Patton Oswalt: Getting Busy

By | November 7, 2005 at 12:00 pm | No comments | Features

Patton Oswalt: Getting Busy

As this King of Queens standout readies his new DVD, P-Oz — that’s what we call him ‘round here — takes a moment to reflect.

By Benjamin Cake

Like anybody who might have garnered nationwide recognition for being not only a stellar comedian but also a standout sitcom star, Patton Oswalt seems like the kind of person who’d like to chat about his professional evolution. But he’s not. It seems, at the moment, anyway, that he’s a bit too busy.

Don’t believe it?

The first question of his email interview with Punchline Magazine – Patton said no to a phone interview – was a simple: “How’s ’06 shaping up?”

Patton’s response: “Very busy, obviously.”

And this kind of response isn’t rare.

There are some good interviews with Patton out there [ed. note, from which this profile borrows some information, has a great one], where he talks about how he got started, about persevering through the comedic dry rot of the early 1990s, about his album, Feelin’ Kinda Patton, and about The Comedians of Comedy, a Comedy Central series that documented a tour he went on with a handful of other talented comics (Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford and Zach Galifianakis).

But in a lot of other interviews, this King of Queens cast member fires off-the-cuff responses with the glibness of a teenager that’s tired of talking to his mom’s new boyfriend at Thanksgiving dinner.

So is it safe to write him off as a dick?

That’s a little hasty.

To understand Patton, it’s important to go back to a time in his life when he wasn’t so busy.

Back in the late 1980s, when Patton first started to pursue stand-up, he did what most fledgling comedians do: attend open mics. On one particular night, he and his friend Blaine Capatch were waiting to perform. Together, they sat through what seemed like a never-ending series of bad acts, and it kept getting later and later. Afraid he wasn’t going to get a chance to go on, Patton asked his other buddy, Mark Voyce what time it was.

“It’s a million o’clock,” Voyce said.

“It is a million o’clock,” Patton said. “And I’m gonna stay here until I go up.”

More than sixteen years later, Patton still remembers that moment and believes it illustrates his intense devotion to the art of stand-up comedy. At that point, he’d only been performing for about a year, but he’d become passionate enough that he needed to go up on stage, even if all the lights were turned off and no one was around, even if it was just for the experience.

This was a powerful development for someone who hadn’t always been drawn to stand-up.

Born in 1969, Patton grew up in suburban Virginia. While he can remember listening to his father’s Jonathan Winters albums at an early age, he always wanted to be a writer. As a kid, he read the stories of Stephen King and Harlan Ellison, and after graduating from Broad Run High School in 1987 he enrolled at The College of William & Mary where he majored in English.

During the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, Patton decided he should try out a variety of different jobs with flexible hours that could act as a backup until he became a successful writer.

Patton Oswalt

So he tried being a courier, and he tried writing for some local newspapers; he was a DJ at weddings and corporate picnics — things he describes as “grim stuff.” Perhaps most grim was when he worked as a paralegal for a law firm. Patton quit because it was too depressing to work with a stable of “failed jocks” who lived for Top 40 radio and liquid lunches.

Among all of these experiments, the job that provided the most rejection and least pay was stand-up comedy. In spite of its abuse, Patton found himself sticking with it. And once he’d narrowed his focus, it didn’t take long for him to abandon writing and devote all of his time and energy to performing.

Between 1989 and 1995, comedy never earned Patton more than $7,000 a year. But that didn’t deter him. In order to make ends meet, he discovered ways to get by: He found buffets where he could eat for free with the purchase of one drink; instead of buying books and movies, he borrowed everything from public libraries; he pared his wardrobe down to a simple uniform of jeans, a T-shirt, and a flannel.

Comedy had consumed him, and he seemed willing to make any sacrifice that was necessary to succeed.

When he graduated from college in 1991, Patton faced another big decision: He wanted to move out to California, but, at the time, he was engaged to a girl who wanted to stay in Virginia. The result? He broke off the engagement, moved in with his parents, and began to save money for his trip west. The next summer, he drove out to California in an old Volkswagen Jetta that broke down on his way there and forced him to spend all the money he had saved.

In spite of this adversity, Patton immersed himself in the San Francisco comedy scene. He performed a set every night, and then he’d head out to watch other comics like Dana Gould, Greg Behrendt, Jeremy Kramer, and Greg Proops.

It was at this point that Patton felt the need to “burn his hacky-ass road-comic act” that he’d been using on the East Coast.

When asked in our interview if he could chart the evolution of his act, Patton broke it down by year ranges. Nineteen eighty-eight to 1990, he says, “god awful”; 1991 to 1995 “dependable but forgettable”; and 1995 onward: “more personally aware and unique.”

So why was 1995 the turning-point year?

By 1995, Patton had been living and working in San Francisco for three years. For a few months, he went through what he considers a “breakdown,” during which he couldn’t write any funny material, but he continued to perform, and he also submitted a few short films with the hope of getting some writing work. After a brief return to the East Coast, he was hired to work on the pilot for Mad TV. From there, opportunities began to compound, and, over the next four years, Patton made appearances on HBO and Comedy Central, as well as in films like Man on the Moon and Magnolia.

While getting hired to work for television and movies was a fortunate development, Patton did not drift from his original passion for comedy. In fact, Patton likes to make the distinction between two different types of comedians: those who use comedy as a way to get into movies and television, and those who do television and movies so that they can afford to continue doing stand-up. He is among the latter. Everything he has done over the past 17 years has been with stand-up in mind.

Even now, with a long resume of television and movie appearances, Patton’s most important goals are to continue coming out with CDs and DVDs — his uncensored DVD, No Reason to Complain will be out in early April — as well as to continue with projects like The Comedians of Comedy, where he can use his fan base to get exposure for younger comedians whom he believes deserve recognition.

Patton Oswalt

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