Talking to Patton Oswalt About His New Standup Album, Writing, and Comedy Darwinism

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Patton Oswalt may not cut a very imposing figure, but still, he’s pretty damn intimidating. It probably has something do with his formidable intellect. He’s acerbic, cogent, and quick-on-the-draw, and if you’re a stammering idiot with the voice of a 12-year-old girl (hypothetically speaking, of course), conducting a phone interview with him can induce sweaty-palms-levels of anxiety. For as razor-sharp as Oswalt is, however, he is in equal measures gracious and cool to talk to.  Might be why he is so damn popular.

Oswalt’s latest album, Finest Hour, comes out next Tuesday. The televised version aired Sept. 5 on Showtime, and will continue to run throughout the month.

I recently had a brief phone conversation with Oswalt while he had a day off from a film shoot in New York. We talked about his new album, the changing nature of comedy, and the differences between writing jokes for print vs. writing jokes for standup.

You’re in New York now, correct?

Yes, I am in New York.

Forgive me, are you working on a TV or movie right now? IMDB has its limitations.

I am working on a small, independent film with Johnny Knoxville.

Ah, the one where you two play brothers?

That’s the one.

When does it wrap?

It wraps Sept. 26. I’ll go home after that. I’ve been in New York for three months now.

Your recent Showtime special, Finest Hour, was great.

Thanks, man.

[Editor’s note: For a free clip off the new album, click here.]

I know you shot it in Seattle. When did you do it, last year?

No we shot it last May, actually. I don’t like to have too much of a lapse between when I shoot a special, and when it goes on air.

You’ve talked about how your albums serve as diaries of where you are in life. Finest Hour has the vibe of someone’s who’s content with his success, who’s still caustic but has mellowed out a bit, and who’s now comfortable enough to wear sweatpants in public cause what does he have to prove anymore. Is it too early to think about where you go from here?

It’s hard to anticipate what comes next; I don’t think anybody does that. For my next album, I’m sure I’ll very honestly observe what is going on in my life at that moment. The comedy comes from that ongoing confusion.

I enjoyed your comments in your recent AV Club interview about how life and working in entertainment is not about the destination cause there is no destination. Did it take long to come to that realization? Did you start out thinking once you got that TV show, you’d be on easy street from there on out?

Sure, but you soon realize that you can’t control what comes next. I don’t know what is next for me. My life has taken so many left and right turns. I know not to think about it.

So when you’re touring or hanging out with friends back home, do you still talk about comedy all the time? Do you move on to more-worldly subjects once you’ve reached your level of success?

Oh no, my friends and I talk about comedy all the time when I’m on the road. That’s pretty much all we talk about. That never goes away.

Do you still bounce ideas for bits off other people?

Definitely, all the time.

Who’s feedback do you trust?

You know, my circle of friends. People like Blaine Capatch and Brian Posehn and Tom Lennon, Kyle Kinane, Joe Mande, guys I see backstage at shows.

Do you guys ever get together and talk comedy when you’re not working?

Not so much anymore. Everyone has kids now and there’s just not much time for that.

You’ve been doing comedy for a long time. In your eyes, what are some of the most noticeable differences from say the early 90’s to where things are today?

To me, the most noticeable thing is there’s no such thing as getting your foot in the door anymore. There is no door, and that’s a really good thing. Cause back then you’d have performers who weren’t talented deluding themselves that they were good but couldn’t catch a break. Now it’s like you go out and make something, and if it’s good, people will find it. There’s a lot less of people asking you to watch something. A lot less delusion.

Comedy is more Darwinian now?

It’s pure Darwinism now. Write funny stuff and people will find you. People are always asking me on Twitter if I’ll follow them. Write something funny and then you’ll get followers. People will write me and say, “why won’t you retweet me, you retweet other people?” Yeah, that’s cause those people are funny. No one’s going to follow you just cause I said to go follow you. Write something funny and then I’ll retweet you.

What are the subtle differences, aside from the 140-character limit, that makes a joke work onstage, but not necessarily on Twitter? There are a lot of people who are hilariously-clever on Twitter with huge followings, but not as well known as comedians.

That’s hard to say because I think there are a lot of people on twitter who just write jokes on there because that’s all they want to do. They have no interest in getting up on stage. I think it evens out.

That’s a good point. Your book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, was hilarious.

Thanks, I appreciate that.

I’ve read you have plans for another. Is the next one going to be first-person essays as well?

You know, I’m not at liberty to say right now. We’re in the planning stages.

Fair enough. You used to want to be a novelist before you got into comedy right?

Yes, I got my degree in English literature and wanted to be a writer.

Well, you’re on your way, and you can tell your publisher I said that.

Thanks. [Laughs.]

Do you get as much satisfaction writing a well-executed joke on paper as you do delivering one onstage?

Yes, absolutely, sometimes even more so. If you can kill from framing words on a page, that’s like alchemy.

Phil Davidson is a writer whose work has appeared in um, well, Splitsider.