Interview with Patton Oswalt: Combing The Wasteland

Patton Oswalt may be known to the wider world as the voice of Remy the Rat from Ratatouille or Spencer Olchin from the long-running sitcom King Of Queens, but fans of clever standup have known him primarily as the introspective geek culture philosopher-comedian behind the comedy albums/specials Feelin’ Kinda Patton, Werewolves and Lollipops and My Weakness Is Strong.

With the release of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Oswalt can now add “published author” to his resume, though he spent many years writing punch-up for comedy films—unquestionably the inspiration for a mock punch-up chapter in the book—and admits writing two shelved genre novels as a teenager, one of which had a four-armed, bandolier-wearing mutant Kodiak bear. The stories within are personal recollections from his youth, his family and his early years in comedy, interspersed with humor pieces such as sardonic wine-tasting notes, a series of subversive greeting cards and an epic poem dedicated to an abandoned Dungeons & Dragons character.

Oswalt talked about the book, his feelings on the current political malaise, and his auctioning off of an infamous Carvel Black Card (which certain celebrities are given, awarding free ice cream for life) for the L.A. Food Bank.

How long have you been working on this book? It would seem that a lot of the chapters flowed out of you and you had these stories for a while.

There was stuff that I always kind of had in my head. I spent about a year back and forth working on it. I was more struggling with how do I figure out how many things are going to be recollections and how many things are going to be freestanding humor pieces. Just figuring out what order it would be going in. My editors helped me out with that a lot—what order should we put this in and how does it build? It was kind of a murky thing that worked itself out.

It doesn’t read like a typical comedy book, like Brain Droppings by George Carlin. It’s these memoirs with funny interstitials.

I think that every book is just a reflection of who the person writing it is, and if someone isn’t comfortable being personal, then they’re just going to do more esoteric stuff. My act has been becoming more personal over the years, so I think by the time it was time to write this book, I was better able to kind of open up a little bit, I guess.

Are you a fan of books by comedians?

I’m just a fan of good books. It doesn’t have to be by a comedian, I just want to read something that’s good in any genre. If it’s good, yeah, totally. I don’t think of books by comedians as a genre. I just try to find stuff that’s the best and try to read that.

I’m thinking of recent comedy books, like Judah Friedlander’s book where he’s the World Champion and Stephen Colbert’s book where he’s Stephen Colbert. It’s this pattern where they set themselves up as some absurd idea and the rest of the book plays out that way. It certainly didn’t seem that you wanted to do that at all.

I wanted to make it as close to how I’ve been doing standup for the last few years as possible, which is just this is going to go where it’s going to go, and I’m going to ride it out. That was my focus when I started writing it.

You recently auctioned off a Carvel Black Card for the L.A. Food Bank. How much did you get for it?

$12,000. The guy that bought it is a really sweet guy. He’s going to use it to buy ice cream cakes for kids in hospitals and stuff, every week. It’s like the best guy won it.

Did getting that card give you the same kind of swag feeling from the MTV gifting suite you talk about in the book?

No, they just sent it to me. I didn’t really go there. And the minute I got it, I knew that I was going to auction it off and make money for some charity, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it. The MTV gifting suite, that was something that I willingly went to. That’s what was gross about that.

How much have you been let down politically over the last two years?

Quite a lot, actually. It’s been pretty rough to realize that you thought you were voting for, not so much a radical, but someone who was going to really do some change, and he didn’t stand up to all these bullies and these assholes basically. That’s what really bothers me. He so clearly has the moral high ground in so much of this stuff and he just isn’t standing up to the assholes and the bullies. There you go.

As an English major, near the tail end of college, you were starting to become a comedian. Did you ever think that you would turn back to books and writing and have something published? Did you still have that as a goal or a dream?

No, once I got into standup I just wanted to pursue standup as absolutely hard as I could, but I think that when you pursue one thing passionately, then you can do a lot of other things, because I think what people are looking for are people who are really passionate about what they do to go into other areas, rather than someone who’s doing something half-assed to go into the other thing, if that makes sense. “I’ll just do standup so I can get into acting, then I’ll drop standup.” That always ends badly. I see it all the time.

You do bring it up in the book, that the headliners that you were opening for, the goal was to get on Johnny Carson and then have a sitcom.

Yeah, it was really sad. It’s like they never really liked doing standup and they paid a really shitty price for it later down the road.

And that still happens?

Yeah. It’s not that Carson’s the goal, obviously, it’s that there are goals outside of just becoming a great standup, which is very hard to do and I think people discount that. Because good standups make it look easy, and people just think ‘Oh, anybody can do that.’

Until they try it, of course.

Until they try it.

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is available now. Patton Oswalt will be signing copies at the Wall Street Borders on Jan. 6 and he performs at Caroline’s On Broadway on Jan. 7 and Jan. 8.