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- Michael Shannon on General Zod, the NSA, and the genius of David Letterman
- How Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg turned their fear of Jesus into an ensemble comedy
- Clive Owen talks about playing an MI5 agent in Shadow Dancer
- Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a.k.a. Jaime Lannister, talks his big Game Of Thrones season
When we asked to interview Patton Oswalt, he told us he was worried about wearing out his welcome at The A.V. Club, what with how many times we’ve written about him (and he’s occasionally written for us) over the years. But considering how many projects the prolific comedian has in the hopper at any given moment, there’s always something new to talk about with Oswalt. In the time since we spoke to him in 2009, he released his first book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland; filmed a handful of movies; made numerous TV appearances, both as a regular and guest star; and even took a short-lived stab at Broadway. In the midst of all that, he’s continued to build and hone new stand-up material, which culminates in the upcoming Showtime special Finest Hour, airing September 5, and the attendant comedy album of the same name, which comes out September 20. Oswalt took a break between the two projects he’s currently filming in New York—a new Adult Swim show from the creators of Wonder Showzen and an upcoming comedy with Johnny Knoxville—to discuss the special, countering knee-jerk hate both onstage and online, and why he doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on his successes and failures.
The A.V. Club: We always seem to catch you when you’re in New York, which, judging by a bit on Finest Hour, is not your favorite place to be.
Patton Oswalt: [Laughs.] Yeah. Well, again, there’s nothing wrong with visiting here, but right now, you’re catching me during a three-month residency. My first month, I was staying in the Lower East Side, because when I was here last year, I was up in the more boring, touristy part of Hell’s Kitchen. So then I told the people that are doing this TV show, “I gotta stay in the West Village, or I gotta stay in the Lower East Side. I want someplace real.” And then after a month in the Lower East Side, during the New York heat wave, I was like, “Okay, you know what? I’m 42 years old. I think I’m done. I’ve had enough of the ‘real.’ This would’ve been great when I was 19, this is friggin’ horrible now.” I would open the doors to the hotel in the lobby, and even the two doormen would look back, like, “All right, dude, here it comes,” and just this wave of garbage air would pummel you. It was like a shockwave of stink. I was almost excited to do it in the morning to see what new, horrible smell would come down there. I was like, “I can’t do this. So I’m close to the IFC Center and the Whole Foods? That’s not worth it.” It’s just not worth it to me anymore.
AVC: Are you doing any stand-up sets while you’re there, or are you pretty much focusing on filming?
PO: Well, I finished the TV show August 5, and then I went right into this movie. And right now, as much as I wanna do sets, I keep getting these 5:30 a.m. call times. And again, 10 years ago, I would’ve said, “Yeah, I’ll go do some sets, hang out, get a couple hours’ sleep. There’s coffee on the set. I’ll be fine.” And now, I’m like, “Nope. Daddy’s gotta go to bed at 7 o’clock.” [Laughs.] ’Cause I know how my body operates differently from what it did when it was 30 and when it was 20. As unhealthy as I am, I’m weirdly aware of exactly how my body functions.
AVC: You’ve reached a level now where a lot of your time is taken up with acting and writing, and then these large-scale theater gigs to do stand-up. When do you work out new material? Do you still try and do smaller sets and drop-ins when you’re working out new stuff?
PO: Yeah, whenever I can. Here’s what’s really strange: Now that I’m starting to do more movies and TV shows, what I’m discovering—and I’ve actually talked to other friends of mine who do way more movies and TV shows—if you work in movies and television, you’re never in L.A. Movies and TV are the new “road” for performers. [Laughs.] If I were to just focus on stand-up, I could actually, paradoxically enough, be home way more, because I would leave on a Friday, go do a couple theaters Friday, Saturday, maybe Sunday, come home. I’d be home all week, and I would just do what I love to do, which are all these little sets all around L.A. There are all these amazing shows now. Just go up and work out new stuff. But of course, now that I most want to be home with my daughter, I’m getting these movie offers, and no movies shoot in L.A. anymore! They don’t make movies there! That’s the one thing they don’t do is movies and TV shows. [Laughs.] A friend of mine was like, “I need to work, ’cause I have kids, and I got this offer for a one-season commitment to a one-hour drama, and it’s shot in Vancouver. I can’t take my kids up to Vancouver for nine months, I just can’t.” And he had to turn it down. It’s so odd.
AVC: The L.A. comedy scene has exploded recently, but obviously New York is still a big proving ground for stand-ups as well. Do you think there’s a certain type of personality that gravitates toward one city over the other, or is it just a matter of circumstance?
PO: I think the kind of person that gravitates toward New York is a person that’s not so much focused on controlling exactly how they appear and how they exit. They’re more fascinated with the process. In other words, running around, doing three sets a night. One of the sets, you’ve had a piece of pizza before you got on the subway to get there. They’re much more in tune with, like, “This is real life. This is how I am in this moment.” They’re very much more in the moment. The whole sorting and controlling the image, that’s up to other people, when you’re finished with your work 20 years down the road. Other people, it’s their job to sort it out. They just wanna do, do, do, do, do, until they can’t anymore. I think that’s why Los Angeles is where you’re seeing the birth of the podcast and video-short explosions. Stuff like Five Second Films, and Comedy Bang Bang, and Paul F. Tompkins’ amazing podcast. Because they’re drawn to L.A., which is more about entrances, how you present yourself, how you make your splash, how you make your debut, and how you control your image. It’s just as fecund out there. People are doing just as much work, but in a much more controlled way. Because L.A. is very controlled. You know, in Los Angeles, you’re constantly in your car, you’re sealed up, you’re not walking around. Whereas in New York, after a while, all your stuff is kind of public, in one way or the other. I’m not saying either one of those is bad; they’re both great for a very specific kind of comedian. And I’m glad that they both exist.
AVC: So it’s not East Coast/West Coast comedy wars?
PO: I don’t see it as a war. A less boring term would be “The East Coast/West Coast supplementation.” I think they both play off each other really, really well. It would be really interesting to see a very prolific New York comedian who’s used to that kind of pace transplanted to Los Angeles, and a very controlled, insular—but still brilliant and prolific—Los Angeles comedian suddenly in the rawness of New York. And seeing how those two things bounce off each other would be really amazing. A show like Louie, which is so goddamn brilliant, but it is so raw, it feels like a rough documentary sometimes. It’s just life happening. And then a show like Community, which is equally brilliant—it’s by this guy, Dan Harmon, who was a transplant to L.A.—and it’s so brilliantly about people that are kind of sealed up in their own little pop-culture worlds. And what’s so poignant about it is they’re trying so hard to reach out of those cocoons every week. And more often than not, they fail, but they’re trying. Whereas Louis’ show is about a guy that’s connected to the world whether he wants to be or not, because it is there all the fucking time. And it’s so fascinating to see those two extremes play out on TV right now.
AVC: Speaking to what you were saying about the rawness of doing stand-up in New York: You play to larger audiences who have bought tickets to see you specifically, and they’re attuned to your sensibilities, where you stand on religion, politics, whatever, so you don’t have to win them over. It seems like that would be liberating, but is there a part of you that misses confronting an unfamiliar audience?
PO: What’s really weird is, there was always that part of me that was drawn to it for the confrontational—and also from fear, ’cause normally, I’m not a very confrontational person. I would much rather be left alone, and stay inside and read a book. But then that part of me draws me on stage, like, “Okay, let’s get out there.” But what’s odd is, now that I’m getting a little older, and because you change all the time—and I’ve already seen this in some of the reviews of my CDs, people will listen to Feelin’ Kinda Patton, and I’m getting drunk onstage and railing against parents, like, “Why the fuck would people have kids? Why do people get sober? It’s so stupid.” And then two albums later, I’m about to get married, and planning to have a kid, and I’m not drinking as much. So to me, each album is just like an issue of a magazine: That’s what’s happening with me at that time. And a lot of times, I’ll say stuff onstage not even meaning to challenge people, just to be honest with exactly where I am right now, and I’ll get the same kind of, “Whoa, wait a minute.” And then I have to win them over to that point of view. So, I think if you’re honest about getting older and changing, you’ll always have to confront the audience, especially an audience that comes in with expectations, “Okay, we’re gonna hear this, this, this, and this,” and then I’m like, “Well….”
Like, my feelings on religion are starting to morph. I’m still very much an atheist, except that I don’t necessarily see religion as being a bad thing. So, that’s a weird thing that I’m struggling with that seems to be offending both atheists and people that are religious. [Laughs.] I’m almost saying certain people do better with religion, the way that certain rock stars do better if they’re shooting heroin. Like, if Keith Richards wasn’t doing heroin sitting in that car outside of where they were filming Performance and being pissed off at Mick [Jagger] fucking Anita Pallenberg, then we wouldn’t have Gimme Shelter. If Michelangelo wasn’t terrified of all this religious bullshit afterlife stuff, then we wouldn’t have The Last Judgment that he painted. So, maybe that was good for us, that that person had to suffer through that. I don’t know, but I’m looking at that.
AVC: Do you think any of that is tied to you becoming a father? It’s a lot easier to explain death to a child when you can tell them about heaven.
PO: Goddamn, that’s so weird. Again, I was very much an atheist, but I was never like the Richard Dawkins [type], getting in people’s faces about it. Maybe ’cause I write so much, and ’cause I’m so steeped in horror and science fiction and comic books, I can see the origins of how they made up every religion. I know where it came from; the human heart wanted that stuff. I’m not saying that I’m smarter. In a way, it’s because I’m not as intelligent that I can see where that stuff comes from. But at the same time, her cat died, and she was hysterical and was crying. And I totally was like, “Well, she’s in kitty heaven.” I just totally agreed with “kitty heaven” right there. You can’t tell someone who’s despondent about something that they loved and that loved them unconditionally, “Well, there’s nothing after this. They’re just gone.”
I’m very open to wherever being a parent is going to take me. I think one of the great hidden jokes of my early albums is how 100-percent sure I am of everything. And then, it’s almost like this prequel: You’re like, “Oh, you don’t realize what the fuck is about to hit you.” [Laughs.] “You don’t realize how you’re about to get that carpet ripped out from under your feet.” So, I came to this weird realization, reading about what’s going on in Africa and the Sudan and stuff like that, that I don’t hate any music. Or at least, I don’t hate the motivations behind it. And a lot of people are like, “Oh, those guys are doing this shitty music so they can get money and pussy.” Yeah, but do you know what people do to get money and pussy on this planet? Really horrible things. Like, they do horrifying things to get money and pussy and power. So, if Nickelback wants to sing “Photograph,” they decide to do that instead of forming a cult and killing people, it’s hard for me to get angry at that. [Laughs.] You’re like, “Hey, good for them.”
AVC: Like what you were saying about religion and heroin: A great many good things have come out of dudes trying to get money and pussy.
PO: Exactly. Every time a hipster bitches about Nickelback, they should send some money to the Red Cross, just to go, “Hey, look, I’m sorry that I spent one minute going off about Ke$ha and Nickelback. They’re not the best people on the planet, but I probably could’ve used that time better.” Ke$ha should do an ad for Doctors Without Borders going, “Hey guys, have at it. Rip my music apart. But every time you do it, just send a quarter to Doctors Without Borders.” [Laughs.]
AVC: The A.V. Club and its commenters would be sending a lot of money there.
PO: Oh my God, can you imagine how much money you guys could make if any time somebody wanted to write something negative about Dane Cook or Ke$ha, or anything, they had to pay? It’s a pay-to-complain site. Think of some kind of algorithm that can tell if you’re writing something positive. You can write that stuff for free. But if you want to write something negative, you have to open a PayPal account. Oh my God, you could wipe out third world debt with one article about Jim Belushi. [Laughs.]
AVC: I think you’re onto something here.
PO: Oh my God. I would have to owe, like, $500,000.
AVC: I wrote a huge article about how terrible Ke$ha is, so I’d probably be out quite a few bucks myself.
PO: Yeah, your great-grandkids would be born in debt. [Laughs.]
AVC: This is your first hourlong special that isn’t for Comedy Central, right?
PO: Yes… Wait a minute. Yeah, it is! I had a half-hour HBO special, and I had a half-hour Comedy Central special, which is fucking horrible. If anyone could break into Comedy Central with a huge magnet and just bulk-erase every copy of that special, that would be awesome. Then I did an hour for them that I really, really liked. The other hour that I did for them was my fourth album. And those two I really, really liked and had great fun with. They went really well, and this new one went even better. I had so much fun. I had exactly the crew that I wanted. I had the director, Jason Woliner, who’s amazing, and I got to be in Seattle. I don’t know what it is about Seattle. The minute I get to that city, it’s not so much that I calm down, I just feel like there’s a future, for some reason. I feel like, “Yeah, I’m gonna do this, and then, there’ll be other things I’ll do.” Whereas sometimes in Los Angeles, I just feel like, “Yeah, this is finite. This will end.” So, I like the illusion that Seattle gives me, that, “Oh yeah, there’ll be stuff going on.”
AVC: Was the move to Showtime because of the United States Of Tara connection?
PO: We’d sort of shopped it around, and I’m moving into a model where I can own everything that I do. So Showtime and Comedy Central did some kind of split deal, because Comedy Central’s putting the album out, but it’s the kind of thing where I can still own it. Eventually, it goes back to me. It was just this really interesting new deal. But I wanted to finally do a one-hour special where there’s no commercials and no editing for content. Comedy Central’s gonna show it in the spring with commercials and some edits. And then I’m sure they’ll do it in the evening in that “Secret Stash” thing they do. But I just wanted, initially, to do an hour: “Boom! There it is.”
AVC: You’ve talked before about the frustration of having Comedy Central throw a commercial in the middle of a bit.
PO: Yeah. Especially if I’m railing about the shallowness of society, and then they cut to a commercial for microwavable pizza bagels, it’s sort of like it’s becoming an SCTV sketch, and I’m the punchline. [Laughs.]
AVC: In a recent blog entry, you said that you hoped this material was deeper and more mature. Can you expand a little on that?
PO: Whenever I say “deeper,” I just mean more and more self-aware. It’s one thing to be angry at something, like, “Oh, this is stupid,” and point it out. But then I think it’s important that I go, “Why would I, particularly, think this thing is stupid and get wound up about it?” and turn it back on me, which, to me, is just as fascinating. “Oh, this actually comes from this embarrassing thing, and that’s why I don’t like that.” Like the romantic-comedy [bit]. As disparaging as I’m being about romantic comedies, and how I know all of their beats, and especially how all the gay characters talk in these movies, all that comes from the fact that I still am a sucker and go see all these goddamn movies. I can bitch about it all I want, but I’ve given them my money. That’s why I’m so well-versed in this stuff. [Laughs.] I also bitch about all these stupid action movies, and I go to see every fucking one!
Right now, there’s two massive crossovers going on in the DC and Marvel comic-book universe. In Marvel, it’s Fear Itself, and in DC, it’s Flashpoint. And I’m like, “Ah, fucking crossovers! This is a way they can slap the name of the crossover on some minor book and get you to buy it, because one panel has to do with the major crossover.” And I know this ’cause I’ve bought every issue and read them. [Laughs.] I’m bitching about, “I can’t believe they’re doing Cheetos in these fuckin’ cheetah paw shapes! They’re so dumb. What idiot buys this? And by the way, when you eat them, the little paw things jam into the roof of your mouth.” “Well, why do you know that?” “Well, I bought—listen, it doesn’t…” Anything that I am bitching about, I am part of the problem. That’s becoming my theme. If I’m onstage making people pay to hear me complain about it, then by default, I’m part of the problem. [Laughs.]
AVC: That whole knee-jerk hatred of everything has become such a pervasive attitude with the Internet.
PO: Oh, yeah. I mean, it can be. It’s rewired my brain. I have to expend extra effort not to immediately roll my eyes at a new thing, and think about, even if something shitty gets done, maybe a person did it with good intentions or maybe. There’s all kinds of music and film I like that is of quality that is made by some pretty horrible assholes. And there’s all kind of frivolous, disposable pop-culture shit that’s made by some genuinely sweet people. So you sort of have to pick your battles. It’s hard to reconcile that as you get older. I’ve met certain heroes of mine and they’re fuckin’ douchebags. And then I’ve met people who, I don’t hate them, but I’m always like, “Whatever,” and they’re the [Yelling in agony] nicest people on the planet! [Grumbling.] “Would you fucking just be an asshole to me?” You’re taking away my justification!
AVC: You’re going to meet Snooki one day and she’s just gonna be the sweetest person you’ve ever met.
PO: Goddammit, and she’ll have just reread Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and she’s gonna want to discuss that with me. I’ll just be like, “Goddammit!” Then I’m gonna finally meet Elvis Costello and he’s gonna be on a Razor scooter, drinking a Jamba Juice and he’s gonna want to show me his abs. [Laughs.] “Check out the abs!” Goddammit! He’s gonna have a Jar Jar Binks baseball cap on. It’s gonna be a nightmare! But yeah, I mean, it’s weird. It’s like, I know where of I bitch, because I have been neck deep in it. I’m financing the existence of things I don’t like. That’s what’s going on.
Can I do a little weird tangent? I did an interview with The A.V. Club a long time ago. I had an album coming out and I’m bitching about this and that and, “This is stupid. This is lame, blah blah blah.” And it got like, 150 comments underneath it and the comments are like, “Yeah, he’s okay. He’s funny.” There’s nothing negative. It’s just like, “Yeah, I’ve seen him. He’s okay.” Then, I was doing my first little film festival at the New Beverly a couple years ago and The A.V. Club said, “Hey, can someone interview you for this film festival?” And I had the worst, the worst, bronchial flu I had ever had. I could barely speak, but I also wanted to promote this because I wanted to help out the New Beverly. I was like, “I’ll do the interview. I’ll talk as long as I’m physically able to, but I have a horrible feeling that, like, 15 minutes into it, my voice will go out.” So I was only able to talk for 15 minutes and then my voice went out and in the 15 minutes, I just praised the eight films I was showing. That’s all I did. I was like, “I love this film because blah blah blah.” There’s like 550 comments under that one and it’s all, “Fuck this! What, these are the best fuckin’ movies? Asshole!” And I realized, oh. It’s because my first interview was all, “This is bullshit and I hate this and this stuff” and the second interview, which is super-short, was just, “I love this. This is great and this is great.” [Laughs.] Nothing creates rage on the Internet like sincerely enjoying something. That drives people up the fuckin’ wall.
AVC: Quick! Hate on something right now!
PO: Oh, yeah. Hey! Fucking... uh... chairs! What the fuck! Really? Oh, that’s what I’m supposed to? What, I can’t just stand? Fuck you, chairs! Whoever made chairs is worse than Hitler.
AVC: Whew, thanks.
PO: Yeah, that’ll balance everything out. [Laughs.]
AVC: You touched on this a minute ago, but there’s been this recent influx of comedy podcasts, and then a show like Louie, which has gotten really kind of insider-y about standup. It seems like there’s this trend of pulling back the curtain on standup and the lives of standups.
PO: Yeah, but you know what? I know that you’re saying it’s very insider-y standup, but stuff like Louie or Marc Maron’s WTF [podcast], they start off by going inside and then they always relate it to something universal that everyone can understand. So just like the best pieces of art, like Network or Broadcast News or Singin’ In The Rain, are ostensibly about this exotic world, they make it so human that even if you’re not in that world, you get it. I get what’s going on. Like, I don’t understand the world of drag queens or seat-of-the-pants bush pilots, but if I watch Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert or Only Angels Have Wings, I get it. Because they make you understand. I don’t understand what it’s like to be a news reporter, but if you watch All The President’s Men, you get it. There’s been plenty of podcasts about comedy and plenty of shows about comedians that fail miserably because they didn’t take it down to a very personal, human level. They tried to just keep it exotic, you know? So I think that’s why stuff like Louie, anyone can watch Louie and understand, “Okay, I get it.” Any white person in the ’70s could watch Richard Pryor when all he’s talking about is being a black person, but you totally understand what he’s talking about, because he makes it so human. So really, you’re like, “Oh shit, I’ve gone through something like that.” Everyone understands it.
AVC: You’ve been talking about doing punch-up on Hollywood scripts for a long time and then that was a plot line on Louie...
PO: I know!
AVC: That used to be something that people outside the industry weren’t really aware of, but it’s becoming much more common knowledge now, in part because of you.
PO: Well, for one thing, it’s because they like to keep that [Whispering] very, very quiet. Again, [Louis C.K.] made it very, very human, because what he did was, if you noticed, all the jokes and stuff that get pitched in that room are stuff that people have probably seen in these awful comedies and never thought twice about. But he shows you, “Oh no, it comes from...” Because you watch these comedies and you go, “Wow, one scene really doesn’t seem to follow the next.” Even if you like the movie, you’re kind of like, “It was just a bunch of...” ’Cause it’s written by committee. And they don’t think about, “What would the character do?” They’re just like, “Okay, in this scene, what can happen?”
I remember I was on this panel at South By Southwest and Thomas Haden Church, he just made Sideways. You could tell he was so happy to be in a really good comedy. Something that wasn’t needy and it was just great. To borrow Conan O’Brien’s term, “It wasn’t needy.” [Laughs.] He said the movie—and this makes me laugh so much—you know the movie George Of The Jungle? Well, he’s in that. So they did an early screening, and one of the notes came back: The first big laugh in the movie comes at like, 17 minutes in when an animal farts. That’s the first time the whole audience laughs. So then he went to the première, because they went back and retooled the movie and he says, “From the get-go, there’s just animals farting in the background for no reason!” [Laughs.] Like, from the beginning, they took the note that, “Well, the audience laughed when the animal farted” and they just throw in farts through the whole movie! Unfortunately, that’s how these guys think.
And by the way, even great directors are not immune to that. I can understand where that comes from. You want laughs! Silence, if you’re doing a comedy, or no reaction when you’re doing some other kind of movie, is really scary. And you want those. Sometimes you get fuckin’ greedy as a comedian. I know from the times when you just don’t know when to let go and you want to jump in over other people. It’s just fear. Fear and greed. Even Spielberg said when he made Jaws, at an early screening, when that fuckin’ shark comes out of the water, when Roy Scheider’s chumming and the audience just goes apeshit? He went back and reshot the scene of Richard Dreyfus going under the boat and that head pops out. He’s like, “I got greedy! I wanted another one!”
AVC: That’s one of the reasons why Louie is so remarkable, because it can go so long without a laugh.
PO: I know. Again, that show is a master class of how to be a confident comedian. That’s really what it is. It’s a master class in, “We can go for a little while and then let this thing go ‘boom.’ We can string people along.” Because it’s never uninteresting. You know what I mean? People mistake no laughs for, “Oh, it’s boring!” No, no. People aren’t laughing because they’re listening. Seeing where this is gonna go. So let this fucking happen!
AVC: But this new awareness on the audiences’ parts about the machinations of comedy, do you think that has the potential to change the way punch-up or standup is executed?
PO: Oh God, I hope so. I really hope so. I think the best thing that came out of the whole alternative scene from the early ’90s is the rebellion that happened from the waves of comedians that came up in the early aughts. A lot of us were very guilty of [Mumbling.] “I don’t know if this works, uh... We gotta work this out. See where this goes!” And just a lot of shoegazing bullshit and a lot of self-indulgent crap. You got this new wave of comedians that are just as innovative as we ever were, but they’re also fucking prepared! They’re putting on a goddamn show! They come up there and they actually revel in writing jokes and taking this very basic form and doing something new with the content. Whereas we felt, “We could change the form of this!” No, the form is fine! Why don’t you inject it with some startling content?
I just saw Book Of Mormon and we all went out for drinks afterward, and I was talking to Bobby Lopez, who is the lyricist. He’s like, “This song is this old Broadway trope and this song is that old Broadway trope. We just took that delivery system and had it say shit you never would imagine you would hear being said on Broadway, and that’s what’s so fuckin’ shocking.” They weren’t up there going, “We did it. We fucked with the whole...” No! They literally did a Broadway show you would see in the ’50s! The opening is basically the “Hiya Hugo” thing from Bye Bye Birdie. He’s like, “Yeah! We fucked with it!” I love that! I’m so much more about content rather than form. And I think people get so hung up on form. “I’m gonna change the form, man!” “Yeah, but you don’t know how the form works yet.” So a lot of alt comedians coming up hadn’t learned how to write fucking jokes. And I think a lot of the younger comedians that started after us saw the dead end that went down and they went back and said, “I’m gonna learn how to write fuckin’ jokes.” And now, that’s why I think the wave that’s coming up now is just ridiculous. There’s so much talent! Especially as the guy who just wants to keep consuming film and TV, I’m facing a very good future.
AVC: We recently interviewed Kyle Kinane, whom you introduced to a lot of people by bringing him out on tour with you. What do you look for in young comics, and is there anybody that you’re really into right now?
PO: Oh boy, the main thing to look for in young comics is, “Do you like doing standup?” And there’s a lot of young comics, they’re funny, but they’re clearly looking to get out. Like, “This better lead to some goddamn acting and movies so I don’t have to do this shit anymore.” I don’t know what it is, maybe because I’ve been doing it so long, you can always smell that. People that I like right now? People who I have open for me a lot. I mean, Kyle, but Kyle’s at the point where he should be headlining. I can’t ask him to open for me. Myq Kaplan is pretty amazing. This kid Joe Mande. I don’t know if you follow him on Twitter. Joe Mande’s good. This guy, Dan Telfer, who’s also from Chicago. Oh, Joe DeRosa, who you saw on Louie. He was Ethan, the asshole that kept shooting everything down. [Laughs.] And again, that totally links back to what I was talking about. All he’s doing is sitting there, “Well, this is bullshit.” “Well, what’s your change?” “Well, I don’t have one.” Well then, you’re not helping! Unless you can make it better, you can’t bitch about it!
Again, I always think you can learn from younger people. I don’t subscribe to that whole, “Well, I’m at a point of mastery right now.” I just don’t believe in that idea of, “I am now at this point.” No, always think of yourself as learning. And he was one of the guys that made me go deeper in my comedy in that he’ll go onstage and just righteously bitch about stuff. He’s an angry motherfucker! And he’s very sour. But very funny. But after bitching about it, he then would point out what an asshole he is for bitching about it. “You realize that the reason I’m so funny about this is because I’m kind of an asshole. The fact that I’m so angry about this.” And it’s really startling to see a comedian do that and get bigger laughs from doing that. He’d just do the whole thing about yelling at a guy at Best Buy, then realizing, “Wait a minute. I’m yelling at a guy who works at Best Buy. I’m such an asshole.” [Laughs.] I can’t do it justice, but it’s really funny.
Then also, people like... Oh God! It’s going a little bit beyond standup for me right now. The other people that are coming up are people like James Adomian and Andy Daly and Eddie Pepitone, who are basically finding a career on podcasts. Doing these really deep, rich characters. Just seemingly effortlessly. Same with Seth Morris. His character spun off into a fuckin’ podcast. And then also, people on Twitter. And I know that sounds so lame, but there are some really amazing minds working on Twitter right now. I mean, there’s real people like Megan Amram and Shelby Fero and JennyJohnsonHi5. The age range and the experience range is so different. You know, Shelby just started college; Megan, who graduated college is now working in L.A.; Jenny is a stepmom of two and is a news producer from Houston, and all have similarly fucked-up worldviews and really great writing. Just really great writing. And then you have people who are doing these characters on Twitter who are really consistent and brilliant.
AVC: It’s interesting, you were talking about comedians back in the alt-comedy days trying to blow up the form, but Twitter really has blown up the form. It’s very specifically its own form of comedy.
PO: Oh, yeah. It’s as restrictive as haiku, and because of it, I think it frees people up.
AVC: It’s frustrating when people think Twitter is just about rambling about whatever comes to your head and saying what you’re eating, because it can be a really great exercise in writing and editing.
PO: Oh God. Hey, believe me, the people that do Twitter as, “Eh, whatever comes to my head,” they don’t last very long. But people like Shelby Fero or even deeper—DadBoner, PeanutFreeMom, and teendad13—that are doing these brilliantly. Like, the typos in teendad’s Twitter, he must agonize over those the way that Joyce agonized over Finnegan’s Wake. Like, “How exactly am I going to write ‘a peal of thunder?’” It’s so fuckin’ brilliant.
AVC: The last time we talked, you were just starting your run on Caprica and you were working on The United States Of Tara and you were excited about working regularly in series television. Have the fates of those shows, and then Dollhouse as well, soured the experience for you at all? Or is it just part of the cycle? Because obviously, you had success on King Of Queens before that.
PO: Those were shows that I was very lucky to get involved in, three shows that the creators had a very, very specific vision for and went for it, often times to the detriment of the ratings. And I knew what they had planned for the second season of Caprica. They were taking a long view with that show. They had really amazing stuff, but he really saw it as, “I don’t want to rush it because I need to lay all this stuff. This is all very important to me.” They weren’t just making shit up as they went along. And same with Tara. If anything, they were excited that they wrote themselves purposely into a corner at the end of season three, like, “Well, it’s over, right?” But they wanted to see, “What new directions do we take this in?” They wanted to make it as hard as they possibly could on themselves were they given a fourth season. You saw how things were clicking so hard in the third season with the stuff they were doing, especially after the second season, which I thought sort of spun its wheels a little bit, sometimes.
And same with Dollhouse. Although, I think Dollhouse, the problem with that had more to do with—I don’t know what networks’ problems are with Joss Whedon, they just fuck with his goddamn shows. They fuck with his shows. He maps up his amazing universe, and they put them on out of order. What the fuck does he have to do before somebody trusts him? Dollhouse was amazing and was going to be even more amazing if they just fucking leave him alone! I’m sorry, I don’t wanna get into that. Oh, I can’t wait for the commenters: “Oh, just another Joss Whedon defender. The big, bad fuckin’ network crushing a genius!” But honestly, there’s objective evidence that that’s the case. This isn’t my opinion anymore. You can look at every one of those shows! They get fucked with!
AVC: And now you’re working on a new show, The Heart, She Holler, for Adult Swim, right? What can you tell us about it?
PO: I’m gonna say this: The creators [PFFR, creators of Wonder Showzen] should get interviewed about this thing, because they have a much deeper vision for it. Think of the worst Williamsburg hipster douchebag, then think of what that person thinks the South is. And that’s what the show is. It’s what someone who would never set foot in the South thinks the South is. Like, try to imagine if Abel Ferrara made Hee Haw.
AVC: I can’t imagine that, but okay.
PO: Well, you’re about to. You’re about to get to see it and judge it for yourself.
AVC: It seems like right now, Adult Swim seems like a really nurturing environment for comedy, with stuff like Childrens Hospital and NTSF:SD:SUV, versus Comedy Central, which is kind of known for pulling the plug on shows without letting them prove themselves.
PO: Yeah. Also, I think Comedy Central, in a weird way, are slaves to what I seem to think is a false demographic. Where they think their demographic is now MTV2’s demographic. Whereas everything that’s ever been successful for them has appealed to either adults or really, really smart teens. It’s the Beavis And Butt-Head conundrum, where MTV put that on and it was insanely popular, it said, “Oh, it’s just about these dumb kids, so we’ve got to appeal to dumb kids.” Like, no, no. The people who like Beavis And Butt-Head are the smart kids and the smart adults who understand the satire that’s going on. A lot of dumb kids didn’t like Beavis And Butt-Head. They didn’t quite get what was going on. So I think Comedy Central doesn’t quite understand that right now. At least they’re trying. The last massive success they had was with Dave Chappelle, which was a show that they kind of quietly left alone for a couple of seasons, and I don’t think they’ve quite done that yet with a new show. Or maybe they’re just going through some growing pains. But they are putting stuff out there. Then it doesn’t stick. It’s frustrating.
AVC: They’re also competing against other networks doing kind of the same thing, like Adult Swim, and FX is doing some pretty forward-thinking comedy right now.
PO: Yeah. I mean, Comedy Central did sort of set the bar pretty high. Like for news commentary with The Daily Show and Colbert Report and for satire with South Park, and other people took that and ran with it. So I think maybe their next card is to figure out what their identity is in the wake of that. It’s sort of like the way MAD magazine was so radical in the ’50s and ’60s, then people who grew up on that began making TV shows and movies that were just as winking and self-knowing as MAD, then MAD had a hard time doing satire as well as they used to for a while.
PO: Yeah, I don’t know what the fuck was going on with that. I think I stupidly assumed that, “Hey, we’re in this way closed to YouTube culture, there can’t be people left that don’t know if you do something in public that’s being filmed and you’re stealing something, it’s clearly gonna get back to people.” … But when you do see your stuff getting stolen, even if it’s on a very small scale, it really is this kind of hurtful, sort of scary thing. And I was gonna be silent, especially about the guy out in the Midwest who was doing my material. I was like, “I don’t wanna get involved in this shit.” Cause I saw how it boomeranged back on some of my other friends when they had tried to point out when things got stolen. But when my silence started, I started seeing comments in articles like, “Well, this guy says he wrote this for Patton and Patton’s not saying anything, so maybe he did.” It’s like, “What?!” Like, my silence was creating more suspicion and was hurting me.
So, I just said, “Okay, I’m just gonna kill this fly with a fuckin’ bazooka. I just want this over with.” And then, the Columbia thing, cause it happened so soon after the guy in the Midwest, that was also something I just did not want to deal with. And then I get a call from David Itzkoff from the New York Times and he’s wanting comment. Again, if I say, “No comment,” it’s gonna end up looking bad on me. Why is all the pressure on me all of a sudden? I didn’t do anything wrong here! So I just said, “Yeah, this fucking kid stole my stuff.” I was really torn about that, too. ’Cause on the one hand, I kept thinking, “Well, maybe this kid really is just a scumbag and maybe he shouldn’t be a valedictorian” and then the other part of me thought, “Maybe the reason he’s a valedictorian is because he didn’t waste his four years of college looking at YouTube the way I do all day and really doesn’t understand that world because he’s studying. Maybe the fact that he took my thing is proof that he actually doesn’t understand how the Internet works because he’s not wasting his time on the Internet and is actually a really good student.” Does that make sense? I know that sounds really twisted, because other people pointed out to me, “Well, there’s other people that he quoted. He quoted them but he didn’t quote you.” I was like, “Yeah, but I wouldn’t take that personally.”
There’s so much of the general public and even the so-called intelligentsia that don’t understand how comedy works. They think it’s a God-given right that everyone should be funny. But actually, just like with athletic talent or mathematical talent or scientific talent, it’s actually a small percent of the population that truly has it and people just cannot grasp the idea that there are people that just make funny stuff up from nowhere. So if they see people doing it, they just go, “They must get it out of books somewhere. There’s no way that someone can just make stuff like that up.” To this day, when I do interviews, people go, “So, do people write your stuff? Do you hire people?” They just cannot get it through their heads, “No, no. Comedians, they come up with this stuff themselves. They really do!” [Laughs.] There was a syndicated columnist. A very intelligent guy, Mike Barnicle. Some of his whole columns he took unchanged from George Carlin routines. Then other columnists would defend him saying, “Well, Carlin didn’t write that stuff. He’s a comedian. They’re jokes!”
AVC: It comes out of a joke book!
PO: Yeah, there’s no way! A person can’t write that! It’s 2011 and people still don’t understand that that’s how it works.
AVC: It’s funny, because the Internet likely played a hand in people coming across your work in the first place, but it also was how you and the rest of the world found out what they did. The Internet can foster so much creativity, but then it provides these shortcuts for those who aren’t willing to do their own work. It reminds me of what you wrote for Wired about the death of geek culture, how having everything at your fingertips kind of keeps you from having to do the work, whether it’s playing through a videogame without cheat codes or writing a graduation speech.
PO: [Laughs.] Yeah. Although, I don’t like being like, “Well, society’s over!” I mean, Socrates thought that society was over when they mankind invented writing … Definitely the search aspect of things has been truncated and I think that a lot of creativity comes during the search. In other words, when you’re going to look for the thing that you’re so obsessed with, you tend to go down little byways and alleyways and meet interesting people in looking for the object of your desire. But when it’s just a click away, that search, with all of its kind of attendant adventures and mishaps and dead ends and frustrations, that’s gone. And there’s a lot of creativity to be found in that search. And I think people are wistful for it, because the road trip movie is still very, very popular. The idea of being stranded and having your transportation options limited is still clearly romantic and appealing to people. Whereas in reality, with cell phones and all these geosynchronous map functions on everybody’s iPhone, it’s more of a chore to get lost than 10 years ago it was a chore to get yourself oriented.
There’s a very smart, but also kind of sad moment in the new Fright Night movie where the hero needs to go break into the vampire’s house to look around, and he just goes on his iPhone and gets a “How to pick a lock” app, which is very, very realistic. I mean, it was smart enough that they worked that into the movie, but you know, 10 years ago, you would have to find a shady character in the neighborhood or go down that road to find someone to teach him how to pick a lock. Which would be interesting. And now, that’s not part of it. And I would actually applaud the movie for embracing, “Well, no. Kids don’t do that anymore.” You can vaguely type a sentence of what you want into a computer and you can probably find what you need now. You don’t even need to be articulate.
AVC: You don’t even need to know what you want, exactly.
PO: Yeah. Just write, “Steampunk, boob, ninja,” and you’ll probably get what you’re looking for. I remember five years ago, I guess I just wanted to know—in movies, people are always stealing bearer bonds. A real thief doesn’t steal money, they steal bearer bonds. Which is, I guess, a shorthand way of a movie trying to tell you that [Whispering.] “We’ve done our research. We really know what the world is about.” So I was talking to an account manager saying, “Hey, how do bearer bonds work?” And so this person was explaining what they represent. And I go, “So why do people steal them in movies?” And this person went, “I don’t know because there haven’t been bearer bonds in 20 years.” A young accountant today wouldn’t know a bearer bond if they looked at it. Everything is electronic. And this person went off on this kind of interesting tangent about, “I think it makes movies sound smart when they say they’re stealing bearer bonds, but the one movie that’s actually been weirdly realistic about how heists work now is that bad movie called Swordfish, where they just go make some computer geek break in and steal stuff. Real, professional thieves don’t actually break into banks, they break into computer systems, ’cause that’s where all the money is.” And it was really interesting to hear that. Like, “Okay, someone’s gotta figure out how to make that interesting.” Cause that’s the new reality.
But, again, in that search, because I wasn’t that computer-literate, my first thought was, “Well, I should call someone up and see if they will go to lunch with me for an hour and talk to me.” So that was kind of interesting.
AVC: Since we last talked to you, you’ve had two big career firsts: Your first starring film role, Big Fan, and then your first book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. How do you look back on those projects?
PO: Well, what I kinda realized was, I don’t want to be—It’s like what I was talking about with a lot of the New York comedians that I really like. The thing I like about the New York scene is that it’s not your job to reflect too long on what it is you’re doing. It’s to do more and more stuff. So I tried to not get too involved into over-thinking “starring in a movie.” It was like, “I’m here and I want to be a professional actor. I don’t want to be a star. I don’t want to go and talk about my body of work all the time. I want to just keep doing movies and meeting new people and going new places.” And then at the end of my life, I’ll have these really cool experiences. It’s gotta be so annoying if you’re somebody like, let’s say you’re an Al Pacino and you’re constantly being given these lifetime-achievement awards and career retrospectives. I really just like getting up in the morning, having my coffee, reading the script, figuring out how I’m going to say something new. That’s what’s fun. Same with writing. I did the book, I’m gonna do another one, and in between doing the book, I’m writing articles here and there for Lapham’s Quarterly and Spin. I like writing things. I like the process of writing and figuring out what I think as the words are kind of tumbling on the paper. You know, someone else can organize all that stuff after I’m gone. But I’m not looking to organize an anthology of all of my past magazine writing. I just want to work on the next book and see what that is. And I’m shooting a movie right now in New York, I’m starring in another movie.
Also, when I did the play [Lips Together, Teeth Apart] in New York, for the [Laughing.] two weeks I did it before it all fell apart, everything to me, good or bad, is an experience. I just want to have more experiences. I don’t look back at my old albums. I don’t organize or collate or try to rethink them. They’re up on my website, people can buy ’em, but I’m not thinking of them anymore because I’m trying to get back up onstage and write new material. In the past year, especially, I just want a steady pace. I want to write a little bit everyday, I want to be open to any acting opportunity. I think I said this before in that response I wrote to David Cross, which is, “I’m really in this for two things: I want the money and I want the anecdotes.” I certainly want to keep working, but I also just want really cool stories. So, to me, working on an excellent film like Big Fan or working on a disaster like Blade: Trinity are just as equally valuable to me in my life because I’ve got great stories to tell about each one.
It took me until my 40s to realize it: There’s no destination. There’s no getting anywhere. There’s just the going. The key to life is to make the going really fun. Because people that are like, “If I just get to this, then boom!” And then they get there and there’s this dawning of an afterwards. Whereas I’m just always in the going. And it’s not a frantic going like, “I gotta keep going or I’m gonna go nuts!” I can not do anything for weeks or months if I need to and just sit and read books or watch movies. I’m just as fine consuming and absorbing new art as I am trying to make it. But it’s all in the going.