April 11, 2005

Standup Guy

Comedian Patton Oswalt has gotten big enough to call his own shots.

Keith Huang

Veteran stand-up comic Patton Oswalt, 36-year-old horror-flick junkie and comic-book geek, has fulfilled the prophecy of every '80s Geeks vs. Jocks film and made it big—big enough to call his own shots.

Oswalt, named Entertainment Weekly's "It" comedian in 2002, has the luxury of turning down gigs on the basis of personal principle. During a recent show in New York at The Marquee Theater, Oswalt harrumphed the demise of his guest spots on VH1's popular clips show, Best Week Ever.

Patton Oswalt
Keith Huang

"When I first started out, the most egotistical thing I ever thought was that I'd make a living doing comedy," Patton Oswalt told Gelf.

During his 20-minute set, Oswalt said: "I'm not putting the show down, it was really fun to do. ... But they'd give you this packet and you'd write your cheesy jokes, and then they would give you the lead-in question, like 'Hey, Patton, looks like Courtney Love's gaining weight,' and then you'd go, 'I know what Courtney loves: cupcakes!"

Oswalt made it very clear that his experience on the show had grown stale, largely because he was constantly being asked to write material about, what he termed, "non-fucking celebrities."

Following his 20-minute set, Oswalt told Gelf, "It wasn't so much that I was fired—they just stopped asking me back. They could tell I wasn't having any fun, and I felt bad. I felt like I was making it miserable for them because I was just so sour."

Oswalt doesn't take kindly to tailoring material for his audience. Consider an extended anecdote Oswalt told last December on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, about getting booed off the stage of the Funny Bone comedy club in Pittsburgh.

Midway through his set, while strafing his audience with political jokes, he started on his material about President Bush. The crowd grew quiet. Then a guy in the front row spoke loud enough for the room to hear: "Why don't you take your faggot ass back to Hollywood?"

Shortly thereafter, according to Oswalt, the audience rallied behind the heckler and began pounding the tables in unison to the chant, "Bush Rocks!"

Knowing there was little he could do to quell the hate of 300 people, Oswalt said he cribbed a line from his friend and fellow comedian, Blaine Capatch: "Look, folks," Oswalt said. "It's not like I'm comparing Bush to Hitler here." Caught momentarily off-guard, the audience let its ire abate for a split second, allowing him to finish the thought: "Hitler was elected."

As he was deluged with a shower of diluted drinks, Oswalt was escorted from the stage by Funny Bone's owner and locked in the back office until the angry mob dispersed. "People were going, 'Send him down here!' " Oswalt told NPR. "It was insane."

Rather than simply lampooning easy targets, Oswalt's material invigorates by unapologetically trying to persuade his audience that his beliefs, whether they're about politics or pop culture, are right.

For example, to emphasize his point about America's fascination with so-called "non-celebrities" in the recent set, Oswalt said, "There's no better illustration as to how fast we're nosediving into the suppurating asshole of mediocrity than the fact that when Johnny Carson dies, the first scheduled guest on his show was fucking Paris Hilton." He later cracked that it was his vitriolic commentary about Hilton that led to his getting canned from Best Week Ever.

Perhaps Oswalt can be cavalier about Best Week Ever because he has so much other TV work to fall back on. Indeed, tune into basic cable, and chances are you'll eventually spot the cherub-faced Oswalt. He appeared in an HBO comedy showcase in 1997 and was featured in two of his own Comedy Central specials. An improvised performance on Comedy Central's Reno 911!—"I'm wearing boots of escaping!" —is so steeped in Oswalt's bona fide geekiness that Netizens have deemed it worthy enough for sharing here. Oswalt has also done voicework for Crank Yankers and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. (You can see his surprisingly large body of work as a character actor at IMDB.)

Oswalt's biggest recurring gig is his role as the sidekick "Spence" on CBS's The King of Queens. This mostly antiseptic sitcom character that has been penned for Oswalt largely belies the comedian's truer self, that of the incredibly pointed, and often self-deprecating ("I dance like a special-ed kid who's been given a sparkler"), observationalist.

During the NPR interview, he said sometimes his stand-up listeners, who only know him as "Spence," react with a "kind of a condescending outrage of 'Hey, you dumb sitcom actor, you don't get to have an opinion on this.' "

Success has neither tempered Oswalt's sharp edge nor has it limited his accessibility; he frequently responds to questions from fans in online interviews. And despite the lucrative acting work, Oswalt has long since declared standup his one true love. "There's no 'next big thing' for me," he told Gelf. "Everything I do—writing, TV, movies—is so I can keep doing standup. That's my goal—it's just to keep doing standup."

Oswalt spent this past weekend headlining at Caroline's on Broadway, where he invited up-and-coming comic Aziz Ansari to perform as a guest opener. For now, Oswalt is "taking a few days off here in the city," he said, and on Friday, he will be in Houston to kick off a weeklong tour with Comedians of Comedy. The tour, which he spearheaded with fellow comics, Maria Bamford, Zach Galifianakis and Brian Posehn, is a stripped-down, for-the-fans tour of rock clubs. A documentary about the tour will soon be available on DVD, according to Oswalt's website. "Hopefully in July we'll come back to New York with it," he told Gelf.

Related on the Web

•Follow Patton Oswalt's comings and goings and read his commentary at his official site.

•Oswalt often answers questions from fans, for instance on this fan board, where he explains why he left his writing job at MAD TV.

•The San Francisco Chronicle profiled Oswalt and his Comedians of Comedy tour last fall.

Related in Gelf

•Keith Huang interviewed up-and-coming New York stand-up comic Aziz Ansari last month.

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Article by Keith Huang

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