Better Onstage: Patton Oswalt
A comedian with the good taste to work with Pixar, tour with Zach Galifianakis, and star in the ultra-dark Big Fan ought to make a hilarious interviewee. Patton Oswalt's stand-up material braves nerdy topics like comic books alongside heavier ones like atheism, and he pulls it off swimmingly. He won was nominated for a Grammy for a stand-up album recorded at D.C.'s own Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University, and you probably saw him on King of Queens at some point. This conversation should have been off the charts. Yet, somehow, I don't think Oswalt made a single joke during our brief talk. He was certainly polite and honest, but not very funny. I can't speculate as to what was bringing him down—perhaps it was simply too early in the morning for the West Coaster—but I certainly hope (and fully expect) he'll be infinitely more entertaining this Saturday at the Warner Theatre.
How long have you been doing comedy now?
About 20 years.
You're originally from Northern Virginia—did the D.C. comic scene just not cut it for you?
It wasn't really dynamic and it was really stagnating and starting to fold up. I had to find somewhere to move and other places to go on stage.
What was your first big gig?
I don't know, it all happened so gradually. I don't know what my first big gig was.
Was there any particular moment where you began to feel more successful?
There were a lot of tiny moments, but no big moments.
Early on you wrote for MadTV—when did that happen?
That was the summer of 1995.
What was that like?
It was good, but it wasn't until later that I appreciate the lessons that I learned. I was frustrated while I was there because of what I could and couldn't write. It was part of the network format. I was really young, and I was kind of idealistic and combative.
Do you ever miss working on King of Queens?
Yeah, there were really good people on that show. It was really fun, and they always wrote fun stuff for me to do.
How did television compare to stand-up or even your film work?
Well, each is its own thing. They're different disciplines, but they're all fun. You can't really compare them—they're not the same thing. There's way more autonomy in stand-up.
Do you prefer one over the other?
No, I like all of them.
You voiced a rat in Ratatouille—did you have to do anything to really get in character for that?
No, they just wanted me to act like I act. There wasn't anything really ratlike about the role, so it was pretty cool.
Do you have any especially fond memories of working on the film?
Way too many to name. Just getting to visit the Pixar campus up in [Emeryville, Calif.] was amazing.
Did they approach you with the role?
Yeah, they approached me.
What drew you to it?
Them offering it to me.
Was there anything particular about the role you found attractive?
Getting to work at Pixar.
How close to your actual life was your character in the movie Big Fan?
There are certainly elements of that guy in me, but Robert [D. Siegel] wrote him to such an extreme that it was like elements of myself were amplified—like the obsessiveness and completeism that pop culture addicts tend to get.
Was it an emotionally difficult part to play?
It was. It was a really sad twisted guy and in the end it's almost like he thinks he's gotten some kind of victory there, but he's only gotten deeper into his own obsessiveness.
Do you feel like you grew personally from that role?
I have no idea. That remains to be seen.
With the excellent Comedians of Comedy tour, you performed at smaller "indie rock" venues—were you going for street cred?
I just wanted to be in really, really packed small rooms that were more intimate. There were a lot of different motivations for that. I think when you go after street cred, you always end up failing, so that wasn't a motivation.
Did you feel like there was more of a connection between the performer and the audience on that tour?
There you go.
You won a Grammy for the album My Weakness Is Strong, which you actually recorded in D.C. at Lisner Auditorium. Why did you choose that venue?
I liked it. I'm not really sure. We had a bunch of different choices and that one I just thought would look better on film and not be overly huge. I don't remember what the decision-making process was, we just thought it would look really good.
Was the Grammy a surprise?
Yeah, I had no idea. I don't really follow the Grammys, so I don't know when they announce them or anything, I just got a call from my manager saying I got nominated.
What should people expect from this tour?
It's not a tour, I'm just doing a few dates.
What should people expect from these upcoming dates?
A man doing jokes into a microphone?
Well, is there anything special about these dates as compared to previous ones?
How many dates do you have coming up?
Four or five. I just go out, do a night, and come back home. It's not really a tour.
Do you have any other big new projects?
Some, but they're just in an amorphous stage. They're really hard to talk about when they're like that.