Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Patton Oswalt on politics, aging, and knowing when to get out of the way

In 2016, Patton Oswalt went through one of the worst situations anyone can find themselves in: The unexpected death of Michelle McNamara, his wife and mother to their daughter, Alice. Oswalt grieved both privately and publicly, the latter most notably in the aptly titled Netflix special Patton Oswalt: Annihilation. Somewhere around the taping and release of Annihilation, though, Oswalt found love again, with actor and voice artist Meredith Salenger. Soldiering on, he continued to work on beloved shows like A.P. Bio, An Emmy For Megan, and Veronica Mars; in films like The Secret Life Of Pets 2; and as a sort of orchestrator for the release of McNamara’s book about the Golden State Killer, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark.

Now, Oswalt is back with a new Netflix special, Patton Oswalt: I Love Everything, which—as you can tell from its title alone—has a slightly different tone than its predecessor. In it, the comedian dives into his thoughts on turning 50, his feelings about comedy in the age of Trump, and even a little spat he had with Salenger. It’s both light and dark, wry and spry, and it’s quintessentially Oswalt.

The A.V. Club talked to Oswalt about the special, the futility of doing Trump material, and the unlikely resurrection of A.P. Bio.

The A.V. Club: We’re about two months into stay-at-home orders here in L.A., and at the beginning of this whole thing, you did a very funny video about doing stand-up in your yard. Now that we’re deeper into it, do you have perspective on how quarantine has affected the comedy community? Obviously, no one can tour. No one can play local shows.

Patton Oswalt: It’s very, very frustrating. And I don’t like predicting things, because it’s always such a crapshoot.

I can say for sure that a lot of mid-level comedians who haven’t quote-unquote “broken” yet and that were still kind of depending on the road—not just for money, but for the experience and the seasoning and stuff—are really, really missing that. It’ll be interesting to see which comedians adapt and survive, much like in the late ’80s when the comedy club scene completely collapsed, and then you had the rise of alt-comedy and things like that. But this is a much more profound collapse because even though there was a collapse of the club scene and alt-comedy rose, alt-comedy was still comedians in front of people connecting with them in that form. Now the form itself has changed unilaterally for everyone that does it.

I am humble enough to admit that I can’t see how comedy will work without an audience or without live human beings in front of you. Maybe there’s a solution that I’m not seeing that a younger and much smarter generation that is more used to these kinds of setups will be able to see and exploit, and make live and make pop. But right now, if comedy can’t be a live event, I don’t know what the alternative is.

You’ve seen these monologists doing their home stuff—Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers. They’re adapting as best they can, but there’s just something missing there. And I’m saying that about people that are really, really good at this. There is something missing.

Maybe someone will create technology where everyone sitting at home with headphones can hear the other people laughing at what the guy is saying, and he can also hear what the audience is doing. But there has to be the give and take, because that’s what makes every live comedy performance unique. Every audience is its own, specific sentient being in that moment. It can suddenly change what the performer, what he or she does. That’s what makes it so exciting to go see. Right now, I don’t know how anyone recreates it over [video call].

AVC: Well, people are trying. I’ve been watching drag shows online, and I know they’ve streamed stand-up shows, and UCB did ASSSSCAT! via stream. 

PO: Yeah, but I heard early on, people rushed out to put together open mic nights and performances, and they were just disasters. There was a lot of glitchiness. Zoom and Instagram Live are very susceptible to trolls coming on. I think Maria Bamford got shut down by some so that’s actually a huge disadvantage. At least in a comedy club, if someone is heckling or being an asshole, they’re right there. Now, suddenly you’re trying to re-create the comedy club, and you’re giving the worst elements of the audience complete anonymity to do whatever they want.

So, there was that initial “this isn’t really working.” Even when vaudeville transitioned to TV, they still brought an audience into the TV studio—this is the first time where you cannot bring a live audience into something.

AVC: They did a live audience for Weekend Update on the first SNL At Home.

PO: How?!

AVC: It was a little unclear. It was just disembodied laughs, and I don’t think it worked. They’ve stopped doing it since. It just felt suspect. Like, are these friends? Other writers? Who are these weird voices laughing?

PO: Especially now, Gen Z and the millennials coming up are—way more than our generation—very suspect about anything that they see on the internet. Weirdly enough, because everyone talks about how, “Oh, Gen Z and millennials are so gullible.” It’s actually the boomers and the Gen Xers that are the most gullible. It’s the kids who grew up with it that actually have the one-step distance and the, “Hang on, wait a minute. Let’s make sure this isn’t a deepfake or something taken out of context.” I see way more savvy and skepticism from younger people in terms of what they see on the internet, as opposed to us, where we tend to run with things. I’ve been very guilty of grabbing something out of context or getting whipped up by what I saw online, and now I’ve instituted a 24-hour waiting policy on anything that I react to.

AVC: A few bigger music venues have shut down, like Great Scott in Boston. The Troubadour is struggling. I’m wondering how comedy venues will fare, because while restaurants can do takeout, you’ve got to think that no one is ordering takeout from Zanies. No one is like, “Ooh, I miss those chicken fingers.”

PO: I’ve also been very worried about a lot of these comic book stores, because they’re all little independent operators. The fact that an institution like Forbidden Planet in New York City is hanging on by its fingernails shows you how precarious it all is. I’ve bought gift certificates to a lot of different stores, like, trying to recreate financially what a Wednesday feels like, when people come in and dump money. I’m doing little cash mob things, but I don’t know how that works. Is there going to be a transition over to digital, or I hear they are going to try to start operating the store in some respect again on May 20? I don’t know.

Everything is so precarious. I think a lot of us are flashing back to, and I can’t remember the guy’s name—and I feel bad for him, because he’s a very smart guy… who wrote that now infamous essay, I think in 1995 about how e-commerce is not going to take hold? [The author is Clifford Stoll—you can read the essay at this link.—Ed.] That it’s not going to replace going into a store and actually holding a record or vinyl. He wrote this very big manifesto at the dawn of the internet. Like, right before eBay, right before Amazon, right before they all really clicked, and now they almost celebrate the anniversary of this terrible prediction. To his credit, he owns it. I forget who this guy is. But anyway, I think a lot of us now are so gun shy about making pronouncements. We’re not even really two months into the stay-at-home yet. So two months in feels very premature to roll the dice on predicting a model of the future.

Also, I think a lot of us are worried about if someone makes a prediction or does a forecast, and enough people start running with it and repeating it, then that just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it sinks into people’s heads like, “No, we don’t need to reopen these things,” and then it just never happens again. I think that’s being shown in the forceful, premature, “We are reopening the cruise lines! Cruises are going!,” because they know that no one wants to do it anymore. So it’s almost like they think if they hammer it enough into the public’s head, then cruises will just exist again. It’s almost like they’re trying to preempt everyone going, “No, I don’t want to be on a ship where I’m eating on a buffet every night.” There could not be more negatives to going on a cruise during the time of COVID-19. Which is why they’re hammering people. “The cruises are going to start again! We are going to start.” [Laughs.] Guys? What are you doing?

AVC: If you offered me a free cruise, with free flights, all expenses paid, drinks, whatever, I’m still not getting on a Carnival Cruise out of Galveston, Texas right now.

PO: Yeah. It’s like, guys, that’s just not going to happen anymore. I don’t even know if buffets are going to happen, let alone cruises. I’m reading essays by people in the business community that are writing, “We don’t think buffets will ever come back.” It’ll be a thing like when you watch movies from the ’80s, and there’s a smoking and nonsmoking section on a plane. You’ll watch movies where people are at buffets and go, “Oh yeah, people used to do that. They used to just lay food out, and everyone would just lean over it and scoop.”

Just like with everything, there’s going to be things that, when we come out of this, will no longer be. We’ll look back on in pop culture and go, “Oh, that’s… Okay. Yeah. That’s right.” “Weird Al” Yankovic posted that really funny video of him and his family watching some movie with The Rock, and The Rock and this other guy shake hands in a big way, and he recorded this video of him going, “Aah!” They’re all screaming at the handshaking. So that’s going to be fascinating to see.

AVC: I think that when I go into Target, and there’s just people browsing, touching stuff. People digging for stuff at T.J. Maxx, which I used to love.

PO: Exactly. And look, I love Ross. I love T.J. Maxx. There’s nothing wrong with that stuff, man. I love thrift stores, and I love going to Goodwill. And now I’m like, are those going to exist? Are people going to go do that? I hope so.

AVC: Well, out of necessity for a lot of people, surely.

PO: But is this going to get in the way of a lot of the reusing and recycling of things because people are going to be so paranoid about anything that’s been used before? They’re just going to toss and burn and trash everything.

AVC: I suppose this kind of relates, but your special is about, in part, coming to terms with being 50, finding love again, and gradually sliding into “old man racism.” Does it feel like a different sort of special in terms of vibe for you in any sense?

PO: The last special was about absolute grief, and—you know, the title, Annihilation—and do I even go on? I ended on the shakiest sliver of hope. And so this one, it felt almost like a resurging of the life force. And for a comedian, what the resurging of the life force looks like is that I’m just going to be as goofy as I possibly can and actually enjoy stuff, and not get that dark and deep. Though there is some darkness and deepness in it, because you can’t help it these days.

There’s a beauty in, as you age, getting the fuck out of the way. You’ve got to get the fuck out of the way. The generation before the baby boomers, there was a certain beauty in that they were raised with the idea that you do your job, you revel in your youth. And then, as you get older, they were able to die with some dignity, but also, you got out of the way for the next generation. And then the boomers are the exact opposite of that. They say, “We are not getting out of the way. It’s got to end with us.” They hate anyone behind them. All those dumb memes about avocado toast. They cannot stand the fact that they’re older. They’re white-knuckling their youth, and it’s causing so many problems. A generation unwilling to get out of the way is what gums up the works.

Gen X, fortunately, we have “whatever, never mind.” I think we’re a little better equipped to go, “okay, I’m grayer, I’m older. I don’t need to be the hip person anymore. I will get out of the way and let whatever the next thing is come up.”

A lot of that holding on can also come from people that don’t live good youths, either because of forces beyond their control, or because of crappy choices that they make. And then you can literally see them resenting twentysomethings coming up that are maybe a little more put together or that are enjoying their youths. So they want to quash that.

Baby boomers and some Gen Xers are all about, “These kids need to have promise rings, and stop sleeping around so much, and using so many drugs.” Oh, you mean like you did, like you can’t anymore? And you resent people being able to do that? So the only joy you have left is to stop them doing that.

So in a very subtle way—I don’t lay it out this way in the special, but there’s an undercurrent of “revel in your time, you don’t get to be the young, up-and-coming thing forever.” Get the hell out of the way, and let the next wave come up. Have some grace. Bow out gracefully. There’s some story, I think it was about Pete Townshend and John Entwistle talking in the early ’80s. The Who were always on the vanguard, and then suddenly, punk and hip-hop starts to come up. Entwistle was talking to Pete Townshend, and he says, “I don’t get this hip-hop.” And Pete said, “It’s not our job to get it. It’s our job to get out of the way and let them do it.” We had our time, let them have their time.

I think a lot of the problems that we’re experiencing right now are because there’s a generation, and I don’t want to lay it all on the boomers—there are many, many self-actualized and self-aware boomers that are very cool about getting out of the way—but there’s a very vocal contingent that do not like the fact that they are heading into their 60s and 70s, and they will do anything to end the world with them. I think that that’s a lot of the undercurrent of this—I don’t even want to call it a Republican death cult. I think it’s a generational death cult where they were the first generation that was all about being young and being cool, and if they can’t be the young and cool ones anymore, they’ll just take everything out. And I think that Trump was just a symptom of that temper tantrum for them. Which, you know, it’s easy to make jokes about for a couple of minutes, and then it just gets really depressing.

I talk about that, too. I don’t really have any Trump material in this special, because having Trump as the president is terrible for a comedian. You’re not needed. If he’s the president, the public doesn’t need you coming in, “You want to hear a joke I wrote about this?” Nah, we’re good. We can see it. We’re just watching it.

AVC: There was also a point, too, when it might have been funny, but it’s just not funny anymore.

PO: No, it’s not. And I don’t even think it’s funny for his followers, because early on, I think it was really fun, and there was a lot of joy, and a lot of almost punk rock prankish energy to what they were doing. And now, their smiles are like death rictuses. They’re all like, “Look at the fun we’re having! We’re owning the libs!” And they’re saying it as they’re dying. There’s a Masque Of The Red Death feel to it now, where even they can’t hide the fact that they’re just not having fun or that it’s scary and sad for them.

AVC: They’ve really whittled it down, too. The White House staff used to feel robust-ish, and now it’s like, “Now, we’ve got like the core eight, and that’s it. No one else!”

PO: I’ve also seen that in the past in certain comedy scenes that I was in, and other social scenes, where a lot of times, if a social group gets together because they’re ostracizing and shutting out other people, that’s what adheres it. Once they’re done shutting out everyone that’s not their core group, the energy is still there that they need to keep shutting people out. So then they just turn on each other, and the group dissolves.

You saw it with Andy Warhol’s Factory, and any kind of cultural zeitgeist grouping that is—how do I put it? Like, no one bullies harder than the formerly bullied. Nobody ostracizes harder than the formally ostracized. If that’s the energy, then eventually, the group turns on each other. So I think the Trump core now is at the, “We’ve shut out everyone else, and all we’ve got is each other.” And they’re going to celebrate that for a little bit, and then they’re just going to start turning on each other, because that’s the energy that drives them, and that doesn’t sustain any kind of group.

AVC: Your Twitter is fairly political. I’m not sure how to phrase this, but do you think comedy can change minds? I have to imagine at this point, most of your followers are people that think the same way you do.

PO: Well, but then there’s a lot of my followers that—some of them are bot accounts, but some of them are, “I’m following this guy because I hate him, and I’ve got to let him know.” Again, there’s that energy.

It’s not that I think that comedy can change minds. I think that art can change minds, whatever it is. A song, a moment in a movie. I’m sure you’ve experienced it, too. Something you’ve read, something you’ve heard, something you’ve looked at has changed the way you look at the world. I don’t mean you hear a song, and you suddenly go, “We’ve got to save the environment.” Even the tiniest change in your behavior sends out a ripple effect into the universe, and into the world that you live in. So yes, by definition, any kind of art can change people’s minds.

Obviously I don’t think retweeting a picture or a thought is going to completely turn everything around. But it’ll create a little effect, and the cumulative effect of it is what does it. I’ve seen that in just my own experience. The first time I went onstage as a comedian didn’t change the world, but I got a tiny half-laugh. And the next time, I got a slightly bigger one. So it’s all incremental, and it happens over a long time. And then suddenly, everything has changed because you kept showing up and doing it. Even if you see the tiniest little shift, if you’ve lived long enough, you know what that shift can turn into. It’s very, very important.

AVC: That’s a good way to put it.

PO: It’s also really interesting how you talk about Trump’s base, and the MAGA core. You can really see how things are changing for them in terms of joy and happiness because of what they’re reacting to now. It used to be that someone would go, “Trump is a terrible president. He sucks.” They would go, “AHHHHHH! Shut up.” But now, it’s that George W. Bush put out a video calling for unity, and the Trumpers are attacking him, even though he didn’t even mention Trump in the video. He was just saying, “Let’s all come together and try to help this.” But the idea of saying, “Let’s come together and have unity,” they perceive that as an attack, which shows you where they are in terms of the arc of their misery.

A friend of mine participated in a video—this is a couple of years ago—that was anti-hate. It had nothing to do with Trump. There were Republicans and Democrats in it. It was all anti-hate. But he got swarmed on his social media. People were like, “Why do you hate Trump so much?” He’s like, “It was just an anti-hate PSA that I did a little thing on.” But that’s how they perceived it. So it’s a huge tell as to how they’re reacting to things, as much as what they react to.

AVC: You talk about sex quite a bit in the new special. It feels like maybe even more than in past specials. Do you think that’s true?

PO: I don’t know. In my past specials, I’ve talked about orgies and porn.

I don’t talk about it in a, “Men are like this about sex, and women are like this about sex.” [Harumphs.] I’m trying to do a bit more of a bemused you know. Again, as you get older, and you look back on how you were, in all aspects—socially, philosophically, and sexually when you were younger—when you look back on it all when you’re older, there’s so much comedy to be mined from that. Like, oh my god, if I could sit down with the person I was, I’d have to stop myself from slapping this idiot half the time. So maybe if there’s more sexuality there, maybe that’s why? But I’ve never been fascinated with sex as a comedic topic. I’m fascinated with whatever I can make funny.

But this is the other thing I love when I put out a piece of work. There’s stuff that people will notice about it that maybe you didn’t notice. So, shoot, I’ve got to watch that again. Maybe there is more sex in it than there used to be in my stuff. Again, maybe I’m changing in ways that I didn’t see, which, I love that.

AVC: You have a bit in the special about an argument that you had with your wife. Have you set boundaries for what from your home life you can talk about in stand-up and what you can’t? Which conversations and which arguments are off-limits? 

PO: Well, yeah, but that was something that I had talked about with Meredith, obviously.

I don’t want to be Howard Stern and talk about absolutely everything that’s going in my life, but the argument that we’re talking about is a very specific argument, and there’s a very specific denouement to the argument that we had, and I think it was illustrative. It wasn’t so much that I was revealing anything about us. I think it’s more illustrative of how people’s good intentions can end up going the wrong way, and there’s something kind of beautiful about it.

It’s ultimately a very, very sweet story. I can’t even remember now what the argument was about. Literally. It’s one of those things where I know we had a big blowout argument. I know that it ended with me going on a hike. And then, the way that we fixed it made it more—it was like that bit I did about my daughter seeing that moment from that movie The Wolf Man that was so scary. And then, me thinking, “Oh my god. She’s scarred for life.” And then, in trying to fix it, I made things 10 times worse. The best comedy is always people thinking “I’m going to try to help.” And then their helping makes things so much worse than it needed to be.

AVC: HBO recently announced an I’ll Be Gone In The Dark miniseries, based on the book your late wife was working on that you helped finish. What’s been the rollercoaster of working on that book, response to the book, making the movie—the whole thing?

PO: That is such a good way to put it. It is a rollercoaster. Obviously, I don’t want to dwell on that horrible, dark part of my life and of Alice’s life. And of Michelle’s family’s life. But there was some real deep and intense work that she did, in terms of benefitting the victims of these crimes, and just a bigger sense of justice in the universe. So I didn’t want the book to be left undone. And I also didn’t want there to be this untold story of the effect of him being captured for the victims and for the families.

When Liz Garbus approached me about how we would structure the movie, which is about Michelle’s life and passing, and then the aftermath of it all, it was hard for me to say no. I’m an exec producer on it. I helped gather as many materials as I could, and put together as many interviews as I could. But it was Liz that did the bulk of the work. Just like with the book, there was only so much I could do, because I was so emotionally attached. I couldn’t have physically or emotionally gotten through it, which is why Billy Jensen and Paul Haynes were able to step up. So people would say, “Oh, you finished Michelle’s book” and I would say “no, I handed the materials over to two geniuses and begged them to help bring it home, and they did.” And it’s just like with this documentary.

Liz Garbus, just the level that she operates on as a documentarian and as a filmmaker is—it’s kind of humbling to watch what she was able to put together. And it’s something that I never could have done. I am a tiny element of this much bigger story when you see the documentary. So that was my thinking about it. It’s for her legacy, and for these women that survived this absolute evil insect of a person.

I’ve met some of the survivors and some of the victims at book events and stuff, and it’s so humbling to see that. It’s amazing. So I didn’t want their stories to kind of fall into silence or fall into the overall chatter that’s going on. I wanted to give it all a longer, more somber, more thoughtful portrait.

AVC: Speaking of another rollercoaster: A.P. Bio went away, and then was reborn. What was happening behind the scenes? And then what did you hear? Is everything shot? Are you guys on schedule?

PO: Yeah. We shot what we wanted to shoot.

Basically, we did the first two seasons, and Mike O’Brien is such a unique mind. And Glenn Howerton is one of the producers on the show, and he also has a very, very unique perspective and approach to how comedy and how characters should be done. It’s just unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And so we got through the first two seasons and I know they had plans for a third.

Part of me understands it wasn’t getting good TV ratings. But the streaming ratings, the views on Hulu and stuff were through the roof. It was one of those things where I think there’s a shift going on in how things are seen. Just like when Brooklyn Nine-Nine got saved, I didn’t want this vision to fizzle out this early when Mike didn’t get a chance to build the world that I know he wants to build.

All of the cast members, including me, just took to Twitter and—it was this very sincere. Please, let us keep doing this and finish this, because there are storylines and scripts that we’ve seen that we really want to bring out in the world.

I don’t even think it was the overall numbers on social media. I think it was the sincerity of it. There wasn’t any trying to be clever or snarky about it. It was flat-out, “Hey, we really like this show. We really like doing it, and we want to keep doing it. Please give us a chance.” And to NBC’s credit, they stepped up and found a way.

AVC: Everyone kind of makes fun of, like, “Oh, there’s 90,000 different things you need to watch now,” But for creators, that can be great. You can make the show that people can see that maybe they couldn’t have seen.

PO: Yeah, exactly. I love that the gates are wide open, and it depends on who wants to go through them, and what they want to try to bring through them. And then it’s up to them to find the audience. But the work is getting done, and it’s amazing.

It’s still frustrating when a show like Lodge 49 goes away that you wish would stay, or a show like Happy! I knew what they planned for season three that didn’t get to exist. But then, at the same time, What We Do In The Shadows gets to happen, or I just watched that movie Bad Education on HBO, which I don’t think would have been made as a theatrical film. It is so odd. It’s brilliant, but its way of storytelling is so incredible.

We’re living in a great time of “Why not?” Let’s try it. We have the technology to do it. Let’s do it.