Patton Oswalt is a familiar presence here at The A.V. Club, both as an interview subject and an occasional contributor. In addition to his work as an actor and one of the finest comedians working today, Oswalt is branching out this month with Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, his first book. It came out January 4 via Scribner, but here’s an exclusive excerpt:
Once I started doing stand-up comedy, I couldn’t get enough.
The idea of writing a book, becoming a journalist and then, hopefully, a novelist, couldn’t withstand my sudden ambition to craft a perfect dick joke. Five thousand words a day seemed silly when I could bring a room full of drunks together with fifteen perfectly chosen words.
I loved getting to hang out with comedians. After years of record store and movie theater retail, and then temping in offices, it seemed otherworldly that I was suddenly surrounded by a peer group that was clever, quick, and discerning.
I also loved the hacks. Mainly because they helped throw off the public perceptions of stand-up comedy. The average person’s view of stand-up comedy was degraded and dismissive. The stuff that was being broadcast on TV—endless brick-background cable shows and watered-down “urban” neon mini-auditoriums with a Lethal Weapon saxophone sting—was truly awful. People—especially dipshit pseudointellectuals who ate up one-man theater shows that were, essentially, reworked hack stand-up premises—avoided comedy clubs. Maybe they couldn’t stand the fact that comedy clubs simply announced what they were—booze-ups with jokes as lubricant.
It reminded me of how literati avoid genre fiction or film snobs sniff at big-budget Hollywood movies or exploitation trash. It was how a lot of musicians treated rap and hip-hop when they first appeared.
But avoiding the trash makes you miss truly astonishing moments of truth, genius, and invention. If you shut your mind to science fiction, you’re never going to read The Martian Chronicles or The Left Hand of Darkness. If you think murder mysteries are airport garbage, then you’re denying yourself The Horizontal Man or The Daughter of Time. If movies begin at Ozu and end at Roemer for you, then the subversive brilliance of Deathdream and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo will leave you in the dust. Die-hard rock-and-rollers will never discover Biz Markie’s The Biz Never Sleeps. Indie music hard-liners rarely venture into country music territory. Too bad—Dolly Parton’s Jolene and Waylon Jennings’s Honky Tonk Heroes are as essential as Last Splash and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
And it’s the same with stand-up. Yes, I sifted through a lot of garbage in the late eighties and early nineties. But there were always unexpected moments of transcendence and originality. And knowing they were hidden in strip malls made me feel like I was a member of one of the last mystery cults on Earth. Like when the Fat Doctor said, one night’s at Garvin’s, “I used to work on the suicide hotline but I got fired. People would call up and I kept seeing their point.” Then there was Mark Fineman, who said, half to himself, “I don’t need to curse to do comedy. But I need to curse to live.” Hell, Lord Carrett’s non sequitur “You know they won’t let you buy a gun if you’re crying?” inspired a Holly Golightly song.
From Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt. Copyright ©2011 by Lord Loudon, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.