Patton Oswalt - Biography
By Tony Goldmark
When Patton Oswalt’s second CD, Werewolves and Lollipops, came out in the summer of 2007, its “Recommended” card at the Comedy section of Amoeba Records in San Francisco said, “Literally EVERYONE at the store recommends this album.” Bear in mind, we’re a bunch of snobby record store clerks. We can hardly agree on anything, and in the words of Oswalt himself, our official motto might as well be a dismissive “pfft.” But maybe that’s what makes Oswalt so uniquely great – he’s funny and brilliant enough to be taken seriously in the comedy world as a mainstream comedian worthy of sitcoms, talk shows and Comedy Central, but ultimately he’s still a geek at heart. Without resorting to stereotypes or lazy references, Patton Oswalt is the perfect geek’s comedian – painstakingly descriptive and analytical in his stand-up, as he debates the goings-on of the world around him like it was a flawed yet endlessly entertaining comic book.
Patton Oswalt was born January 27, 1969 in Portsmouth, Virginia and grew up in nearby Sterling, a nondescript planned community that mostly housed government employees – “come home, go to sleep, get up, go to work, don’t look at each other,” as Oswalt put it on Werewolves and Lollipops. His father was a Marine sniper, and Patton followed the great tradition of rebellion by staying inside, getting “flabby” by his own admission, and engrossing himself in sci-fi novels and comic books. Three of his biggest influences were Harlan Ellison, for his enraged edginess and grim storytelling prowess; Richard Pryor, for his unflinching honesty towards his personal life; and Jonathan Winters, for his fondness for nonstop stream-of-consciousness comic ramblings over the traditional “setup-punchline-setup-punchline.” Oswalt would go on to incorporate all three attributes into his own act.
He started doing stand-up in Washington, DC in 1988, and spent several years playing clubs in DC, Philadelphia and Baltimore, trying his hand at open mikes and getting paying gigs whenever possible, learning what to do and what not to do. It was the autumn years of the ‘80s stand-up comedy boom, when making money and pleasing audiences at all costs came first, and performing well by your own standards came roughly ninth. In interviews, he remembers the clubs being poorly run, the owners frequently being petty and unscrupulous, and that the comics kept making observations that the audience already agreed with, then taking the audience’s reaction personally (be it positive or negative) and eventually finding a 45-minute act they could repeat indefinitely. In this period Oswalt’s act, by his own admission, garnered decent laughs but was “completely forgettable.” On the advice of friend and colleague Blaine Capatch, Oswalt moved west to San Francisco in 1992, and found a veritable wonderland of amazing comedians like David Cross, Louis C.K. and Dana Gould at clubs like Cobb’s, The Punchline and The Holy City Zoo. Comedians that would make young aspirers jealous of the work they created, rather than the deal they had signed. And for the first time, the reaction of the audience seemed not to matter – the comedians were there for themselves, and the audience could catch up or get out.
In 1994, Oswalt made his acting debut as a video store clerk on Seinfeld with two lines, and the same year he and Capatch got their first national exposure as writer/performers with “Food For Thought,” a series of short films about the musings of loser grocery store clerks that aired on Comedy Central’s Small Doses (these shorts are an extra on Oswalt’s No Reason To Complain DVD). The following year, Oswalt got his first taste of real money (and more importantly, the discrepancy between real money and artistic freedom for young artists) as a writer on the debut season of MAD TV. He discussed the infuriating experience of dealing with network censors (“Two of these Klansmen have to be black”) on his first comedy special, an episode of HBO Comedy Half-Hour. That special was viewed by Michael Weithorn, a sitcom writer developing The King of Queens for CBS, and Oswalt’s onstage persona inspired Weithorn to offer him the role of paranoid Albanian comic book nerd Spence Olchin. Oswalt was reluctant at first to associate himself with a format as tired as a sitcom, but his manager convinced him that the money and exposure could lead to better, more ideal opportunities. The King of Queens went on to defy network and critical indifference, lasting nine seasons and over two hundred episodes.
Oswalt enjoyed his time on King of Queens, but as Oswalt’s star rose, audiences came to wrongly associate his name and voice (and by association his stand-up) with safe, CBS programming, and a disturbing trend began to emerge of smiling, suburban families seeing his picture in the newspaper and bringing their kids to his shows, only to hear shocking, ribald, gleefully obscene routines about gay retards, skinhead abortions and slutty alcoholic “jizz jars” with “battered, chapped pussies.” Families frequently walked out en masse, and during one particularly memorable February 2004 gig in Pittsburgh, the entire audience practically rioted, booing him off the stage for telling a vicious (yet justified, naturally) diatribe against George W. Bush. The same month, however, he got an equally hostile reaction from a San Francisco audience for a diatribe about his hated of lazy hippies (“I’m a man without a country!” he complained in his Comedy Central special No Reason To Complain).
Indeed, some of Oswalt’s fanbase derided him as a “sell-out” for his involvement with King of Queens, even though the money and exposure did indeed allow him to split his gigs between big, expensive, sometimes-impersonal comedy clubs and intimate rock clubs with much lower cover charges. Particularly in 2004, when Oswalt sought to use his own exposure to help out some under-recognized LA comedians he considered brilliant. The “Comedians Of Comedy” national tour, comprised of himself, Maria Bamford, Zach Galifianakis and Brian Posehn, toured small, intimate rock clubs across the country, and the 2004 tour was documented for an independent film and a short-lived Comedy Central series, both called The Comedians Of Comedy.
But it became especially hard to claim that CBS had castrated Oswalt when he released his first stand-up CD, Feelin’ Kinda Patton, in the summer of 2004. It was the culmination of over a decade of hilarious musings, from sheer absurdism (“If you hit a midget on the head with a stick, he turns into forty gold coins”) to frustrated snarlings about the government (he recommends Humvee owners should be sent to Iraq to get the oil themselves) and genius observations about particular fringes of pop culture (“Eighties metal videos are gayer than eight guys blowin’ nine guys.”) He followed this album up with No Reason To Complain, an hour-long Comedy Central special that Patton was determined not to let network suggestions ruin, like he felt they had with his episode of “Comedy Central Presents.” He also released an unedited version of the show he recorded for Feelin’, called 222.
Thanks to the album, the special and the touring, Patton’s stand-up was starting to transcend “cult following” status, and develop a national audience. Oswalt occasionally landed bit parts in feature films like Zoolander, Starsky and Hutch, Blade: Trinity, Balls of Fury, Reno 911: Miami and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, but his offbeat looks, short stature and pudginess – he’s described himself as a “bridge troll” on multiple occasions – had more or less resigned him to “character actor” status. So nobody, especially not Oswalt himself, could have anticipated him being cast in the lead role in a major motion picture, much less a blockbuster with a hundred-million-dollar budget from an Oscar-winning director and perhaps the most acclaimed studio on the face of the Earth. But that’s just what happened when Pixar director Brad Bird happened to listen to Feelin’ Kinda Patton and hear the voice of Remy, the Parisian rat who dreams of culinary greatness in the film Ratatouille. The offbeat story was conceived as the first post-Disney Pixar film (before Disney acquired them) and thanks to Bird, the story had gelled into place, but the main character lacked the perfect voice – that of a charming, passionate geek who cared deeply about his work and the work of those around him. Bird found that charming geek passion in Oswalt’s squeaky, endearing tones. When Ratatouille was released in the summer of 2007, it went on to gross over $200 million domestically and win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
That same summer Oswalt released his second album, Werewolves and Lollipops, on Sub-Pop Records. It began with a rabid evisceration of what the success of KFC’s Famous Bowls says about the country, and ended with the bitter irony that the same red-state citizens that vote against gay marriage will give standing ovations to Cirque Du Soleil. In between, he discussed the nauseating implications of geriatrics giving birth, compared the Bush administration to the Dukes of Hazzard, and spent two full minutes mocking a heckler who apparently couldn’t sit through a tender, poignant setup to a joke without yelling “WOOOOO!” Oswalt frequently comes off as the smartest guy in the room, but he never condescends to his audience or treats them as anything besides family (a dysfunctional family sometimes, but still). Oswalt automatically assumes that “you get it,” not “you don’t get it and I need to explain it to you.” There isn’t a single filler track on Werewolves and Lollipops – Oswalt promises to stick to his principle of only releasing one album every three years, to ensure that each seventy-minute disc is the BEST seventy minutes out of three years of material. He continues to perform stand-up nationwide, and shows no signs of slowing down.