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Patton Oswalt is a man of many hats: Stand-up comedian, character actor in TV and film, animated rat, script doctor, gastronome and fast-food Taste Tester, and now father and family man. In the two years since we last spoke to Oswalt—on the occasion of his second comedy album, Werewolves And Lollipops—he has raised his profile considerably. While continuing to tour the country doing stand-up, and compiling the material for his new hourlong Comedy Central special (and CD/DVD) My Weakness Is Strong, Oswalt has appeared on TV shows including Lewis Black’s Root Of All Evil, Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, United States Of Tara, Flight Of The Conchords, Reaper, and Dollhouse. On the morning this interview was conducted, it was announced that Oswalt has landed a recurring role on the upcoming SyFy series Caprica.
In the new independent film Big Fan, directed by former Onion editor-in-chief (and The Wrestler screenwriter) Robert Siegel, Oswalt steps into darker dramatic territory as Paul Aufiero, a loner from Staten Island who lives with his mother, works as a parking-lot attendant, and obsesses about the New York Giants. After his favorite player beats him up, Paul’s life is shaken up, but not necessarily in the way viewers might expect. Oswalt recently talked to The A.V. Club about Big Fan, Caprica, Dollhouse, why he’d rather have ice-cream sandwiches than conflict, and how having a child made him a devil-may-care badass.
The A.V. Club: How’s everything in New York?
Patton Oswalt: I love being in New York, but this time of year, with the mugginess? You’re in this city that’s visually exciting, but it smells like the devil’s diaper. I know that’s a really shallow thing to make you negative toward a city that you love, but fuck, does it smell bad.
AVC: Wasn’t Giuliani supposed to have cleaned all that up?
PO: Yeah. What happened? Put some lavender oils in the sewer or something.
AVC: The news broke today that you’re going to put in regular appearances on Caprica. Can you talk about the part and how that came together?
PO: As far as I know, they wanted some other way-bigger-named comedian and then that person dropped out, and I literally got sent the script the day before. I got the script sent to me on a Tuesday, with “Can you fly to Vancouver tomorrow?” Like, on a Wednesday morning, can you get on a plane and go to Vancouver and do all your wardrobe? And then I did that, and Thursday I shot all day. I shot all of the talk-show scenes, and we’re going to go back next week to do a lot of monologue stuff. I’m just going to be a sort of Jon Stewart-esque presence that’s always going to be on television in the background. I think that’s going to be the role I have, though there’s a big confrontation I have with Eric Stoltz and Paula Malcomson.
AVC: Could you see yourself committing to being a series regular if the part were right?
PO: Oh yeah. What’s really odd now—trust me, I love doing movies, but right now, television is the way Hollywood was in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The dream era I would have loved to have been part of in Hollywood then is happening right now, but it’s happening on television, with these big complicated story arcs and real character-driven shows and sheer ambiguity left and right. So to get asked to do stuff like United States Of Tara and Caprica is terrific. I can’t complain. If people wanted me to commit [to shows like that], I’d do it. Imagine if you were asked to come in for something like Breaking Bad or Damages—holy fuck, I would commit to that in a second.
AVC: If you reflect on the really great entertainment achievements of the decade, you have to turn to The Wire and Arrested Development and The Sopranos before you really think about movies much.
PO: Definitely, and it’s across the board, in all genres. Science fiction on television, situational comedy on television, animation on television, with stuff like The Venture Bros.… TV even has its sort of Buñuel surrealism with Tim And Eric, so all the innovative stuff that was happening in cinema during that second golden era during the late ’60s, early ’70s, it’s happening on TV, on all levels. Every genre is being re-thought. Just like the late ’60s, when they rethought the Western with The Wild Bunch. Or they rethought science fiction with 2001. Well, now it’s happening on TV with Deadwood and Battlestar Galactica. Everything is being taken apart and looked at again. And then The Wire. What’s brilliant about The Wire was, it starts out as a cop show, and just becomes its own genre of “This is about an entire city.” It’s almost like… what did James Joyce say about either about Dubliners or Ulysses? If Dublin were ever destroyed, you could rebuild it from the books. If Baltimore were ever wiped out, you could rebuild it by looking at The Wire.
AVC: Well, you wouldn’t want to rebuild it exactly that way, but you could learn from it.
PO: [Laughs.] You see every aspect of the city, and I think what [David Simon] suggests is that even the bad aspects are needed to run the whole city the way it was running. Or maybe that would be a good blueprint if you want rebuild Baltimore correctly and get rid of the shit.
AVC: Rob Siegel sought you out specifically as the person who was right to star in Big Fan. What was your response to that, and did you feel after reading the script that his instincts were good?
PO: Well, I read the script first, and I just assumed that I’d be reading for the part or auditioning. And then when he offered it to me and said, “I kind of envision you this way,” it was such a jolt to me to have something that well-written, and by someone who is such a good writer. Back in his years at The Onion, his stuff was amazing, as was his work on The Wrestler. The fact that he trusted me made me get outside of myself and say, “Okay, I don’t know if I totally trust myself doing this, but the fact that he wants me to do it is giving me the confidence to do it.” Does that make sense? So that’s what made me do the leap, I guess.
AVC: You yourself are not a sports fan. Is that right?
PO: No. But nowadays—and I don’t want to make some dopey cultural statement here—everyone can be, just by existing in society, a nerd like Paul Aufiero, because we all have a ship that we follow. Even if it’s other people, like on MySpace pages, we’re just as collective of enthusiasts now. That seems to be the world we’re in. In a way, Paul seems like he’s almost this old-school enthusiast, because it’s not the Internet or the Twittering or the text-messaging. It is just flat-out, “I will go and worship this team in my own quiet way.” Which is a very real way, but it’s almost a form that’s dying out now. Rob sees that type of fan sort of flickering a little bit.
AVC: Though you could say that he does create this “Paul from Staten Island” persona for the radio that’s related to him, but anonymous. In that sense, it’s like an Internet persona.
PO: Oh, totally. There’s something kind of beautiful about that pure love of things. Like, “I’ll show that I love the thing I love by hating everything else.” Yeah, I’m not a sports fan, but I certainly am good to ask about film and food and literature and comic books, so there’s certainly a big part of that guy in me. And you know, look at the comment threads on The A.V. Club. [Laughs.] Full of delightful little Paul Aufieros. They either want to say how much they love this thing that is being written about, which I always think is beautiful, or what I think is even more beautiful, they have to make sure that the world knows that, under their pseudonym, they hate this thing. They think, “I’ve got to go on record.” In their minds, there will be an afterlife where they’re presented with an inventory of everything they could have commented on, and are asked, “Did you step up and make your voice heard?” Maybe there’s like a weird commenter’s nirvana. Is there anything different if you go into every comment thread to say that something sucks? How is that different from a guy who goes to church every single week and praises God and rebukes Satan? There’s some weird afterlife that they’re doing time for.
AVC: They have to make their stand on every little thing.
PO: Exactly. “I want to be able to get into commenter’s paradise.” [Affecting voice of God.] “Well, Dr.WhoFan07, there was a blog written in 2004 which stated that Tom Baker was not the best Dr. Who, and you did not get on the comment thread to say what a shithead the writer was. So because of that, you are denied access forever!”
AVC: When Rob was editor-in-chief at The Onion, he was known as a quietly ruthless appraiser of material. Was that his directorial style as well?
PO: Luckily for me, he had so much other shit on his mind, in terms of “Where are we going to shoot tomorrow?” and “We need a hospital really badly,” that he didn’t really have much time to hover over me and give me notes. For the most part, he’s one of those directors—and by the way, I’m basing this on one movie, so maybe he’ll change, who knows—who says, “I have all this shit to deal with, and acting is the actors’ department, and I’m not going to put my big peanut-butter fingerprints all over that.”
AVC: Did you feel that you needed some guidance, or were you happy with that hands-off approach?
PO: I was happy for it, because I read it as trust. But the kind of roles I’m used to are character-actory. I usually come in and bounce off the lead guy, so it was a very weird sensation for me to be in every scene, and be the driving force in every scene. Or as Dana Gould always called it, I’m used to jetpack acting, where you just kind of zip in on your jetpack, say something—“Oh, those are big shoes!”—and [Jetpack sound effect.] fly back out. And here, you know, you’re there and the camera is watching you and everything cues off you.
AVC: Did the burden of having to carry this thing weigh heavily on you while you were doing it?
PO: No, that’s not what really weighed heavily on me. What weighed heavily on me was that everything I did as an actor up to that point, especially as a comedic actor, was stripped away. So I wasn’t ending scenes with a little comedic button, or a snarky little comment, or a look, or a take. Especially playing this guy, who really is kind of a blank. He is not putting a clever spin on things, and he lacks the language to be clever and dismissive. He’s the kind of guy who when he says things, it just invites more scrutiny. And that’s the last thing he wants, which is why he doesn’t really talk all that much.
AVC: Even these sports talk-radio rants that he labors over are fairly banal. They’re not clever.
PO: Oh yeah. It’s the first idea that you’d get when trying to put down the other team. This is not a thing where he goes, “Okay, that’s a cliché” or “That’s been said a million times.” I really loved doing those scenes, because that’s the one time when I’m putting in all the passion as if I’m holding a chunk of dialogue by a Richard Price or a David Milch in my hands. So I’m delivering it with that level of passion and craft, but there’s nothing there. Do you know what I’m saying? So there’s something kind of fascinating about a guy who’s really getting worked up and kind of doing, I guess in his mind, something like Keith Richards solo. But it’s just fucking banal, basically.
AVC: Rob has joked that the Big Fan is a movie in which the main character has no arc.
PO: I loved that about the script. It’s like a lot of the movies from the ’70s, where they kind of embraced the fact that people don’t fucking change. Or, in the case of Paul, put up a mighty, mighty battle to prevent any change from happening. So like in a movie like Five Easy Pieces or The King Of Marvin Gardens, they just don’t fucking change at all. There’s something kind of fascinating about that. Or Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, where not only does [Gene Hackman’s character] aggressively never change, but he’s literally going in circles on the ocean in the end. So that kind of quality, when it’s done well, when it’s written well the way Rob wrote it, can be really fascinating.
AVC: The only real change in Paul is that his temperature rises. Taxi Driver is another big influence on Big Fan, and it’s the same in that way. When Taxi Driver ends, it’s just a matter of ironic fate that Travis Bickle ended up a hero instead of a killer. Killing a pimp or killing a politician doesn’t make any difference to him, but for society, it’s another story.
PO: Exactly. And Taxi Driver is one of those movies that can literally be watched on a loop. If you took out the credits, that last scene where he rips the rearview mirror off the guys, and then the very first shot of the movie is the rearview mirror of the cab. So what they’re suggesting is his life is this weird loop of being stuck in that cab, like a rat in a cage being teased, and it’s going to build up to a weird burst of misdirected violence and then he’ll be back in that cab again, just in this continual fucking loop. It almost has a No Exit quality.
AVC: Are you concerned about how Big Fan might be perceived? You’re well-known as a comedian, and this film was written and directed by a former Onion editor-in-chief, and it’s about a guy who gets beat up by his favorite athlete. That sounds like a comedic concept. While the movie is funny, people might be caught off-guard to discover it’s a lot darker. Has it been a problem to recalibrate people’s expectations?
PO: I don’t know. That’s not my department. I like confounding expectations. I can expand what it is I am able to do, and hopefully get to do more weird, interesting projects like this. There’s nothing wrong with doing comedies, and I’m not against comedies, either, but I always want to do stuff that keeps me off my guard and gets me out of my comfort zone. And how the audience perceives that… It’s out of my hands. And I don’t get that frustrated by it, because I’m on to the next thing at that point.
AVC: With all these opportunities like Big Fan and Caprica and Dollhouse coming your way, do you feel that you’re edging into being more of a character actor than a comedian?
PO: I’m going to continue to try to strike a balance, because I really, really do love doing stand-up, and I don’t see why it should affect the acting. And again, I’m not going, “I’ve got to become a dramatic actor now.” I just want more interesting jobs. I just want to keep doing stuff that’s different, rather than saying, “Okay, I’ve become known for this, and I’ll just do this from now on.” It’d be like writing 45 minutes of material and going, “Okay, I’ll just do that. I’m headlining now, and I’ll just do this 45 minutes.” So there’s definitely that parallel. If I feel like I’ve done this one thing, I never want to do it again. I want to do something totally different.
AVC: It seemed like there was an era in stand-up comedy where you’d labor at one thing for a bit, and at the end of the line, you’d get a show or something. Stand-up was a means to an end.
PO: I’m glad that that era is over, because I think it adversely affected a lot of people who could have been really, really great comedians. Because they unconsciously or subconsciously stifled their wild impulses, and were thinking about the five clean minutes for The Tonight Show, or the 20-minute sitcom pitch as a stand-up act. Because you saw a lot of guys, especially in the early ’90s, whose acts were a pitch for a sitcom. A lot of them were very funny, but there’s nothing worse than watching comedians or musicians who are up there and are doing something they’re not interested in.
AVC: What do you have to do to get to the point where you’re up in front of a big audience in Washington D.C., recording a show for something like My Weakness Is Strong?
PO: I wish I had a really cool, esoteric answer, but what the process is to me is going onstage night after night after night after night until I get a new hour. And then once that hour is solidified and recorded, I move on. In between recording that thing in February and it being released in August, I have been going onstage over and over and trying to work on a new, bigger chunk of material, so that when I go out on tour this fall, I’ll have new stuff and it won’t be the stuff you hear on the album. So I don’t think of it in terms of, “Okay, I have this big show coming up. I’ve gotta prepare for it.” It’s just an ongoing process the way that a novelist might say, “I’m going to write five pages every day.” That’s what I do, and then I move on. So I go onstage as many nights as I can and do more and more material, and just keep trying stuff out, and refining it and refining it, and there you go.
AVC: Does it become like a band, in a sense that your new material is sort of buttressed by the hits protecting it?
PO: You know what, it’s the exact opposite. And here’s why: When a band puts out an album, you’d better play that album that the fans have, that they love. And you also better play your hits. They don’t want to hear you noodle out your new shit. They don’t care. Huey Lewis once guested on King Of Queens, and he was talking to us about being a teenager in San Francisco back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and he would go see Led Zeppelin. And Zeppelin would be touring on Zeppelin III, and people are waiting for them to begin, you know? “Do fucking ‘The Immigrant Song’ and ‘Going To California,’ goddammit.” And they would try out this new song called “Stairway To Heaven,” and people would be like, “Oh, time to go get a fucking beer.” [Laughs.] But with a comedian, it’s the opposite. You put that album out, and they’ve heard it. If they’re coming out to see you, you’d better be doing new stuff. There’s always a tiny part of the audience that want to hear certain bits of yours, or they’ve brought friends to see you, and they’ve told them about some of your bits. Then maybe you should do them. But for the most part, for the majority of a stand-up audience, you better have new stuff they’ve not heard. And if you put an album out, just consider that material gone. At least that’s how I see it.
AVC: It just seems like maybe there’d be a fragility to the new stuff. If you’re debuting a bit for the first time, there’s that uncertainty about whether it’s going to go over.
PO: That’s why I do little open mics and stuff around L.A. Little rooms like the Fake Gallery and even the UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade]. The Comedy Death Ray is very open to you fucking around and experimenting, because you’re basically going up in front of the fan elite, and with the connoisseur elite of stand-up in that room, you do expect something new. You don’t want to disappoint them, because they know what the fuck you’re talking about. So there’s always that quality to it. So yes, you’re right, it is very fragile, but the one thing that will help cover the fragility is the excitement of the audience itself saying, “Oh, I haven’t heard this. It’s new.”
AVC: What if things don’t go well? Are you able to get perspective on that pretty easily, or is it bruising if something doesn’t really work?
PO: It’s not that it’s personally bruising. I’m in New York right now, and I had to run two sets for a TV show, so I went to two clubs. I went to Comix and I did my set and it went fine, and then I went to Gotham, and I ate it so fucking hard. [Laughs.] You get to a point when [the audience] knows who you are, so they’re happy to see you, but every now and then, you just get that, “This shit is not flying.” And then it’s even worse, because they’re like, “This asshole’s on TV, and he’s not fucking funny.” Like they almost expect you to know what the fuck you’re doing after you’ve been on TV for a while. So when you eat it like that… I actually ended up being pretty excited as I was re-writing it in the cab home [from Gotham], because I was like, “Oh, I have a lot more to work on.” I never want to get to a point where I feel like I’m done. Or like I got it. You always want to have that, “Oh shit, this wall just collapsed, and there’s a whole room behind it to explore.”
AVC: Is it better now than it was? At the beginning of your career, when you weren’t as known, it seems like it would have been an uphill battle every time, getting an audience on your side.
PO: Definitely. But you know what’s really weird? I’m grateful that I had that uphill battle for 10 years of going onstage and having nobody know who I was, because you have to win them over. Because I have a lot of friends who were stand-ups, and they just stopped after a while, because they didn’t like that battle, or they just couldn’t do it. And then they would get on a sitcom and get visible and get back into it, because the audience was just way easier on them. But they lost those crucial years of learning to turn any audience into your audience. And I think that’s really, really important. That’s why they’re okay stand-ups, but they’re never going to be great, because they don’t have that presence. They never built those muscles up.
AVC: You’ve done three comedy albums now. When you put them together, do you consider them a record of what you were thinking about at the time, or are you finding thematic connections to tie together these bits? What are your thoughts on how a comedy album should be?
PO: When I did the first and second ones, I just wanted to make a really classic album that stood by itself. And now that I’ve done the third one, and I look back at the three, they do play like little visual snapshots of my life at the time. Even if you didn’t know who I was personally, you could say, “Oh, here he is, kind of young, and he’s rebelling against things, yet he’s making these very grandiose statements about life and what he’s so sure of.” You can always tell when you’re dealing with a younger comedian, because their bits are about, “Here was a certain situation where I said something fucking brilliant and put everyone in their goddamn place.” And that’s like a young, insecure, inexperienced comedian. With the second album, it’s a little more where I’m edging toward, “Hey, maybe marriage and fatherhood wouldn’t be so horrible. And there’s a reason that people invented the suburbs, because a lot of stuff in the city is fucking horrible. That’s why they invented them.” And this third one, I look at it now, and I’m actually embracing how little I know and what a fucking idiot I am about things, and actually winking at my darkness, and fumbling, and saying things about other people, but now I’m not judging and going, “Look at this fucking stupid asshole.” Now I’m just starting to see the links of stupidity in everything. Whereas the first album was, “This is shit that I hate,” now as I get older, it’s more about, “This is the stupid shit that I love, and here’s why.”
AVC: One of my favorite comedy records is Albert Brooks’ Comedy Minus One.
PO: Oh God, that’s so fucking great.
AVC: Currently, people don’t buy records, or even CDs anymore. People get everything digitally. But with Comedy Minus One, you have to have that script in the liner notes to make sense of the last track.
PO: You know what’s gonna happen? Somebody is going to find a way digitally that is just as innovative. In the end, the tools can change, but there is always someone who can think of something cool to do. I did my first half-hour special for Comedy Central [in 1999], which I fucking hate so much, because I took their notes and just didn’t stand up for what I wanted to do. Anyway, they had to work commercial breaks into it, of course, so what I decided to do was set up my act to where whenever we’re coming back from a commercial, I’d always be finishing off a joke that you didn’t see the beginning of. So they would come back from commercial, and I would go, “And that’s why Count Chocula is pro-life!” Ahhh. They would just lose their shit. And then we came back from the third commercial, I told a joke that clearly bombed; they just didn’t get it, and so on. I had mapped it out perfectly. I told the audience “This is what I’m doing,” and they totally got it and they really loved it. And then we cut it all together, and Comedy Central was like, “We don’t like that.” “I don’t get it.” “I don’t get why you would do that.” Ughh. It’s because I’m using the fact that you’re trying to be like HBO, but the reason the HBO half-hours are so good is because they’re uncut. There are no commercials. And now these comedians have to deal with rearing against society and life, and then you cut to a guy telling you how great M&Ms are. Which completely undercuts what’s going on. So I said “Let’s just embrace how horrible and awkward that is,” and [Comedy Central] just went “Eh,” and I didn’t fucking fight for it. You know, innovation has to come with some fucking backbone. Because I guarantee Albert Brooks had to fight with whatever record company to do that. Luckily he won, because he’s fucking Albert Brooks.
AVC: There’s a very funny bit at the beginning of My Weakness Is Strong about you ignoring your friends’ advice and choosing to have your baby at a hospital rather than at home. That’s one of the first things you learn as a parent or prospective parent: That every decision like that is really politicized. What has that environment been like for you to navigate?
PO: Well, you know what’s kind of weird? What I was trying to say in that bit, without saying it out loud, is that there were things—you’re right, everything is very politicized these days, literally down to what kind of coffee you drink—that I used to fight with people about. And by the way, not just people like Republicans and Christians, but liberal friends of mine and very radical left-wing types, and alternative, indie types. I would fight and try to win the argument, as if I have to justify what I’m doing. And I think one of the good things about getting older is, I just listen to all the arguments and nod my head and go, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And then I just do what the fuck I want to do. So a lot of my friends would lecture me about the home birth, or say, “Oh, you can’t vaccinate your kid.” And instead of going, “Oh, you’re such a fucking moron,” I would just nod my head and say, “That’s really fascinating.” And then we went ahead and fucking had it in the hospital, and booked a luxury suite, and said “Fuck it.” Dana Gould had this bit where he said, "In the time that I would have spent arguing with my friends in the past, I go get an ice-cream sandwich and just sit and enjoy that." Because at the end of my life, I’ll go, “Oh, I enjoyed all those ice-cream sandwiches when I wasn’t arguing with anyone.” I’ll just quietly do what the fuck I want to do.
And by the way, every fucking dangerous indie icon that you worship dealt with the exact same bullshit. Fucking William S. Burroughs, and Johnny Depp, or whoever else made you think, “Oh that guy is so fucking cool.” Trust me. One time I was in Target running daddy errands, and I ran into Grant-Lee Phillips, also in the diaper aisle. “What do they mean by 0 to 2?” We both had Largo shows coming up, and it was like, “This guy at the Largo was just in the diaper aisle at Target trying to figure out whether 2 is the size, or the age. What the fuck?” We were just sitting there yelling at each other about this stuff.
AVC: It’s disillusioning to think that Iggy Pop still has to pay his bills and do the laundry.
PO: Yeah. He’s gotta go get his prostate looked at. He’s an old guy. My friend told me he was at Bob Dylan’s house years ago, and Bob Dylan was complaining because too many of his kids were getting nose jobs or something, and he was on the phone saying “I ain’t paying for any more noses.” So like Bob Dylan is this radical, amazing songwriter, but he still has to bitch about his kids and yell at them.
Not to bring up Dana Gould again, but he once said, “I’m not saying that everyone has to have kids, but why wouldn’t you have as many fucking experiences as you can?” Yes, fucking do LSD and go wander Barcelona. But also, why not get married and have kids? Because that’s a whole other crazy fucking experience. Why wouldn’t you have every possible experience that you can in life? And by the way, then your kids can go to college and then you can start experimenting with drugs as an old man, which is what people think is cute. So I have nothing but fun ahead of me.
AVC: Has the joy of having a child altered you creatively? Are you going soft?
PO: In a weird way, it’s made it much harder, because I’m so focused on my child and how crazy I am about her. There are things I used to get worried about and worked up about. Now I have almost this cool dismissiveness about shit. Now my managers or agents will call me up and they’ll be like, “They want you to go do this” and I’m just like, “No, I’m going to sit at home with my kid. I just want to watch her lying around in her Gymboree, playing.” I don’t give a fuck. And it’s weird, because it’s not that I’m becoming some badass rebel. It’s just that there’s shit that I’ve realized is so fucking unimportant that I just don’t care. And especially with things like my acting or my stand-up.
This last special with Comedy Central, I was so much more focused on how I’m going to have a kid, and “We gotta get a bigger house,” and “What the fuck am I gonna do?” that all the notes Comedy Central gave… I’d look at them and nod, and then I’d just go out and do what I wanted to do. Then I’d come back and they’d be like, “That wasn’t what we talked about.” I’m like, “I don’t really care. I’m sorry.” And if you looked at it from the outside, you’d go, “Wow! What a fucking badass!” but if you looked inside my head, you’d think, “Oh, he’s literally not even thinking about shit like that.” You know what I mean? I don’t care. So in a way, parenthood can make you seem even more rebellious and uncompromising, because there’s just shit that will never affect you ever again. You’re just like, “Nah, I don’t give a fuck. I don’t care.” Last night, when I was eating it in a somewhat packed room at Gotham, I was just like, “I don’t fucking care.” It ended up being kind of fun for me, because I thought, “This doesn’t affect anything.” You know what affects shit? Not feeding [my daughter] every three hours. That fucking brings the world to its knees. You know what? If 200 drunks don’t think I’m funny, I don’t give a shit.
AVC: You appeared on what many consider to be a pivotal episode of Dollhouse. Can you talk about that experience? Could you sense how important that episode was in the grand scheme of the show?
PO: I couldn’t sense how important it was in the grand scheme, because I hadn’t seen the other episodes. I could sense that the episode itself was so important, just because [creator Joss Whedon] took sort of this clichéd trope—this chubby, unattractive dude hiring a young hottie to do his bidding—and then he reveals this whole other level to the guy. And what I love is, you don’t walk away from it and go, “Oh, now I feel bad for him.” He’s still an awful guy, and kind of sleazy. But the fact that he has reasons for his horribleness? It reminded me of John Candy’s character in Planes, Trains And Automobiles. At the end of the movie, he’s still fat and obnoxious, but you sort of realize why, and you thought he was just an easy checkmark, like “Oh, that’s what that guy is.” Oh no, he’s this whole other thing, where there’s a reason behind it. So the fact that that much was getting put into it, and I could just tell that they were starting to fuck with the mythology… I could sense it was really something special.
When I did Reaper, the episode I originally did was supposed to be the beginning of this introduction to this overall mythology, because they clearly were taking the Joss Whedon playbook: You have a monster of the week for a while, and then you start linking it all up, and you create this overarching kind of world and story. And in the middle of the week, the network just came down on them and said “No, go back to monster of the week.” And you could feel this deflation amongst the actors, because they really understood that they had to start putting mythology into things. The network was just like, “Nope!”
AVC: There a lot of tension, in hourlong network television, especially, where creatively things are heading in a more novelistic tack, but the networks need something people can tune into any given week and know exactly what’s going on.
PO: Yeah, but the thing is, they have plenty of that shit. They’ve got plenty of Law And Orders and CSIs, so why not use those to finance stuff like Reaper or Dollhouse, where the people who watch shows on DVD or iTunes can just gobble up the whole giant Dostoyevsky novel that it’s trying to be? Have some balance, for God’s sake. The mythology they were going to introduce on Reaper was really amazing. It wasn’t complicated, but it was troubling, and would have really given you something to think about week after week. It didn’t drive me crazy, because I was just a guest star, but getting to work with those actors, all of whom are so cool and really intelligent… They really cared about that show.
Imagine the cast of Buffy if they had been told that in the middle of the second season, when they really started layering in more and more mythology. Remember when Spike is ripping up the high school and Angel comes in, and Spike calls him Angelus, and you start to realize, “Wait a minute, this has been going on for a long time?” Now imagine if the network didn’t want to call him Angelus, and the episodes ended with Spike dead. New monster next week. It would have just been so… as an actor, you would have been upset. Like, that’s a great scene to get to play. Why can’t we just keep adding shit like that?
AVC: There’s a wealth of possibilities there, too. If you progress in a novelistic way and you’re not just hitting the reset button, you can do things on television that are completely unthinkable in movies, in terms of developing characters over a long span of time.
PO: There’s always great movies like In The Loop and District 9 and The Hurt Locker and Adventureland, but right now, TV is so much better than movies. If you’re talking about a ratio of crap to quality, TV is ridiculous right now. How funny it is and how great it is on every level. With shit like Metalocalypse and 30 Rock and Damages and Breaking Bad, at every single level it could be good, it’s good.
AVC: You’ve stuck with MySpace as sort of your social-networking site of choice. You’ve also taken some distance from Facebook and sworn off Twitter. Why is that?
PO: I haven’t sworn off Facebook. I’m on Facebook. There’s a fan page on Facebook that I will update, but I’m on there myself under a pseudonym, because there were a lot of people able to private-message me on Facebook, and it was getting really weird. And then with MySpace, I just don’t read messages. I delete everything, and I just post updates every now and then. I don’t know, there’s something about MySpace for someone as OCD as me. MySpace is somehow more welcoming than Facebook. And Twittering, I just… Ugh. I like having radio silence. I think radio silence is an important part of any public figure’s day. We haven’t seen it yet, but there’s going to be a generation that comes up where the new trend will be complete anonymity. It’ll be cool to have never posted anything online, never commented, never opened a webpage or a MySpace, never Twittered. I think everyone in the future is going to be allowed to be obscure for 15 minutes. You’ll have 15 minutes where no one is watching you, and then you’ll be shoved back onto your reality show. I think Andy Warhol got it wrong.
AVC: You don’t feel bad about being disconnected? If you’re off on an island for a week and you have no access to the Internet at all, is that painful in any way for you?
PO: No. Because I’m such a bookworm, and I’m such a people-watcher. It took the Internet a while to catch on in Ireland, because the culture there is, you go to the pub and talk to people there, and that’s how you get the news and all the gossip. You just do it face to face. And culturally, you just couldn’t understand… like when I’m sitting in front of the TV and I’m typing, it’s like “What the fuck? This sounds like work.” So I love the Internet just as much as everyone else, and there are sites I go to every single day. But especially as a comedian, you have to go look at the world. That’s why I think a lot of New York comedians, their stuff is about “All this shit that I saw on the street…” and a lot of L.A. comedians are “This fucking thing I saw on TV, or while I was driving.” It’s a bubble vs. a hive. Since I’m already in the bubble, I don’t want to build a cubicle inside of the bubble I’m already in. But again, I update my MySpace every day, I update my Facebook fan page, but that’s about the extent of it. I don’t want to get into extended conversations with people on MySpace, because there are friends I have extended conversations with every day. I’m on the phone every day. There’s like five people I just call and yak with every single day. And that to me is my Internet. You can replace the Internet with five really smart friends.