Photo: Michael Tran/Getty
Patton Oswalt is omnipresent. Or so it seems. The stand-up and actor reprised his fan-favorite role as Constable Bob Sweeney on this week’s penultimate episode of Justified, guest-starred as a Rob Ford–like mayor on Sunday’s Battle Creek, and starts a recurring role as the vice-president’s hands-on chief of staff on Veep on April 12. Plus, he narrates The Goldbergs and frequently can be found on Twitter, most recently causing a firestorm with a 53-tweet rebuttal of the criticism directed at controversial new Daily Show host Trevor Noah. Somehow, Oswalt found a few minutes in his packed schedule to talk about all these things with Vulture. (Warning: This Q&A contains spoilers for the April 7 episode of Justified, “Collateral.”)
Why do you think Constable Bob has become such a beloved character?
Bob represents what us mortals would be like in the world of Harlan County, against all these extreme badasses. That’s his appeal: “Oh, wow, I think that might be me in that world!”
Timothy Olyphant’s Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens has a line about how “people underestimate Bob at their own peril.” Do you think that’s true?
Indeed, I do. Look how they write the guy. It’s that really rare quality of someone who can be tough when it actually counts but they’re not ever cool. A lot of people think tough and cool are the same things, but they’re not. You can be a goofball in non-important situations, but when the chips are down, you rise to the occasion.
Does that describe you as well?
You know what, I’ve never really been tested on that level, and I’m kind of hoping I never am, but that remains to be seen. I hope I can stand the test, but we’ll see.
This character isn’t in Elmore Leonard’s books. Did you start from scratch?
I’m a huge Elmore Leonard fan, and I respect his rhythm, voice, and dialogue, but I didn’t really have a precedent in the books to look at, which might have helped me. I might have had too strict a vision for the character if he’d been in the books.
It seems unclear from the end of this week’s episode whether Bob lives or dies after being shot. Is that meant to be a cliff-hanger?
Mmm-hmm. And that’s all I’ll say.
What was the atmosphere like on the set as you shot the next-to-last episode?
It was a combination of sadness that it was ending but satisfaction that, “Oh, we’re ending it on our terms. We’re not going to overstay our welcome. We’re part of something that’s going to be all meat and no filler.”
Where do you place your Justified arc in your pantheon of cool guest shots like Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Parks and Recreation, and Portlandia?
Way at the top. My god, it’s probably one of the most fun things I ever got to do. I didn’t know I was physically able to do some of the stuff I did.
How did you end up joining the cast of Veep?
They asked my agent if I wanted to do it, and I said, “Fuck, yeah!” I love that show, too. I’ve been a fan of Armando Iannucci since In the Loop and The Thick of It, so it was great to get to be in something so good.
How much did you improvise on the show?
They’re really open to improvisation, but you’re also given really great lines to work with, just from the get-go. You almost feel like, if I mess up a line this good, then that’s my fault. It’s one thing when you’re working with mediocre dialogue and you’re going, “Okay, I’ve got to amp this up or try to make this work.” It’s way more pressure when you’re given something great, like the dialogue on Justified or the back-and-forth on Veep. It’s on you, because these guys have already hit it out of the park. You’ve just been given a Glengarry lead. If you fuck this up, you should get out of the business.
You played a crack-smoking mayor on Battle Creek. Are all these political characters a coincidence?
It’s totally coincidental, but it’s a happy coincidence, because I’m getting to play funny characters in funny shows. And characters who are in the zeitgeist now. Yay!
As a child of the ‘80s, does The Goldbergs resonate with you?
That’s another terrific show. It puts heart into nostalgia, which is very hard to do. I really like being a part of that. I pop in for an hour a week, record it, and I’m done.
Are we going to see you as the fire marshal on Brooklyn Nine-Nine again?
If they ask me, I’m there. That’s another public-servant role. I love doing those.
Why are you so well-suited to playing public officials? Even Spence on The King of Queens was a subway token clerk.
I love the hubris of a low-level public servant. That’s very human to me.
Do you have a hunch when you’re on Twitter which tweets will go viral?
I just tweet and forget. If something catches and goes big, that’s not for me to decide. Twitter is just a way for me to vent. I’m not trying to build anything off it. It’s just how I feel right now. Boom! Then either it lands or it doesn’t. It’s not in my hands. When you tell a joke, whether or not the audience laughs, that’s not my department, basically. It’s the audience’s decision.
Do you not think before you tweet?
I think a little, obviously, but I think of the content. I don’t worry about the result.
How do you do all this — acting, writing books, doing stand-up, and tweeting? Do you ever sleep?
A little bit. Here and there. I grab a few winks. That may be an illusion of scheduling. I have time to do stuff. I’m very careful to guard my free time.
Do you ever worry about overexposure?
I do what I do, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s always been my philosophy.
So this isn’t all part of a plan to dominate the media?
Oh, I have a very detailed plan.