This is Patton Oswalt's year—or at least summer. The comedian provides the lead voice in Pixar's ubiquitous new film, Ratatouille, but more importantly to fans, he's releasing Werewolves And Lollipops, the long-awaited follow-up to his debut comedy album, Feelin' Kinda Patton. (His opening riff about KFC Bowls as "a failure pile in a sadness bowl" is worth the price alone.) The CD and film follow Oswalt's co-starring role in Reno 911! Miami, the series finale of King Of Queens, where he had a recurring role, and a new gig punching up scripts for DreamWorks animation (a position the studio created for him). Over the past few years, Oswalt has become one of Hollywood's go-to guys for script doctoring; he's done 25 this year alone. As the jobs have steadily increased, they've enabled Oswalt to pursue his two great passions: eating at expensive restaurants (as he discusses on Werewolves), and the racy, expletive-laced stand-up that makes his starring role in Disney family film even more amusing. Director Brad Bird heard part of Feelin' on the radio and instantly heard the voice of Remy, Ratatouille's lead character. During a brief stand-up tour with his Ratatouille co-star Janeane Garofalo, Oswalt talked to The A.V. Club about the film, script-doctoring, and why every day is a rainy day.
The A.V. Club: You were on a press junket all day today. What was that like?
Patton Oswalt: The junket itself has been really, really fascinating, and I'm trying to write down as much of it as I can. These are the kind of characters that, if you saw them in a Christopher Guest film, you would go, "You know what, I love Catherine O'Hara, but that was so from another planet, that wasn't real." Some of these people that are interviewing, oh my God, they look like early SCTV characters with a lot of prosthetic makeup on, or they all look like Dan Clowes drawings. A lot of these correspondents are just so fucked-up. They're all trying to do their little gimmicks to make them stand out, so one guy brought his kid, and sat his kid on his lap, then he would whisper [questions to ask] in the kid's ear.
AVC: It sounds pretty repetitive.
PO: I didn't realize that being a celebrity—not that I'm a massive celebrity, someone like Will Smith—but now, when I see Will Smith or Tom Hanks give kind of a gobsmacked, deer-in-headlights interview, and I'm like, "What the fuck's wrong with those guys?" Now I know what's wrong with them. This is how they break people in Guantanamo: They ask them variations on the exact same question. "What time did you go to the store?" "At 12:15." "So what time of day was it?" "At 12:15." "So, was it 12:14?" They're just breaking me down.
AVC: What about your stand-up CD attracted Brad Bird?
PO: [He said], "You're either really enthusiastic about something, or you think something is so horrible, and you're also amused by how horrible it is. So it's that you're totally non-judgmentally enthusiastic about everything, and that's kind of what Remy is." Their thing is, you can put a star in a movie, and if the voice isn't right, that's just as bad as putting in a nobody where the voice isn't right. The movie will be equally ruined. Not to say you shouldn't be with stars. If a star is right, like you listen to Antonio Banderas in the Shrek movies—worth every penny. That's why they're doing the Puss In Boots movie, because people just want to watch him; he's so good. There are certain massive stars that are in the lead in their computer-animated movies, where you could have gotten anyone for the performance you got and what it got you. Also, the star of the movie is Brad Bird and Pixar, so they may as well go for the right voice and pick a nobody like me. You don't go, "I get to hear Patton Oswalt's voice? Here's $10!" But for Pixar and Brad Bird…
AVC: People refer to Pixar movies like they'd refer to movies by a specific director: "The new Pixar movie is coming out next month."
PO: That's actually one of the things that's been kind of hard about promoting this, and I never wanted to get snotty about it, but there were times when people were like, "What is it about this movie that's going to bring people in?" And I always wanted to go, "It's a fucking Pixar movie." At this point, what else do you say? "Now, this Beatles album, is this good?" Well, I don't know, Revolver, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper's, why don't we give them the benefit of the doubt on this one? It's at that level at this point. But at the same time, I can say that because I'm such a fanboy for the movies. But I know that the people at Pixar are very, very conscientious about not dwelling on, "Oh, we're Pixar, and now we can coast."
AVC: You never saw the whole script, right?
PO: Not only did I not see the full script, I didn't even do my reading until they literally plopped the pages in front of me on a music stand. It was stapled to big pieces of cardboard, so it was just like, plop, and just give a read. Although Brad instinctively knew, because I do a lot of voiceover, I never read the script, unlike when you're acting onscreen, where you have to memorize it, because I can just experience it anew. If you actually do cold readings, it's very close to how people actually talk, because you're experiencing these thoughts anew every moment, and trying to make them come out coherently.
AVC: Most of your film experience to this point has been behind the scenes, doing punch-ups. How do you usually approach those? Is it a matter of tweaking what's there, or just bringing in the wrecking ball?
PO: It depends from movie to movie. I have a consultancy at DreamWorks now, because I do punch-up on all of their animated movies. It's weird. I did an article in The New York Times Magazine earlier this year about doing punch-up on these animated movies where they've completed 80 percent of the movie, and they want you just to come in and throw in jokes that offscreen characters are yelling over the action. "There's the back of his head, have him say something. We don't have to animate his mouth." I was saying that if these people hire a table punch-up, but for a paper script, not a completed movie, you'd save yourself a lot of money. That came out the day before I did this big session on Shrek The Third, and I remember [DreamWorks Animation CEO] Jeffrey Katzenberg was saying to me—he wasn't being mean—"You have a problem with how we do things around here?" I was just saying, "I can save you tens of millions of dollars." He was like, "Noted." So on an animated movie, when it's a bunch of my friends sitting around, that's one thing. I'm hired to spot doctor a movie, then a lot of times, when it's dialogue like that, I look at it as if it's a description of the dialogue they'd like to have. What do you want accomplished in this scene? Then you figure that out.
AVC: Ben Garant and Tom Lennon of Reno 911! said you're the ringleader of the punch-ups—you've sent them a lot of scripts.
PO: Yeah, but like for punch-up, there are certain friends of mine whose sensibilities I'd love to see in movies. It's like with Comedians Of Comedy: I had an opportunity to bring some comedians that I didn't think were getting the exposure they deserve. Certain friends of mine are big film buffs who love to write. They don't hate movies. Everyone thinks, "You guys are movie snobs—you fucking love to hate movies." No, no, no. We're actually disappointed all the time, because we love movies and want them to be better. We want them to all be great. So, to bring these people in to the table all the time, I hope will add to the movies, because as much as we're about, "Maybe this needs a joke here," we're also very much about "This sequence doesn't need to be touched. You need to leave this alone. Don't take this out, don't soften it. Leave this way it is."
AVC: How will DreamWorks know if your work has been successful?
PO: They'll see if there are dividends in the movies, if stuff works better. What they're trying to do is, they're taking my suggestions. Let someone like me come in during the gestation phase, when the writers and animators are putting it together, and let's fix the story there. "Your second act needs to be cut in half and moved to the front, because that's the opening of the movie, then go from there, because this whole first act is a waste of time." Or, "This character's arc, she shouldn't be trying to go back to the way she was. She totally changes and then realizes, 'Actually, I think I like it better this way.'" It's a harder struggle to realize that than to just go back to the status quo.
AVC: And you've done 25 projects this year?
PO: So far, yeah. [Laughs.] I mean, it's a day out of my life. You sit at a table and eat bagels and drink coffee. It's a little frustrating, though, because I'm there trying to fight to get all the pop-culture references out of things. Nothing goes stale and sour quicker than street cred. There's nothing more perishable than cool-right-now.
AVC: When you were coming up in D.C. as a stand-up, you learned that you should sock some away…
PO: Yeah, every day is a rainy day in this business.
AVC: But you also said that, as a comic, you should want liberty, not freedom. What do you mean by that?
PO: I think people mistake liberty and freedom, and they mistake having a lot of money and possessions with, "Now I'm fucking free, I've got two cars and a house." But that actually limits your liberty. I remember Tom Lennon saying, "I don't want to own a house that's gonna force me to do things to keep it." Tom Lennon lives in this nice little house that he can more than afford, so he's not like in this constant cycle of debt just to make it look like he's successful. Me, too. I have a very tiny house in Burbank. I drive an 8-year-old car. I'm gonna drive it into the ground. I enjoy what I enjoy. I wanna have enough money, to steal from Hercule Poirot, to meet my needs and my caprices, but I don't want to be this, "Oh, my fucking monthly nut. I hate this goddamn movie, but I've gotta do it." I don't want to get that way. People always mistake liberty and freedom. Liberty is where I have enough money now. Having enough money has to go hand in hand with living in a way that you're not being a slave to your possessions. Now you have enough money to do exactly what you want to do. Like with Comedians Of Comedy, very low-budget DIY. I can crank those tours out, and it doesn't cost me a lot of money. That way, I can keep ticket prices low, we get better crowds, and I get to do what I want to do, which is travel with my friends, and also travel with younger comedians that I'm a fan of: "I don't want you guys to go through. I don't want you having to work at Laugh Holes out in Montana on Ladies' Night or something."
AVC: You said that you got a lot of bad advice when you were coming up. Is there any that, in retrospect, you're like, "God, I was really fucked"?
PO: Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] I remember I was wearing a T-shirt on stage that said "Flaming Carrot Comics" on it. Someone was like, "You shouldn't wear a crazy shirt like that." I said, "I don't know—is it that crazy?" "Just don't wear something that's gonna pull more focus to your T-shirt than your act." You know, if I can't beat this T-shirt, then I probably shouldn't be doing stand-up, what do you think? That's why I hate Last Comic Standing so much—that show is so fucking evil and poisonous. I love the comedians that are on it, and I cannot stand watching these talented comedians get dragged back to the way comedy was in the late '80s, where it's that thing of, "Everyone knows this is how you do it. Your whole career comes down to two minutes, and if you fuck that two minutes up, it's over. So you'd better second-guess, third-guess, fourth-guess everything you say. Really doubt your instincts. Don't be real up there. You better be terrified of what the audience thinks of you." That created that whole generation in the mid-to-late-'80s of those bland, forgettable comedians. I can't even name them, because back then, "You've got to get a clean five minutes. It's got to be perfect. You've got to take it on Johnny Carson, and he's got to wave you over. That's the only way to do it, and that's it." The comedians that really made it and stuck out on Carson were the ones that didn't do that, the ones that brought something unique to the table: Steve Martin and Richard Pryor early on, then Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld. They brought their own feeling to it. Everyone's like, "No, no. This is the only way you do it. Don't do anything personal. Don't have a single real moment up there." Basically, don't have fun. This is not a career, this is spinning the roulette wheel and that's it. I was like, "No, this is something you get to do your entire life."
AVC: It has to be hard, though, when something you know is good doesn't catch on, like Stella or Lucky Louie.
PO: But Louis C.K. isn't bitter and angry; he gets to still do stand-up. He's still touring. You're right, there's a lot of people out there that are like, "His show's cancelled, that guy's fucked." But I don't think he thinks of himself as fucked. That's yet another thing that he did in this long journey that he's on. There's a lot of guys that would go, "They showed the 12 episodes and cancelled it. I'm done. My career's fucking over." You're deciding that—no one else is. I never want to get to that point where I'm like, "I have to get on TV. I don't care what I'm doing. I just have to get on TV." That's a horrible way to live, isn't it? "I don't care if I enjoy it. I don't care if I'm into it. As long as my face is on a television, I'm happy." But what do you like to do? At the same time, people like me and Louis are very lucky, because we have different outlets. I like to write, I like to do stand-up, I like to act. Whereas a lot of people just have that going, and don't develop anything else. Janeane was saying that you can tell that all the guys at Pixar, especially Brad Lewis and Brad Bird, are very dedicated to their movies, and their work, but they have very rich and busy lives outside of being at Pixar. What's that thing that Stephen King said that's so brilliant? "Your life should inform your art, your art should not inform your life." Something like that. You should be living your life and happen to be doing art, not like [stuffy writer voice] "I write 15 hours a day, then spend 15 minutes with my kids. I've got to go back and write."
AVC: That attitude is similar to the Jonathan Winters rule of stand-up you mentioned in an old interview: You don't have to have the entire audience the whole time.
PO: Never. If you're focused on "I've got to say something, and everyone's got to laugh," then your material will probably end up being pretty forgettable and lame. I love it when you get those little pockets of people just going, "Oh fuck, I get this, this is great," and the rest of the people, they're not going "Why don't we don't get this?" It'll all come around, I can wait a little bit.