Patton Oswalt’s website crashed for a short time on Saturday morning. The reason? Too many thousands of his fans were clamoring simultaneously to read the comedian’s response to some pretty harsh words about him, which were posted the evening before on a local Los Angeles comedian’s Tumblr. That comedian, Barbara Gray, a self-professed fan (now, former fan) of Oswalt’s was pissed off. The title of her post: “That One Time When Patton Oswalt Was An Asshole.”
Here’s the deal. Patton popped in to a small show in Los Feliz to work out some new material—a common practice (as you may know) for popular comedians who don’t want to try out unpolished material for a huge, paying audience. Part way through a bit, Gray explains, Patton confronted a woman who seemed to be video taping his performance. The woman admitted she was; Patton asked her not to do that; the woman told Patton that he’s going to want that part on tape because it was perfect; Patton informed the woman that he’s already got that chunk and that he’s working on it for an upcoming special and her filming the unfinished product sort of ruins it, especially if she decides to upload the footage; the woman tells Patton that she’ll delete it immediately; Patton tells the woman that, though she might not realize she’s being an asshole, she is, indeed, being an asshole. The pair exchange more words. The woman eventually gets up to leave; the two yell at each other some more.
But even after the woman and the two friends she was with exited the show, Patton continues his tirade, apparently making fun of her looks and the like. Eventually, he finished his set. This is all according to Gray. And in Patton’s response, he doesn’t deny any of it. “I just re-read your Tumblr post. It was sensible and well-reasoned,” he writes. “I see every single point you’re making. Based on what you saw, you nailed me, and the night I ruined.”
But then he repeats: “Based on what you saw.”
He lays out a few major points and pieces of background that Gray and most of the crowd in attendance were not privy to. “For starters, whatever camera phone she was using had a piercing, distracting light on it which she merrily aimed right into my eye,” he writes. Later in his post he explains, “And you didn’t see her roll her eyes at her two friends, who rolled their eyes back, and nodded in agreement when she mouthed, “What an asshole.” But more importantly, then, he allows us unfettered access into his mind:
Worse, here’s when she started taping: halfway through a new, longer joke that I’m working on — a very embarrassing recollection from my younger years that I’m very nervous about performing and still very unsure of how to unspool. This was only the fourth time I’ve ever performed it, as well as the fourth time I’ve ever admitted this incident in public. So it still feels like a very nervy high wire walk for me. There’s times when I lose the audience and have to get them back, freeze up, and wonder if I shouldn’t have just kept this whole incident to myself. I’m walking into new territory with this one, and it’s scary and I feel very raw and dry-mouthed when I do it.
In addition to this, in his response, Patton, recounts in great detail, two other times in which he was filmed onstage and had terribly unfortunate interactions with those camera-wielding fans. The upshot, in Patton’s opinion, is these were two entitled people who were clueless about the creative process of stand-up comedy and, though they didn’t realize it, had no respect for his work.
Let me stop there for a moment. There’s no possible way this woman could know all of this was going through his head—his insecurities about the new material and the history of filming fans. If she did, she would have to be some sort of sociopath to even think about filming this performance. But Patton’s reaction was as harsh a reaction as you’d expect if this woman did know what was going through his head and filmed him regardless, because, “Fuck him, right?” I’m also going to assume that this woman had absolutely no malicious intent; I’m willing to concede she just didn’t realize that it’s hugely wrong to film a comedian’s set without permission – especially a comedian who makes part of his living from selling these sets – once polished – in the form of professionally recorded albums and DVDs.
I think there’s another aspect at play here— mistaken perception. I think a lot of comedy fans who many not embed themselves in their favorite performers’ lives the way some comedy nerds do, cannot fathom that the relatively rich and famous are incredibly insecure and for the most part, scared human beings constantly looking for acceptance. You know, like real people. So, once Patton started screaming, the woman’s interpretation was simple: This rich, famous person thinks he’s all that and I’m a piece of shit and he can step all over me if he wants to.” The reality, as we learn from Patton’s response, was more like, “I don’t know if I should even be telling this story because it may make me look like an idiot and oh, shit, now you’re filming it and people are going to see it and they’re going to think it sucks because they’ll assume I’m done writing it when really I’m only just starting to work on it. Shit! This is my living you’re fucking with.”
It’s like Patton expected the woman to realize the seriousness of her actions and the woman expected Patton to be all happy he was getting filmed and not at all insecure or concerned—since he’s a big, famous rich person, after all!
And that brings me to another point: Not everyone who attends a comedy show understands the ins and outs of the world of comedy. If you’re reading this on Laughspin, there’s a decent chance you know that filming and uploading bootleg videos of comedians on YouTube is about the worst possible thing you can do as a fan of that comedian—for all of the aforementioned reasons. Most traditional comedy clubs and theaters where comedy is performed will make an announcement at the start of the show stating that no video or audio-taping during the performance is allowed. While the inside-comedy reasons as to why it’s not allowed may not be explained to the presumably mainstream audience in the showroom, at least the comedy goers know not to do it. I’d imagine that this DIY show – put on in a small room upstairs from a Chinese restaurant – had no such announcements.
But even if you’re not a comedy nerd or know all the nuances of the way a comedy show works, what about having normal human reactions—or, at least, what I would consider “normal?” Patton Oswalt asked you to stop filming him. That should’ve been the end of it. Doesn’t ANYONE get embarrassed anymore? How about, “Shit, I’m sorry” as a reaction? That would’ve seemed appropriate. And why even offer the explanation that “you’re going to want this on tape?” What does that even mean? That explanation implies that after the show the woman was going to somehow make arrangements with Patton (a person she has no friendship with) to get him the footage of his performance she shot for HIS benefit—otherwise, why would you say something like that? You wouldn’t tell him that he’s going to want that on tape and then just leave the show with it forever on your stupid phone, right?
I’m not defending Patton’s reaction to the situation. And if you read Patton’s full response, you’ll know he’s not defending it either. “I let what seemed to be a minor insult to my precious “comedy” escalate into a hateful, personal attack and, much worse, fester into a public motherfucking of someone who’d left the room and was no longer there to defend herself,” he writes.
In the end both Patton and the woman were wrong. But I think any sensible person already knows this. The woman should never have whipped that camera phone out and she probably should’ve just kept quiet after Patton’s first words to her. And Patton should never have reacted the way he did. But, shit happens. He’s human; this isn’t the first — and probably won’t be the last time — he lays into an audience member. I have a feeling, however, it’ll be the last time the woman tries to film a comedian without his or her permission.