience, and the audience has no expectation of you.
In a lot of 80s comedy, audiences came into the club thinking they knew more than the comedian. They had seen so much on cable TV, so many guys in a sports coat and a funny T-shirt in front of a brick wall.
Alt-comedy was: I’m going to give you something that you’ll really like. Just not what you expect.
What’s ironic is, once alt-comedy exploded, alt-comedy became the hacky expected thing. People came into shows thinking: Well, they’re going to tell a rambling story, they’ll read off the notebook, they’ll talk about an audition they went to.
Alt-comedy began to have hacky tropes that then had to be exploded. Everything, if you're not careful, becomes calcified and then needs to grow and expand.
I knew that the alt-comedy scene was coming to an end in the late 90s. I saw a guy go on stage at Largo, and he simply read a list of things he hated. No punch lines. A long list of TV shows, movies, fast food that he hated. And he killed.
And I was like, “This is about to end.”
COMEDYNERD: Can you tell us about playing Matthew in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman on Netflix?
PATTON: I'll give you a little surreal story. Back in 1992, I had just moved to San Francisco. Couple months after I moved there, Neil Gaiman came to town to do a signing at a store called Comics Experience. I stood in a line that snaked around the block like twice and waited for hours. Me and Blaine Capatch. I had my hardback Season of Mists, and I brought it to him. He signed it for me and drew a picture of Dream, and then Matt Wagner added buck teeth to him and Kelly Jones put glasses on the drawing. And I said that I mentioned two of your demons, Squatterbloat and Muttlecraunch, in one of my bits because I love making those connections.
And the few people in the audience who got the reference really connected. “Do you also read Neil Gaiman?”
“Oh my God!”
And he said, “I'm very happy that two of my demons are in your routine. Thank you."