Post subject: THE AST INTERVIEW: PATTON OSWALT
Posted: 11.21.05 3:43 pm
[aka Sasquatch] Site Admin
Joined: 26 Jun 2005
Location: Los Angeles
THE AST INTERVIEW: PATTON OSWALT
The day before The Comedians of Comedy premiered on Comedy Central, I sat down with Patton Oswalt in a tea room on 3rd Street in Los Angeles to discuss his childhood, his beginnings as a comedian, his new show and his future. When I arrived, Patton (who had been there for a while reading) was puzzling over the restaurant’s musical selections, which he explained had included a Musak version of “The Wedding March.” Before we began, he marveled at my “bulky-ass,” circa 1993 tape recorder and admitted that a tea room was “the gayest, weirdest location” possible for an interview. I ordered a sandwich and some tea (whatever Patton was having -- something with “tiger” in the name) and we got down to it.
[note: while reading through the interview transcript later, Patton added some additional thoughts. Look for these comments in bracketed italics.]
isoS: So you grew up in Virginia right?
Patton Oswalt: Yeah.
isoS: What are your earliest memories of comedy, of seeing or hearing things that made you laugh?
PO: When I was really young? The first two memories I have… I was really lucky to grow up in the early ‘70s, before people started overthinking what was good and bad for kids. So I got to see a lot of violent, absurdist stuff on shows like Sesame Street and the Warner Bros. cartoons… Bugs Bunny.
And I remember -- I didn’t perceive this until years and years later when I was in my 20s -- but I remember liking Mickey Mouse and Goofy, and thinking, “Oh, those guys are cool,” but I remember laughing at Bugs Bunny and Daffy. And I didn’t realize what I was being taught until years later, which is that everyone loves Mickey Mouse, but he’s not funny. Bugs Bunny is a prick, and he’s so funny. And Daffy’s a prick. They’re all douchebags. So it was this great primer… I think a lot of the comedy that came out of my generation, if you look at the kind of shows we created, if you look at stuff like Larry Sanders and The Office and Seinfeld, all the really good shows are just about pricks. And all of Albert Brooks’s stuff is about fuckin’ pricks, ‘cause I think they grew up realizing that, yeah, everyone loves Mickey Mouse, but he’s boring. I’d rather be a douchebag and make people laugh.
isoS: As you got a little bit older, did you get into comedy to the extent that you bought comedy albums?
PO: Well, my dad had a lot of Jonathan Winters albums, so those were my first memories of listening to anything funny, and those were very influential. And again, I didn’t realize this until years later, because when his albums -- you can get them now -- he’ll do a joke, and I mean he’s doing this steady stream of just talking about shit, and there’s no punchline, but there’s eighteen jokes hidden in the sentences, but he never stops to go, “...ba-ba-ba-Boom.” He just is talking, and you either pick up where the jokes are or not.
So there are times when the entire audience is laughing their asses off, and he’s hit this moment. But there are other times where, like, he’ll do a joke and two people will laugh so fucking hard, because now they’re enjoying the fact that, “Oh my God, did I just catch -- Did no one else get that? That is great!” And they’re delighting in the fact that they’ve made this weird connection.
[ed. note: Patton later added: “I didn’t realize until later what those Jonathan Winters albums were teaching me, which is that you don’t have to have the entire audience on your side for your entire set. You have to have fun first.”]
And also there’s a third thing on those albums that I started to notice later in Richard Pryor’s stuff and Steve Martin’s stuff, which is that laughter of disbelief, where people are laughing not only ‘cause it’s funny, but they’re laughing like, “What the fuck did he just say? How the fuck --? Why would you even think of making a joke about that?”
And people like Richard Pryor and Jonathan Winters were not people that ever announced how dangerous and weird and groundbreaking they were, ‘cause I think once any performer does that, once you tell people that you’re dangerous and edgy, you’re not. That should be what other people say about you. You should never have to go, “Hang on people, ‘cause it’s about to get fuckin’ dark! If your soul has a seatbelt, you better strap in, because -- “ Okay, right now, you’re not dangerous.
The truly dangerous people, and I’ve always maintained this about especially someone like David Cross -- who obviously I’m such a huge fan of -- when people go, “Goddamn it, Cross is so ballsy and so edgy,” I actually don’t think he’s that ballsy and edgy, because he’s not consciously deciding to be dangerous and edgy. He doesn’t know any other way to think. And he thinks that what he thinks of is normal, and thinks, “Well, doesn’t everyone think of this?” He’s not a guy trying to say, “Look out, motherfuckers! ‘Cause here it comes!” He’s just: “Don’t you think about this all the time?”
isoS: Right. And then on the other end of the spectrum, Carlos Mencia can’t stop talking about how earth-shattering --
PO: Oh my God. He’s a guy who announces he’s about to be edgy, starts a joke, in the middle of it stops to remind you he’s being edgy, and then congratulates the audience when he’s done with a joke for being brave enough to get through his edginess, and then warns them he’s about to be edgy again. If he would stop with the three warnings and the one congratulation for being edgy, he could cram three more jokes in there. Does he realize that? The truly edgy and dangerous are the ones that are puzzled by people’s reactions. Like Cross, who’s like, “Why is everyone so…?”
isoS: Right. Alright, we’re already way off track, but that’s okay. That’s good though.
PO: You can just keep looping this back and forth, and you know, build like a… Listen how I’m telling you how to write your fuckin’ article, like a jackass.
isoS: [laughs] “Here’s what you want to do with the structure…”
Patton notices the ceramic kittens on my teapot.
PO: [baby voice] Oh you got the little kitty!
isoS: Oh yeah, nice. What’d you get?
PO: The little cups, the little moon cups.
isoS: [laughs] So what movies did you like growing up?
PO: I loved horror movies. My first movie memory ever was [laughing], I was five years old, I was living in Tustin Meadows, California -- we were a military family, so we moved a lot. It’s Halloween, kids activity day at the local library. So they have us in the library, and we’re making crafts, and hearing ghost stories, and making pumpkin cookies. And then they showed us the original silent film Nosferatu. Which I guess at the time -- it’s 1974, and they must have thought, “Well, it’s an old black and white silent movie, it’s fine for kids, they were tame back then,” not realizing what a deep, primal nightmare that movie is. It’s all images, and especially to a kid’s brain, which is this frightened sponge -- a very eager sponge, but an easily frightened sponge -- kids were just … sitting in the dark in this library, it’s two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, they, you know, put curtains on the windows, and kids were just sitting there crying and screaming and unable to move. And I just remembered thinking, sitting there -- and I was terrified too, but I was like, Wow, all they did was turn on this fucking box in the back of a library, and twelve of my friends are screaming, like, louder than we would scream if we were being chased by a bee, or if there was a thunderstorm, or if there was a bully about to beat us up. I don’t know why, but I was like, “Oh, I wanna do that.”
So when I was growing up I always wanted to do monster makeup and do monster movies and scare the fuck out of people, which I realized later is the same as making people laugh: it’s the same set-up and punch.
isoS: So would you say at that age you were way more into horror than comedy?
PO: Way more. Oh yeah, way, way more. I remember, I would do this thing where I would try to convince people that I was a werewolf. And I wasn’t trying to be funny about it either, it was very dramatic, “Well, you know,” [holding up his middle and ring fingers] “these two fingers are the same length, and that means…” And I would try to convince people I had one eyebrow. [They’d be like] “You have two eyebrows,” [and I’m like] “No, no, it’s one.” All these weird… I just so wanted to be a fuckin’ monster. I just always felt like… I remember in my head, I must’ve thought the people that played monsters in movies got paid so much more than other people, ‘cause those people in the movies, in my head I’m going, “Well they’re just showing up in their goddamn clothes, but a monster gets to put a thing on, and he gets to kill people. Pay that guy the most money!”
isoS: [laughs] That’s awesome. Do you remember when you switched in your head from going, “I want to do that” to “I want to do comedy?”
PO: I can’t think of a specific moment. I never lost any love of horror or monster movies, and I never lost a love of stuff that I thought was funny and comedic; it was the same. I really like to be entertained, man, so… Those are the most entertaining things to me: stuff that’s funny and stuff that’s horrible, and sometimes that can be the same thing for me.
Even through high school, I never thought, “Oh, I definitely want to grow up to be a comedian.” I always wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to write. And then, in between… I remember, it was in between freshman and sophomore year of college, I realized, “Well, writing is really hard, and it’s going to be a while before I make any money in this,” and I was trying out all these different jobs to see what would be my back-up job until I make it as a writer. So I was working as a paralegal, and I was working as a DJ, and I was working as a sports writer under a couple of pseudonyms for two different papers, and trying to find different ways to make money. And then one of the things I tried, because I was always making jokes, I thought, “Well, I’ll go try stand-up comedy.” You know that summer where you try nine different things to see which one sticks? And that just, that was the one.
You know why? ‘Cause working as a paralegal was making me steady money, but I knew the minute I had a bad day or the minute I got yelled at, I would go, “Fuck this” and leave. And working as a DJ made steady money, but I knew the first time that I had a bad gig or a client yelled at my boss about me, I would go, “Fuck, I don’t want to have to do that shit again.” But comedy was nothing but abuse, from the get-go. Pure indifference and rejection and zero fuckin’ rewards, and I kept going back, so that to me was a good indicator that, “Maybe I should be doing this. The thing that I keep going back [to] for more abuse.” Whereas these other things, there were immediate rewards, but…
I remember quitting a law firm I was working at because we were all in a room, and we were indexing testimony from a trial, and I had the radio on to 99.1, WHFS in Baltimore, which was like their little indie rock station, and all the other guys were like, “Uh, dude, this stuff isn’t good. How ‘bout some good-time party jams?” And then we had to turn to Q107, which was just like the worst, awful awful awful Top 40 music. And that was on a Friday, and then over the weekend I decided to quit, because I was going to have to work in a room for two more months with these guys. That made me quit being a paralegal: “I don’t want to listen to Q107 eight hours a day for two months.”
isoS: That’s the power of rock ‘n roll.
PO: That’s the power of working with failed jocks all day. And also, I couldn’t take another liquid lunch at Bennigan’s. There was an actual Bennigan’s on Leesburg Pike Route 7 in the Tyson’s Corner area where we would go every Friday, and it was so fuckin’ depressing.
isoS: Looping back again, you said you didn’t really think of comedy as something you wanted to do, but in school did you consider yourself -- Were you conscious of trying to make your friends laugh and be a funny guy?
PO: Yeah, but I wasn’t The Class Clown. It was me and a bunch of guys that were funny. I never thought like… I was always weirded out in movies where there was one guy that was the funny guy, whereas in every high school I ever went to there was usually a group. It’s what bonded people together, it was, “Oh, we can memorize Monty Python stuff,” you know? We would read National Lampoon all the time, and you know, stuff like that. Rather than just, Oh, there’s one guy that’s the repository of all humor. So that kind of prepared me for being, I guess, I didn’t know it, but being a comedian: there’s not just one stand-up, there’s a bunch of guys and they all contribute. It’s great.
isoS: So you were in college when you finally tried stand-up for the first time?
PO: Yeah. And it was just because those were those summers where I was working in these office jobs and I was getting offers… You know, the headhunters would come through college -- I was in college on a partial scholarship -- so these guys would come in, and the kind of life they were outlining to me seemed… The better they made it sound, the more horrifying it sounded to me, and they didn’t realize they were making it sound horrifying. They would go, “Oh, it’s great, I mean, I uh, I have a sports car that I work on. That’s what I really love. And you work 50 weeks a year, you get your two week vacation, you can scam a couple of sick weeks, you know, and I get time to travel a little bit…” And I was thinking, “Fifty weeks a year you’re going to the same room and you’re…” There’s nothing wrong with having a job, but for fifty weeks a year you’re doing someone else’s work, and it’s something that like -- I’m sure there are people that were lawyers that were excited about doing law, but these guys were just like, “I’m just gonna go in and help these guys do what they love to do.” Don’t you want to open your own little garage and pay people to do the boring shit so you can really work on…? You know what I mean?
PO: That was always my goal: even if I’m not making -- And I remember … I started doing comedy professionally in 1989, and I never made more than seven grand a year until 1995, which means I never had to pay taxes [laughing] because I wasn’t making any fuckin’ money.
isoS: So describe your beginnings. Was it really “Who Farted’s” [the fictional club Patton created for his CD release party at M Bar in 2004]?
PO: It really was. Oh yeah, oh God, yeah. The beginning was at a club in Washington, DC in July of ’88 called Garvin’s. Tuesday night open mike. It was July 18th, I think? 1988. Blaine Capatch was the emcee. Dave Chappelle was doing the same open mike, he and I were on the same open mike together; he was fourteen. I think he had started a week before or something like that… I was 19.
It was absolutely everything you would think it would be in Washington, DC in the summer of ’88. It was bad local radio station funniest guy contests, it was night after night of open mikes. I remember, on the open mikes, it was always done by numbers. There were two columns: there was one with all numbers, literally one through twenty-one, like twenty-one people -- [on a] show that started at nine o’clock on a Tuesday night. That was the column on the right. The column on the left was letters, which were usually like A through maybe E, and those were the pros. So my big goal for that first year was: “I want to be a letter, not a number.” And I remember the night that me and a comedian named Jeff Hatz got moved over to the letter column, and we were so, like, “We’re letters now! We’re gonna go up before… We will go up before midnight tonight.” We were so excited about that.
isoS: So that’s where you met Blaine?
PO: Mm-hmm. I met Blaine… I remember one night we were at an open mike, me, him and Mark Voyce were all waiting to go up, and it was just all these pros coming in and just fucking sucking, and I leaned over to Mark, and I was like, “Hey Mark, what time is it man?” ‘cause it was so late. Mark goes, “It’s a million o’clock.” And I never forgot -- I was like, “It IS a million o’clock. And I’m gonna stay here ‘til I go up.” And I didn’t realize that was a defiant thing to say back then to myself, but I was like, “I’m going to fucking stay ‘til I go up. I don’t care if there’s no one in this fucking room. I’m gonna physically go on that stage and say my jokes in the darkness.” You know?
I mean … when I look back on it now I’m so glad I started off in the worst situation possible, which was going up when comedy’s dying, I’m going up when the worst comedians with the worst instincts hold sway, so I could learn everything not to do. I was also very lucky to see guys who were in their mid-30s who had done everything wrong, who had spent their money the wrong way, who had a couple of flush years and blew it all, and it was all about, you know what, first ten years of your career, just sock it all away. Put your fuckin’ money away. What you’re striving for is independence, not success. People think that’s the same thing and it’s not. You want liberty, not freedom.
isoS: Did you feel like there was any scene that you were a part of, or was it just every man for himself?
PO: There was no scene back then. The “scene” back in DC -- and again, I worked in a really limited corridor because I had no money and my car was a piece of shit, so … every now and then I could go up to Baltimore, and if I could get booked in Philadelphia I would go up there to work the Comedy Factory Outlet or the Comedyworks, but for the most part … I was working Garvin’s in DC, I was working The Comedy Café, I was doing open mikes up in Baltimore, and that was it. Washington, D.C. was nothing but pros that were not into doing stand-up for stand-up’s sake. “I’ll go up if I get paid. I’ll go up if I can get fifteen dollars for my spot,” but it was not… The idea of, “I’ll go find a fuckin’ bookstore and plug a mike in just so I can go up and my friends can go up.” [They’d be like], “What the fuck are you doing that for?”
I remember at the time I was engaged, my junior year of college, and my then-fiancée said, “Once we’re married, you can go do comedy when you’re being paid for it, but this going out every night doing open mikes? [That’s going to end].” And at the time I thought, “Yeah, that makes sense,” that’s how clueless I was. And it’s the people who think, “I’m not going up unless I get money,” well that’s fucking ridiculous, you should be going up any chance you get. The first ten years, what else do you have to do?
I just remember all the awful, awful advice I was given. Like: “Don’t go up unless you’re getting paid.” That was one thing I didn’t get early on. There was a lot of other shit that I totally believed in. I was too clueless to realize… That whole thing of like, that principle of non-abundance that everyone adhered to in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which is, “Well if that guy gets something he’s taking something from you that you should be getting.” So it was all this competition and backstabbing. And up until a few years ago I still lived under that -- I would get jealous of even friends of mine, and secretly hope they would fail… It took me a while to realize that, wait a minute, if someone like Louie CK or Zach Galifianakis or Brian Posehn or Sarah Silverman gets through, or gets exposure, that just makes it better for all of us that do that kind of comedy. It’s not taking anything away from anyone, because there are so many different ways to make it. You should be responsible for your own thing. I just hate people that go, “Well, I wouldn’t have done that.” Yeah, ‘cause you didn’t. “I wouldn’t have done it that way.” Well you didn’t do it period so shut the fuck up. Where’s your better movie? Where’s your better TV show? You know?
[ed. note: Patton later added: “Now that I think of it, The Comedians of Comedy is my personal rebuke to the kind of competitive asshole I used to be. I always thought, if I had the chance to produce something, I’d do something to widen my exposure, and increase my fame. But when I finally had the money, power and connections to produce something of my own, the first thing I wanted to do was showcase my friends. I’m amazed at how indifferent and bored I am at my own presence in the show. I’m so much more excited -- and gratified -- at the way Brian, Maria and Zach are portrayed. Especially Zach and Maria. Brian’s at least got Mr. Show under his belt. But Zach and Maria, who I think are the most innovative comedians working today -- sorry, Carlos -- have been completely misused and misrepresented by the so-called powers-that-be in TV and movies. So I’m happy I’m getting a chance to show how great the scene is I’m in. I hope I get to keep doing it.”]
I just remember guys in San Francisco getting pissed off when Margaret Cho got her sitcom. And then someone pointed out, “Yeah, but uh, what Asian female role is she stealing from you that you were up for?” The only kind of success that bothers me is the kind of comedian who gets success that then, instead of enriching the field, it taints the field for everyone. Like someone like a Denis Leary, who -- I know this is an example that everyone points to, but it’s not only the thievery that bothers me, it’s that he skewed everyone’s vision of what edgy and dark was, so that when someone truly edgy and dark like a Bill Hicks came along, they would go, “Oh he’s just mean and gross. You know [who’s] edgy? Denis Leary, ‘cause everyone can agree on it.” Well then that’s… You’ve missed the fuckin’ point. That always bothered me.
I’m rambling all over the place!
isoS: [laughs] That’s alright.
PO: I also hated the idea of, and this is what pissed me off so much about Last Comic Standing, is the idea that [scary voice], “You’ve got ONE chance to make it! It all comes down to five minutes.” And that’s left over from the ‘80s, which was, “You have to work on your clean five minutes, you get on the Tonight Show, and Johnny has to call you over, and that’s the only way you can make it.” So all these guys, that’s all they worked on, over and over again, and then he left the Tonight Show, and all these guys were fucked. They had no way of -- It’s like kids in college who would study for the test, and then they graduate with all As and they get out in the world and they have zero initiative, they have to go, “Well, I need to know what the primers on the next test are.” Well, you have to set those now. No one’s going to test you anymore…
That was also the principle of, you know, there were guys that would say, “Well I’m the headliner ‘cause I’ve been doing this eleven years and you’ve been doing this four years.” Well, yeah, you’ve confused doing something for eleven years with doing something for one year and then repeating it eleven times, which is a totally different thing. Just ‘cause you’ve clocked in doesn’t mean you’ve learned anything or you’ve advanced.
isoS: What were your early goals when you started? Did you immediately say, “I want to do this for a living?”
PO: My first goal was like all the little petty stuff that I can barely remember now, like, “I want to be a letter. I want to be paid for a gig.” Even when I got fifteen dollars it was the idea that I was being paid for it. I would spend thirty dollars on gas driving six hours ‘round trip to make twenty dollars. To say: “I made this.”
Then my goal was, after I started getting paid regularly, I think I was lucky enough -- again, this goes back to hanging out with guys in their late 30s that had blown all their money, which was: “Okay, what I have to do now is readjust my standard of living so that I can live on seven thousand dollars a year, so I can only do this.” So I would literally, I learned all these tricks, like the bars to go to that you’d buy a single drink and then there’s a free buffet, or how to arrange carpools and split expenses, or how to like, “Okay I’ll just go and buy three pairs of jeans, eight black T-shirts, a sturdy pair of boots and that’ll be my stage uniform.” Button-up shirt over it, boom, there ya go. Learn how to live on nothing. Get books at the library. Get movies from the library. Just stuff like that. Swap stuff with people. And not be so focused on buying a million CDs or a million videotapes, because I don’t need a lot of stuff right now. What I need to do is to get on stage and not have to owe anyone any fuckin’ money, ‘cause once you start owing shit then you’re fucked: “Well, I’ll just take a job now.” The minute you go, “I’ll just take a job” it fucks you.
I would go to like -- I would literally buy a giant -- I learned how to make really good fried rice, which if you know how to make it it’s a really cheap dish -- so I would buy this huge sack of frozen vegetables and a huge sack of rice, some oil and some eggs, and I could just live on that. It was ridiculous.
isoS: Who were your influences at the time? Did you feel like: “I want to be like…?”
PO: I still do that now, you know I have to be very conscious of like, “Oh, God, that guy really inspires me,” so I gotta make sure not to ape them. But yeah, it was all my friends: Blaine Capatch was a huge influence, Mark Voyce was a huge influence coming up…
[ed. note: Patton later added: “And whoever was good that would come through D.C., which was rare -- Louis CK, Bobcat Goldthwait. I saw Jay Leno live three times -- once at Wolftrap, which was an outdoor, daytime venue that was death for a stand-up. But he killed. Jay Leno was an early influence on most comedians, even if they deny it. Which is why so many stand-ups are so confused and alarmed by what’s happened to him since he got The Tonight Show.”]
If I wasn’t performing, I would try to go to as many clubs as I could and watch people. So I’d watch Emo Phillips just to watch how he would write, and Bobcat Goldthwait was a big early influence. People like that. But mostly my friends, Mark and Blaine especially.
UP NEXT: Part Two, in which Patton moves to San Francisco and discovers a whole new world of comedy.
isoS: So when did you make the move west?
PO: The summer of 1992. Blaine and I had been talking about it for a year. [“Blaine had visited S.F. the year before, watched some shows and did some gigs, and the way he described it made it sound like Willy Wonka’s Factory.”]
I was living in Baltimore at the time… Right after I graduated college in May of ’91 I moved up to Baltimore, and then I realized, “Oh, no no, I wanna move west.” So I moved back with my parents and saved every bit of money I could, I spent money on nothing. I obsessively wouldn’t buy anything for that many months, and I accumulated a nice chunk of change. And I had some contacts in San Francisco -- I had worked with Carlos Alazraqui down in Williamsburg. I said, “I’m thinking of moving to San Francisco, I’m not looking for any handouts, but if you have a roommate situation that opens up, I’ll pay rent, I’ll move in with you guys, you know, and I’ll just work my way around there.” And then I packed up some stuff and drove cross country.
And the day before I got to San Francisco my Volkswagen Jetta blew its water pump in Truckee, California … and I was stuck there for two days ‘cause they had to order the parts, and it cost all my money that I had saved. So when I pulled into San Francisco I was broke. I had zero money when I pulled into San Francisco, and I had to scramble and start getting gigs like immediately.
isoS: How had you been doing in Baltimore and DC at that point?
PO: I was doing okay. I was starting to get steady emcee work, which wasn’t paying much but I was working a lot of these so-called “circuit rooms”: Tom Sobel’s Comedy Caravan, I was working for Anita Fletcher… she had four clubs. I was working all the Garvin’s clubs -- at that time they had six clubs. Shit-loads of one-nighters for this douchebag named Chip Franklin. Shit-loads of -- I worked both the Comedy Factory outlets. Blaine and I did [laughing] -- We were doing these awful rooms… We did a tour of Wisconsin and Minnesota, I went up first and did a weekend at a club called Sir Laughs-a-lot… oh Jesus…
At the club, there was this grand staircase that went up the lobby, but then it also went down to the bottom floor which was an activity area, and they would lean gym mats against the staircase and create this enclosed space, and run a microphone into it, and it just had folding chairs and that was the fucking comedy club. It was this fort, literally a fucking fort under the stairs. And you performed under the stairs like a goblin. It was so creepy.
And after my glorious weekend at Sir-Laughs-A lot, Blaine came up and we did a week and a half of one-nighters, but as we got to each one-nighter it’d get cancelled before we could perform at it. We’d get a call the day before going, “It’s been cancelled, sorry. Um, get a hotel room and I’ll call you in a couple of days.” So we’re just basically --
[Patton notices the Musak coming over the speakers.]
Listen to this. It’s “Rock Around the Clock.” This is awful! This music is so awful.
[“I like “Rock Around the Clock”. What I don’t like is the tinny, Muzak-version the tea room manager was playing. The Chado Tea Room just got new management and, while they’re nice people, they have zero taste in music. Not that I’m expecting them to play Wire or Waylon Jennings, but fuck, throw on one of those Borders compilations of classic music and call it a day.
Before the interview I got into a Sour Look Fight with these two old biddies. Here’s why.
The manager put on this “Classic Tunes No One Wants to Listen To, Ever, Only They’re Played by Meth Addicts on Toy Instruments and Mop Buckets”. And one of them is the “Wedding March”. No, really. The fucking “Wedding March”, which people don’t even play at weddings anymore. Imagine listening to it while you’re trying to read NEW AVENGERS. I ask you.
So I beg the guy -- his name’s Nelson, and he’s really cool -- if he could maybe put on, you know, ANYTHING except the “Wedding March”. So he puts on Enya, which, compared to the “Wedding March”, is like trading being punched for being yelled at. And these two biddies near the window call the poor bastard over, and I hear, “Is THAT a regular customer?” And Nelson says, well, yeah, he comes in every Wednesday. And they look over at me -- this dumpy, mental patient-looking dude with a pile of comics in front of him and a pot of Assam -- and I guess they decide they don’t want to be followed home and skinned, but they give me these sour, old biddie looks which I’m sure shaved three years off my life.
That’s right, you little alternative edge-walkers: I stared down two spinsters at a tea room while reading comics. Who wants to have a push-up contest?”]
So all that week, Blaine and I kept driving to gigs that never existed, and then we just drove home.
[“Another annoying aside: At one point, after the third one-nighter had fallen through, Blaine and I ended up in Madison, Wisconsin. Which we’d never been to, and is an excellent city. Except it was hosting the National High School Wrestling Championships. So we’re surrounded for three days by bandy-necked meatheads yelling, “Faggot!” At Blaine, I’m pretty sure. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to replace the candle in my cup warmer.”]
I would do a lot of stuff through the Midwest. I did Charlie Goodnights a lot, down in North Carolina. That was a really early example of, “Oh, here’s what a well-run club is like.” It was a nice preview of when I finally got to do clubs like Cobb’s or the Punchline or stuff like that… ‘Cause up ‘til then I was used to these -- I didn’t know that comedy clubs could be professional, well-run things. They were always these really scummy, unapolagetic, “Yeah, we’re not going to pay you what we said we’d pay you.”
“Really? ‘Cause I was told $125…”
“It’s not $125, it’s $75.”
“Yeah, but you told me --“
“I don’t remember saying that.” And you literally would have talked to them twenty minutes before, and they’re just openly going, “I didn’t say that.” And there’s nothing you can do, ‘cause you had driven out to New Oxford, Ohio, and now you’re stuck there. You need the gas money to get home.
isoS: So when you went to San Francisco, did you have some contacts? Did you know people?
PO: Well, I had sent videotapes out to clubs, but then all I got from that was, “Well, you know, call us for spots when you’re out here.” Again, I wasn’t used to an actual, well-organized machine… They weren’t mean, there wasn’t [as much] politics as there were on the East Coast. It was: “We’re very clear about our rules. You call at three o’clock on a Monday and you try to get a spot.” And whoever’s the first twenty callers gets the spot. So it was really a shock to me. I mean, yeah, there were politics later on, but at the beginning it was a, “Look it’s up to you, we’re not keeping you out of anything, but we’re also not going to help you.”
isoS: And is that where you met Brian Posehn?
PO: Yeah, that was such an amazing scene in San Francisco. That was a real culture shock to me of people that actually were…
I’ll give you an example: I remember I was down in Virginia Beach doing this comedy competition, and at that time there was this little stand-up comedy magazine that came out, I can’t remember the name, it was this digest-sized thingie that got sent to comedy clubs. And there was a picture of a female comedian on the cover -- a very big one at the time -- that I thought was horribly unfunny. A bunch of comedians are hanging out, and I point to it, and I say -- well, first I said, “Hey guys, you know what’s funny?” And they say, “I don’t know, what?” And I say, “Not fuckin’ her.” And they all instantly went, “I don’t see you on the cover of a magazine. She’s fuckin’ rich. Maybe you should shut your mouth.” And, “She’s makin’ money, she’s in movies, what the fuck did you --“ Once someone was successful, there was no -- you weren’t allowed to argue quality, or exhibit any taste.
Whereas on the West Coast I actually met people that were fans of the form, like when they weren’t performing comedy they were actually going out to see it. In DC, you would never see a comedian going out to watch another comedian -- Well, yeah, you did, but it was people like me and Blaine, and we were considered freaks. Like, “What are you doing here? You’re not doing a show.”
“Well, we want to watch. This is Louie CK, I’ve heard he’s really good.”
“Are you on the show?”
“No, I thought I’d…”
“What the fuck are you doing? Why would you be in the club?”
“I want to see a good comedian!” You know what I mean? It was so alien to them that people would actually be a fan of the form.
So it was really refreshing to see that… It was also the idea that these were people that had committed to: “I’m going to do stand-up no matter what. I’ve pared my life down, I just want to do this. I actually want to just work on stand-up.” And the discipline of it, even though everyone, all of us, were fucked up and disorganized in our own way, but there was this unspoken discipline of, “I’m going to go on stage every night, no matter where it is. Even if it’s the shittiest fuckin’ gig, even if it’s this dopey room with three people in it, I just want to go on stage.” The audience, at that point, didn’t matter to us. I think that was kind of the beginning, one of the many beginnings, of what the quote-unquote alternative scene became later on: it was audiences that had zero expectations about the comedians and comedians who had zero expectations for the audience. Everyone just met on equal ground and it was like, “Well, let’s see what this is.” You know? “I want to get on stage no matter what. I don’t care if the audience laughs or not.” It was comedians going, “Well I want to hear this. I want to hear what comes out of my head.”
isoS: So who was big when you got there?
PO: The big guys? Well, for me, I mean, yeah, there were very popular guys that were really huge, but for me, the guys that were big in terms of being revelatory, were, uh, Greg Proops, you know… I had never seen, except for Blaine Capatch…
I remember Blaine getting lectured all the time about this: “You’ve got to think about what the audience is going to laugh at, you’ve got to keep the audience in mind.” And Blaine was one of the first guys that was like, “I’m just gonna --“ And he’s an amazing joke-writer, but he was the first guy I saw that had the inklings of, “I kinda don’t care what they think. I think this is funny, I’m just gonna say it.”
So then to see that exploded to this degree, which now is normal to me, but people like Greg Proops, this guy Bob Rubin, who was fucking amazing -- like, talk about totally going off the top of his head -- Bizarre… It wasn’t even a show, it was an event. It was like, “Did you see what happened last night?” I mean, guys used to go, “Yeah, it’s a different thing every night…” If you watch Bob Rubin, it really is a different thing, you don’t know what’s going to happen.
And then especially Jeremy Kramer. Those three, for me, were like, “Holy fuck. Holy shit.”
[“This just hit me -- a lot of comedians back in D.C. would talk about their shows ONLY in terms of the audience’s reaction. They never talked about what they did onstage because, really, that wasn’t important. They were doing the same act forever. Write 45 minutes and then lean on it.
San Francisco, especially, the other comedians would talk about the show only in terms of the comedian -- what they did onstage, the risks they took or, in the case of a Greg Proops, Bob Rubin or Jeremy Kramer, the overall event of the show itself. The audience was important, but ultimately incidental to the comedian having fun, and trying something different, and making the evening memorable, instead of just clocking in and doing the time.”]
The thing about San Francisco that was great was, that was a town that really big performers would come into that I could then see. You know? Dave Attell and Andy Kindler and Laura Kightlinger and Janeane Garofalo and Dana Gould; I had much wider access to really great comedians. And it was a place that comedians would crowd the back of a room and watch a performer. Marc Maron had moved there at the time, so he was another huge early influence on me.
I mean, the move to San Francisco was the first time that I was being influenced [by], “Oh, here’s what I want to do,” rather than Washington, DC was me constantly being exposed to, “That’s what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to do that…” You know, I saw early examples of everything Andy Kindler made fun of later, which was like The Planned Mistake, and the acting like someone’s taking this really ballsy stance, when it was the most -- You know, “I don’t care who I piss off, New Kids on the Block sucks!” [makes cheering crowd noise] “Fuckin’ fuck, I don’t give a shit, I don’t care, you know what? These guys can suck my dick.” [more cheers] “I don’t give a -- And if you like them, get the fuck out!” What are you doing?
[Patton gets up to go to the bathroom.]
One of the worst early pieces of advice I ever heard -- and it wasn’t even given to me, I saw this given to a comedian, and I’ve never gotten over this -- I was at The Comedy Club in Williamsburg, Virginia, it was called “The Comedy Club,” and the owner’s husband, this fuckin’ idiot… I hosted an open mike there every Wednesday for two years when I went to college… Some open miker went up and did a joke about how he hates people who smoke, ‘cause he’s a non-smoker. And he was working on trying to do jokes about smokers and why they’re douchebags. None of the jokes were funny, but that’s how he felt and he was making an attempt to articulate how he thought -- you know, he was an open miker. I didn’t even think anything of it. I was like, “Well he tried. Those are some new jokes, they didn’t work, it happens.” I’m in the back of the room later, and this guy is sitting with this kid, and he’s saying, “You know, you’ve got a really good stage presence, you’re really comfortable up there. Your stuff about smokers… You know, the popular thing now is that people hate non-smokers, because they’re whiny and militant. And I really think what you need to do is start being more aware of what audiences think, and what is popular, and what they already believe in. If you go along those lines, you’ll get a lot more laughs that way.”
And this kid was sixteen years old, and said, “Oh, okay.” And I was still too green and terrified to go, “What the fuck are you saying to him?” But I so wish -- If I could go back in time, I would take the kid aside and say, “Ignore everything that asshole just said to you. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” Try to figure out what the audience already agrees with and then go along those lines? It was so fuckin’ crazy.
But the thing about hosting every Wednesday night for two years there -- and this was a nice segue into moving to San Francisco, though I didn’t make this connection until recently -- I had to go up at eight o’clock and host three hours of open mikers. Some nights I would go up and I didn’t get the audience, and other nights I would go up and really just click with them and do crowd work. So, it helped me become more comfortable on stage, and it also got me over the two worst things for a young comedian: failure and success. Those are the two things that I think young comedians need to get over in their first few years.
Back in DC, there were guys that would have a really shitty set, and they’d be walking around going, “I’m not doin’ this shit anymore, fuck comedy.” And they would grumble and piss and moan and not write for a couple of days.
That was just as poisonous as guys that would go up and have a killer set, and go, “Okay, I gotta recreate that, that’s what it is.” And then they’d go up the next night and if it wasn’t the same thing, you could still see them, now they’re just full of contempt for the audience. “Don’t you assholes realize how fuckin’ well I did last night?”
When I got to San Francisco, I got to see amazing comedians, ten times better -- they could just wipe the floor with people in DC that considered themselves these bulletproof headliners -- they would go down in flames trying new shit, and the minute they were off-stage, boom, “I’ll be up tomorrow night. No big deal. Let’s go get a drink.” They were already beyond it.
And on other nights, they would go up and annihilate, and it meant just as little to them as failing the night before, because tomorrow night, new crowd. You better do something new. So you have to ignore success and failure, you just have to ignore them. They are meaningless. A killer set and an eating it set change nothing for you.
isoS: It seems like maybe the most important thing in comedy is, as a comic, you have to simultaneously be aware of the audience, but also say, “That’s not going to affect me.”
isoS: You have to learn to not care too much either way.
PO: You can’t go up and hate the audience, but you also can’t go up and need the audience. It’s gotta be just this -- you better be having fun. “I’m so happy to be up here. So happy you guys came out. But I’m gonna do what I do. And you can come along. Or not. But if you don’t come along, it’s all the same to me, ‘cause I’m happy to be up here period.”
isoS: It just seems like it’s kind of an unnatural thing, and yet you can’t really succeed without that.
PO: I. Hate. Needy. Comedy. Ninety percent of comedy films, ninety percent of sitcoms, are the neediest, most desperate, please God, what can we do to make you laugh? Please, anything, what do you want? Whereas all the movies and TV shows that become classics and become huge favorites are the ones that are like, “Hey, we’re glad you’re watching, but let’s remember who’s here for who. We’ve got some stuff going that we really like and we think you’re gonna like it, too.”
isoS: Right, like: “Here’s what we think is funny.”
PO: I think George Carlin, there’s a quote from him that’s like, “I’m here for me, and you’re here for me. No one’s here for you.”
isoS: [laughs] Yeah.
When you were in San Francisco, what was your act like back then?
PO: Oh man. When Blaine and I got to San Francisco we had this long night of drinking after our first couple open mikes, where we were like, “We are gonna have to scrap our entire sets, just burn ‘em to the ground.” And we pretty much did.
[“Know why I’m so articulate in describing what bad comedy was in the late 80’s? Because I walked it and talked it. A lot of comedians, in interviews, like to perpetuate the myth of how they were misunderstood and booed offstage and so ahead of their time and “born into a world they did not make”, but guess what?
I was a solid feature. Steady laughs, consistent sets -- and completely forgettable. I belonged to the audience. Not to myself. I owned four double-breasted suits, eight colorful shirts and wacky ties that I bought at a massive suit outlet on 1-95 in the summer of ’90. I wore ‘em with jeans and hi-top sneakers (like Howie Mandel and Jim Belushi!)
I hope all of you reading this are granted the gift I was given in the summer of ‘92 -- watching everything you believe to be true un-fucking-proven right before your eyes. I hope you get to face a blank page and no way back. There’s nothing more liberating, nothing more instantly evolving than to be proven wrong.”]
That’s the thing I think I learned coming up in such an awful, awful -- Washington, DC was such an awful comedy city, so awful. Every wrong thing that comedians do could be learned in DC in the late ‘80s. And one thing was the whole, “Well, my credits out of town are…” Which means fuckin’ nothing. There were all these guys who were like, “I used to middle in Phoenix.” Yeah, but you just did five minutes and you didn’t say a single fuckin’ funny thing.
So I can’t go to San Francisco, to the Holy City Zoo or Cobb’s and go, “I’ll have you know I featured at Tracy’s at the Bowman, up in Towson, Maryland,” which is a seafood restaurant. Who gives a shit? [laughing] You’re at Cobb’s, and you’re on a lineup with Greg Behrendt and Andy Kindler and Greg Proops. No one gives a shit, know what I mean?
isoS: So you were still trying to form your identity? How long did that take, to really figure out who you were on stage?
PO: Well once I moved to San Francisco, which was ‘92, I’d been doing it for four years at that point, and it took me another three years to really get comfortable. So it took about seven years to get over -- I just openly aped the people I was gonna ape until I got over it. It’s like the cure for heroin being more heroin. So I was like, Fuck it, I’ll just do it ‘til I was like, okay, enough, I got my own thing now.
Yeah, it wasn’t until ’95. I went through a real crisis in early ’95. I’ll never forget this: right after the new year, January first, until the end of April -- and you can ask Blaine about this, ‘cause he was there to see it -- I could not -- it was like someone flipped a switch off in me. And people would make jokes about it, like Tom Sawyer at Cobb’s, and people at the Punchline, even other comedians were like, “Hey, how are you gonna torpedo your set tonight?” I could not -- Even if I would start with some momentum, I would destroy it. It was really weird. It was really bizarre. And --
[Patton hears the Muzak again. It’s “The Wedding March.”]
It’s the fucking “Wedding March” again! Jesus Christ!
Anyway, sorry. I used to love this place. You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna burn Nelson four CDs of good shit. Not like the shit I listen to, but like, “Here, play some fucking ‘Night Music’ from Mozart, here’s some Jimmy Scott.” It’s not going to piss anyone off, play this. What the fuck is this? Ugh!
isoS: People love weddings!
UP NEXT: Part Three, in which Patton moves to Los Angeles and finds work in television...
Last edited by isoS on 11.24.05 12:15 pm; edited 1 time in total
Joined: 26 Jun 2005
Location: Los Angeles
isoS: How long were you in San Francisco before you moved to L.A.?
PO: Three years. Well, I moved there in the summer of ’92, and I went to L.A. very briefly in the summer of ’94 -- from March to August of ’94 -- to do a series of short films for Comedy Central that Blaine and I wrote called “Food for Thought.” We lived in a house in Sherman Oaks with Jeremy Kramer, which was really fun. And then we had to move back ‘cause we had no money and no other prospects.
And we still had something in us that was saying, “We need to move back up and keep doing stand-up.” ‘Cause the alternative scene hadn’t quite hit yet in L.A. -- there wasn’t a place to go up every night -- it was still Comedy Store, Improv, which we hated. So we went back up to San Francisco, where there were still rooms like the Phoenix Theater and all these little spaces where we could go up and really fuck around.
isoS: What was the deal with that Comedy Central thing? I saw that on imdb and I’d never heard of it.
PO: There was a show called Small Doses that our then-manager sold to Comedy Central and he got a bunch of his clients to do little short things. These two people had a little segment, other people had a little segment…
[Blaine] and I had a little segment where we’re in this supermarket, just talking. ‘Cause we would sit around and riff on stuff, and it was like, “What if it was just two jackasses talking about the dumbest shit possible as if we’re geniuses?” Basically, it’s two guys who think they’re really smart just talking about the dumbest shit imaginable. Or they’re talking about what they think are really smart subjects, but they’re clearly fucking idiots about it.
isoS: And those aired?
PO: All five aired, and then there was a sixth that didn’t air. And then two of them actually were entered into the New York Film Festival and won first and second prize in the short film competition, which got us some attention. It was like, “Hey, that’s nice. Where’d that come from?”
They’re gonna be on my DVD when it comes out in the spring.
[Patton later added: “Or not. We’re still trying to get the rights from Comedy Central. And find the tapes.”]
isoS: Oh cool. Yeah, I was looking at imdb and it didn’t even say what that was called, it just had the episode titles -- I was like, “What’s ‘Sleep, ‘Robbery,’ ‘Quarantine’…?”
[”I only just learned I can actually update by own imdb.com listing -- which I haven’t done, ‘cuz I’m so lazy. Maybe I’ll figure out when exactly those episodes aired, and put in an entry for Small Doses.
isoS: So you went up to San Francisco and then moved back in ’95?
PO: Yeah… [”We focused on stand-up for about nine months -- this is when I had my mini-breakdown, between January and April of ‘95, when I couldn’t write anything funny -- and did the road when we could.”]
But we submitted our short films -- They were hiring on MAD TV for the pilot, and the week we got the pilot Blaine and I had flown back to Baltimore to work Slapstix, with an X, together. And we were working there for a week. Neither of us had been back to the East Coast in a while, and we were so excited by all the shit we had been soaking up since the summer of ’92.
Now it’s spring of ’95, we’re back on the East Coast, and everything’s gone. All the comedy clubs have closed, there are a couple of little chains left open, everyone’s gone. There was a total brain drain out of the D.C., Baltimore and Philly area. New York was still hopping, but everything else… Everyone had said, “Fuck it” and left.
So we were at Slapstix in Baltimore, and we thought we were having one of the best weeks of our lives. The shows were great, just killing, and the staff was really nice to us… You can tell you’re doing something right when the waitstaff says, “We’ve been watching you every night, you’re really funny.” ‘Cause at that point they just tune that shit out, so for them to go up to Blaine and say, “Do that bit again that you did last night,” so they can maybe get the wording down and tell it to their friends? We felt like, “Wow, I guess all that time in S.F., doing sets every night paid off.”
At that point we had literally been doing comedy every single night for three years straight. I mean every single night, two shows a night sometimes. Or two shows a night, then running off to watch a third. I remember I would go to the Holy City Zoo, pray to get on early, then run to the Punchline to go watch David Cross or Dana Gould or Louis CK if they were in town. Just soaking everything up.
So, come Friday, we go in and the owner is in the office. This total fucking asshole calls us into the office, and he’s holding two stacks of comment cards. This sounds like such bullshit, but this is what happened:
One of the stacks is this thick [indicating with fingers], just this big wad. The other one, he’s got six cards.
We walk in and he says, “These six comment cards, these people hated you. Fucking hated you.” He’s flapping this thin little stack in his hand.
Blaine and I, not meaning to be assholes, just started laughing, like, “Who gives a shit? Fuck ‘em!” ‘Cause we were having a great week, with nothing but compliments from the crowds as they left.
And he barks, “Goddamn it! These are six people that are never gonna come back!”
“Yeah, who gives a shit? Fuck ‘em, they suck.”
He says, “Goddamn you, that’s not how you run a fuckin’ club!”
We stared at him. “I don’t know what to say.”
And Blaine finally said, “What does the other stack say?”
And the owner took this whole stack and just [threw it away], “I don’t give a fuck what they say! You can’t have any negative cards!” Screaming at us. And we were like, “I don’t know what to say to you.”
So that night, at the late show, this group came in, and clearly they had gotten drunk in the parking lot. I’m not exaggerating: they came in, there are all these framed pictures on the wall, and as they walk in they’re just ripping pictures off the wall and throwing shit -- screaming at the wait staff and knocking over tables, grabbing food off other people’s tables. They haven’t even sat yet, they’re just walking, [pantomimes their behavior]…
Blaine and I said, “Hey, maybe we should kick those people out, they’re really rowdy. They’re awful.”
But [the staff] said, “Yeah, uh, we sorta can’t do that.”
So we say, “Oh, we’ll go tell Chris.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
We go to the owner and say, “Hey these people…”
And he explodes. “I’ve fuckin’ had it with you assholes! Your goddamn Hollywood attitude! Those people are buying drinks, goddamn it! They’re fuckin’ here to drink! Are you gonna buy as many drinks as them?” Just screaming at us.
Sure enough, middle of the show, they’re screaming, knocking into people, security has to throw them out.
Now that I think of it, on this last tour filming the TV show, Maria Bamford summed up what bad comedy clubs are, it was so perfect:
It’s a group drinking song. That’s what a comedy club is. People pay to participate in this group drinking song.
And so, back to Baltimore in ‘95 -- that’s the week we got the call saying, “You’ve been hired on this pilot.” So in the middle of this week at Slapstix -- getting yelled at about the comment cards, the violent drunkards getting precedence over the comedians putting on a show -- we said, “Fuck this, we’re going down to L.A. We have to.”
Because San Francisco… at that point was a really proto version of what the alternative scene would become in L.A.: it was all comedians starting their own rooms just for other comedians, no one was coming out, but we were all having fun and doing really bizarre shit. But there are no comedy clubs left. Every comedy club except Cobb’s and the Punchline had closed. Eight comedy clubs in San Francisco had closed -- they all closed. You couldn’t even make money in San Francisco -- it was ridiculous. They couldn’t pay the locals any money, ‘cause they had to spend all their money on out of town talent.
So we got out. The way Blaine described it is, we’re running across a log bridge and the logs are falling behind us as we’re going.
The Slapstix experience was also really sad for me because in December of ’94 I went up to work the Comedy Underground in Seattle, and the owner Ron Reed was one of my favorite club owners. I was up there with Tim Wiggins, who was this great, unsung, brilliant comedian from the late ‘80s, early ‘90s San Francisco scene, genius stuff. This one show, the audience just didn’t -- They were booing him off the stage, “Shut the fuck up, you faggot!” Not getting anything he was talking about. And Tim is unflappable, “I don’t give a shit.” He’s doing what he wants to do.
And then, as the audience is leaving, Ron Reed is sitting by the cash register going, “You, get the fuck out, all of you, don’t come back to my club, you’re all fuckin’ morons.”
“Fuck you, we’re never comin’ back.”
“Good, get the fuck out!”
That was the first time I had seen a club owner weeding out people, “I’m going to take the time to build a great audience.” That was an early version of what I would later see with people like [Largo owner Mark] Flanagan. You know, like:
“I’m fuckin’ leaving!”
“No, I’m weeding you out.”
I’ll never forget, one of the best shows I ever ever ever saw… I have my list of top five shows, this is in my top five; it’s probably number three. I was in Montreal, the Montreal Comedy Festival -- it was either ’96 or ’97, I think it was ’96. We’re doing the Comedy Lab, Andy Kindler’s hosting, I’m on it, Todd Glass is on it.
And all these young, 25-year-old execs are there with their then-bulky cell phones, just flashing them. They’re there to look for talent, and they’re talking and yakking.
Andy Kindler says, “Hey, could you, um, not talk during the comedians that you’re here to see?”
And this guy, he was probably some junior executive, snaps back, “Hey man, if you don’t like it --“
And Andy is yelling, “If I don’t like it what?! What the fuck are you gonna do motherfucker? I’m doin’ a show, how the fuck am I wrong?”
And Todd Glass, out of nowhere, is just looming over their table, “Both of you, get the fuck out. We’re not doing the show for you. Fuckin’ leave. I won’t perform for you.”
The guy’s like, “Do you know who the fuck you’re dealing with?”
And the show stopped, and they chased these guys, they made them leave. And Todd says, as they’re leaving, “We’re gonna do a show, it’s gonna be the funniest fuckin’ thing, and you guys are gonna hear about it second-hand, you fuckin’ assholes.”
And the junior exec’s still trying to retreat, saying, “Big mistake, bro-ha. Big mistake.”
I kept thinking, “This is what comedy should be.” I was so happy to see that.
And then, of course, all the heat generated by that… Because once you tell anyone on a network level, “You can’t have this,” it’s: “Whoa, wait-a-minute, why don’t you…? Why don’t you want to work for MTV for $500 a week and no guild minimum?”
[Patton goes to the bathroom again.]
isoS: Describe the L.A. scene -- you came from the infancy of the alternative scene in San Francisco, but what did you find yourself getting into when you arrived in L.A.?
PO: I hate to simplify it, but the L.A. scene was all the refugees from the San Francisco scene, the NY scene, the Philly and Boston scene. A lot of people from San Francisco. It was everyone that had moved down here. Karen Kilgariff and Greg Behrendt and Dana Gould and Mary-Lynn Rajskub and Jeremy Kramer and Laura Milligan and Arj Barker had moved down here from San Francisco. It was all those people coming down here and naturally gravitating together, and then the few refugees from the East Coast -- me, Blaine, Tompkins, Cross, Louie C.K. Even though Louie C.K. never really moved out here, it was just that kind of feeling you got out here.
isoS: Would you like to add to the romantic vision of that era, or dispel it?
PO: I’m not going to dispel anything. I do look back on it really romantically. It was a culmination of everything that I had slowly begun to hope stand-up could be. I saw its complete opposite in D.C., then I saw its idealistic beginnings in San Francisco, and finally I saw it pursued realistically down in L.A.
I finally had people whose standards, either through design or naturally, were high, and it made me write better. And people that I was both a fan of and envious of in good ways --
I remember on the East Coast you were only envious if some asshole got a gig that you wanted, whereas here, I was only envious ‘cause I would think, “Oh fuck, that’s written so well. That’s so original. I’ve got to write at that level.”
There are probably sixty -- sixty! -- amazing comedians working here every night of the week, that you can see. I remember in my [original] Q & A thread [on aspecialthing, archived here], there’s this whole section where I wrote -- And I only meant to write ten or fifteen names [of comics I love], and I just kept going. It was amazing and hope-inspiring for me to see how many amazing talents are working all the time here. And not just working, but being rewarded for it. Not like massive stars, but working steadily, and have fans.
The other thing that’s really exciting now is the Internet. I don’t think things would’ve been as bad, even on the East Coast, even in D.C., if the Internet had been around. Because now, with sites like aspecialthing, and blowupthemoon, and Shecky Magazine, and Cringe Humor, even though a lot of them are at odds philosophically, it is a subjective, critical look at this art form. And it’s treated as an art form. It reminds me of the early, stapled-together punk zines, or Cream Magazine, where you had people that were really passionate about what they loved and what they hated. You don’t need to agree with everything.
I don’t hate any comedian -- any comedian -- you know? There are ones I disagree with, I disagree with their methods, or I don’t think what they’re doing is vital, but it’s not my business.
Because there’s room for everyone. You can make it your own way. And there are a lot of ways. I’m still baffled by people that get jealous or angry at a comedian having success, when it’s the kind of success that they would never want. You know, do you want what that guy has? Do you want to do what that guy has to do? That’s awful. Be happy that’s not you.
But now… The thing that always sucked about trying to come up was the few people who were writing about comedy knew nothing about it. They would just tell the same story over and over again.
I’ll never forget, when I was starting out in D.C. there was this awful awful comedian who was a friend of Dave Chappelle’s, and for some reason he was starting to get a lot of heat, even though he was just a… He was just a thief -- a blatant thief, actually, kind of impressive, ‘cause he was so blatant about it.
[“How blatant? How impressive?
Right before Blaine and I moved to S.F., this comedian -- Mr. X -- was doing huge chunks of Blaine’s material. Not even a line or two. Bit after bit after bit.
And we was starting to feature. He was getting middle spots -- which, for all of us, was big money in those days. Blaine was occasionally featuring, but mostly emceeing. And here’s Mr. X doing half hour sets -- twenty minutes of which was Blaine’s.
And Blaine, who’s a pretty calm, Zen guy, but everyone’s got their limits, finally gets fed up, and confronts Mr. X. And Mr. X was stunned.
Not stunned that he’d been found out. But stunned at Blaine for even raising an objection. ‘Don’t you understand, I’ve got to do a half hour at these gigs? I don’t have a goddamn half hour. And I don’t see you getting these gigs. When you start getting more feature stuff, you can do your stuff again. But I’ve got to work, man.’ He was actually disgusted with Blaine for not getting the gigs that would permit Blaine the time to do the hours of material Blaine had. This guy had maybe five minutes, but had hustled more time for himself.
In his mind, it was Blaine’s fault.”]
But the Washington Post did an article about him, and it was the standard stand-up comedian’s article, where they’re describing the open mike he’s at -- and I was at this open mike, I was one of the performers, and Chappelle was on it … and Mark Voyce and Blaine Capatch, and it was just this lively evening, everyone was doing great.
But the way they wrote the article was: “Comedian after comedian went up and was engulfed in flames of failure, and finally this comedian, Mr. X, strode up to the mike,” and there’s a space for a new paragraph, and then one sentence:
“Laughter had finally come to the room.”
I thought, “Wow, this is like reading science fiction!” This reporter had already written the article, and just plugged Mr. X’s name into it. Whereas now, you have writers like you, and people on blowupthemoon, and there are other guys who are starting to realize and do recaps that look at every night as its own thing.
It goes back to the whole, “Yeah, this guy killed three weeks ago, but not tonight. It doesn’t mean he’s not funny, but he just didn’t have a good set.”
And, “He’s in a rut, he’ll have a better set later.” Whereas, back then, if you had a bad set, there were guys saying, “I guess his career’s over. That’s it.”
That’s never it.
UP NEXT: Part Four, in which Patton deals with network executives, dreams of better television and ponders his future in comedy.
isoS: We were talking about L.A. in the mid-‘90s, and then kind of jumped into now. Is it kind of a continuity to you, in your head?
PO: Yeah. It is. When we all got down here in the summer of ’95, or at least when I got down here, there were people that were established, and we were all the young punks coming up and slowly working our way up.
And now, a lot of us have become -- we’re still reliable, we’re still vital and doing stuff -- but some of us are now doing regular TV gigs, writing or acting, and we’re not as hungry as we used to be. But there’s whole other level of young comedians coming up, and it’s so exciting to watch. It’s the same personalities, the same conflicts, the same bursts of creativity, the same discoveries being made, like, “Oh, this is what I should do!” It’s awesome, it’s so awesome.
isoS: That’s interesting, because I think sometimes people look at it as, “Well, that was the early days, when alternative happened, and then it was big, and then it kinda died down, now it’s coming back…”
PO: I don’t think of it that way. It’s a different wave every five or six years. And it’s a fresher wave, and it’s a wave that builds on the wave before, but it’s also a wave that reenacts stuff that happened before, but in a new way. And it’s always just as vital.
isoS: If you were to compare now to ‘95, do you think there are more opportunities?
PO: Way more opportunities. With the Internet, people can build their own websites, build their own followings, show their talent in different ways and write in ways that make people want to go see them live.
Chris Hardwick said it in his song, “You’re point-oh-oh-oh-oh-one percent of the audience pool,” but it’s a very loyal base. I’m so excited that Sarah Silverman’s got her project on Comedy Central and Louis C.K.’s got his on HBO, and with Comedians of Comedy…
I’m very torn these days between wanting to be in front of the camera vs. working on getting the people exposure that I think are not getting the exposure or are being used incorrectly. I hope they don’t take this the wrong way, but one of the things that makes me the most proud of The Comedians of Comedy is that it showcases Zach and Maria the way they should be showcased. I think a lot of people have acted like, “Oh yeah, I get what you’re doin’,” but they don’t, and they don’t showcase them correctly. I really think they are the two most innovative comics working today, I just really do, and that’s why I wanted them on the show.
But that’s an example, it has nothing to do with me, it’s an example of how the environment is changing to make it easier for those people to get through.
isoS: You sound pretty hopeful about the chances for this kind of comedy to make inroads into the mainstream.
PO: Yeah, I’m always hopeful. I mean, it just takes -- If Louis C.K.’s show is a success, then they’re gonna say, “Well where did that come from? We want more of that.” And they’ll go looking in places like the UCB Theatre and the M Bar and Largo. They’ll go looking there, and they’ll see -- God, I mean, I hate to sound like a sleazy producer, but there are people there that are ready to be given shows. It baffles me to see the kind of stuff that for the most part is being picked for Comedy Central and even Spike and networks. It’s like, if you want a show, it’s just sitting there! And not even raw and needing to be developed -- well formed, well thought-out, ready. Hire the fucking cameras, hire a staff and shoot this goddamned thing, it’s ready to go. It drives me crazy.
isoS: That’s one weird thing: if stand-up comedy is having a resurgence, I still haven’t seen as much -- I mean, your show is doing it, but --
PO: My show is doing it, but it remains to be seen whether it’s a success. We’ll know on Saturday, I guess.
isoS: But you don’t see as many -- one of the great things about the boom in the ‘80s was that there were a ton of stand-up shows on TV.
PO: And they were all done incorrectly. They all only served to crush anything unique and fit everything into this little [mold]. Even, I hate to say it, but the Comedy Central half-hour specials, the way those things are formatted is a way to make everyone fit into the same mold, do an eleven minute chunk, do a seven minute chunk, do a four minute chunk, get out. That’s fucking ridiculous.
isoS: The sets always look the same, which kind of homogenizes everything.
PO: Yeah, or it’s this idea of, “Everyone’s got their own unique backdrop, but it all has to fit…” It’s so confusing.
I just found out today, I had no idea, they’re putting my half-hour special [from 1999] on my DVD. I’m going to have a thing on my website saying, “If you want to see how NOT to do a stand-up special, I’m including this bonus feature: a bad stand-up special,” which is what my half-hour is.
And if you want to see how to do it right, not to toot my own horn, there are still things I would redo about my one-hour special, but watch my one-hour special. That’s when I finally got over my fear of -- this happened too the last time I was Aspen.
Wait, I don’t want to sound like I’m this defiant, rebellious guy -- I’m a total pussy when it comes to dealing with a network -- but I just did my act, and they had to bleep it. And I did the same thing when I was in Aspen. I did this little thing for TBS, and I just went out and did my act, and I came off and this comedian Kevin Brennan [“another underrated, brilliant comedian who should be much more famous then he is”] says to me, “So did you get approval to do that stuff?”
And I said, “You know, I don’t want to put ideas in your head, but it’s not your job to fit your stuff onto TV, it’s their job to fit your stuff after the fact.” I’m a big believer in not asking permission, but just apologizing later. ‘Cause if you ask permission, they’ll always have a reason to say, “Well, no, you shouldn’t do that.” So I just do it, and then they’ll have to figure out how to make it work.
I know that sounds so defiant, but look, the contract’s already signed. What are they gonna do, not show it? If they don’t show it, fine. I’ve been paid, and I don’t have a shitty product out there.
I did a lot of stand-up shows when I was coming up where I did what I wanted to do and either the audience didn’t respond or [the network executives] weren’t happy with it, and they’d say, “Well, we’re not gonna show it.”
“Am I still getting my paycheck?”
“Then I don’t give a shit.” That was just rehearsal for me for when I get a special later. Again, I don’t want to sound like I’m more defiant than I am, but there’s just something where I feel that’s not my job to worry about…
I remember when I was sitting with the standards and practices people at Comedy Central for my one-hour special, and they were like, “Well, this thing’s a problem, this thing’s a problem,” and I just basically said, “Oh okay, yeah, I can totally change that,” and then I just went out and did it.
And again, I wasn’t like, “Fuck you!” I just said, “You know, I thought I had a way to do it, and when I got out there I realized I didn’t, sorry.”
isoS: They can always cut around it.
PO: “You can just bleep it, don’t worry about it.” I remember, one of the jokes I wanted to do, this woman said, “Yeah, I don’t about that.”
I said, “Can I not say that on television?”
And she says, “Oh, I just think it’s gross.”
I said, “Well, no offense -- I don’t want to get combative -- but I don’t care how you feel about it. Can I say it?”
“Well you can say it, I just don’t know why you’d want to.”
“Moving on.” I don’t know why we’re having this discussion. This is my one-hour special. It’s not called “Your Feelings.” If I do a show called “Your Feelings” then you can totally give me that note.
isoS: Even if they weren’t done in service of the comics all the time, the stuff that I grew up watching, at least there was a lot out there that you could see a lot of different comics -- you could see five comics every afternoon on MTV, on the Half-Hour Comedy Hour. I’m looking for that to start happening again. Where are the new people going to be showcased?
PO: Well, I wish they would stop doing shows like Premium Blend, which is taking new comics and throwing them in front of this giant stadium full of people so they have to all conform to a certain performance style. Comedians of Comedy partially came from my need, for years, for someone to do a stand-up show where it’s a small audience and hand-held cameras, and it’s intimate, rather than this unlit audience and this giant stage. The Atlantic City episode and the Martha’s Vineyard episode, we have an audience of like a hundred people. They’re tiny little rooms, even smaller than the UCB. But it’s great. It’s really sloppy and we’re just getting into it.
And in Boston, it’s a huge audience, but they’re right there. We’re right there on them. I want more of that. It’s unfair for your first comedy appearance to be in front of this gigantic room. Say what you want about “Evening at the Improv,” for all its faults, it was a smaller room.
isoS: That’s the real difference: no one was afraid to show a club on TV. That’s what comedy was.
PO: Yeah. But now I want it to be even smaller. That’s just my thing. Eh, what the fuck do I know. Literally. I’m not running a goddamned network…
isoS: We’re kind of on the eve of the premiere of the show --
PO: [laughs] “The eve…” The whole city is holding its breath! [makes a fart noise]
isoS: “The kitchen is abuzz…” That’s how the article is going to start.
PO: “The kitchen was…” [laughing] “The clatter of anticipation in the Chado Tea Room kitchen…” [makes whispering noises]
isoS: ”That’s Patton Oswalt… Patton Oswalt…”
PO: ”Oh my God…”
isoS: “Comedians of Comedy, Patton Oswalt…”
How do you feel about the show? How do you think it’s going to do?
PO: You know what, this is the first time I can honestly say, and again, it’s taken me this long to get to this point, whether it does well in the ratings or tanks -- I mean, of course I want it to do well, ‘cause I want to do more seasons of it -- but, if it tanks, at least I got something on the air that is totally what I wanted it to be. I got to collaborate with people I respect, and all the notes I got were only from people that are colleagues and not bosses, and I could totally agree with all their notes. If it fails, I won’t have to sit there and say, “It failed ‘cause I listened to the fuckin’ network.”
Whereas everything else I’ve ever done that’s failed, it’s because -- My half-hour special is such a disaster because I listened to their notes for me, and let them get inside my head. I’m not blaming the network, I’m blaming me: it’s my fuckin’ fault.
This is the first time, and this is after all my other failures, that I learned how to smile and say, “That’s a great idea.” And then me and [director Michael] Blieden would go off and say, “Eh, let’s just shoot it like this anyway. Who cares, what are they gonna do?”
isoS: Where do you see yourself in five years, or ten years? You seem like someone who’s always going to do stand-up comedy.
PO: Yeah. I would like to put out a good album every few years. Not every year. I wanna wait until it’s good every time. I’m very good friends with Dan Clowes, and his whole thing is, “I wait ‘til something’s really, really good.” That’s why Eightball comes out when it comes out. This whole thing of, “It’s been six months, you gotta keep your name out there.” Why do you wanna --? So then I’m known for putting out rushed, mediocre shit, rather than stuff that I really care about? Why do you want to be known for that?
So yeah, I’d like to keep putting out really good albums. Or -- I don’t know whether people think my album is good, I just know that I’m happy with my first album. I want to be happy with my second one.
I want to keep up this really sloppy, intimate relationship with my fans. There’s this unspoken rule of “You kinda gotta keep your distance.” I just think that’s silly. I remember, I got a lot of emails after me and Zach and Brian did our show in Atlanta, and I was on-stage really drunk, and me and Zach went back and forth arguing. A bunch of people were like, “Why don’t you just put it out on a cheap CD and we can listen to it?”
I was like, “Fuckin’ why not!” There’s twenty people that want it, I can make it myself, it won’t cost a lot of money, it’s a fun gift for them. Just that kind of thing, where there’s a lot more interaction.
I want to do an HBO hour. I want to do something where I’m told about it a year beforehand, and have a chance to put my money where my mouth is. ‘Cause there are so many people, I won’t name them but I’m so pissed, that wanted HBO specials so bad, and then when they got them they spent no time preparing, sloppy… You know, people that I respect just kinda went, “[fart noise], whatever.”
I want to have a Chris Rock window for a special. Just to see if I live up to what I’m always critiquing, what I’m always whining about. I’d like to have a year to prepare for a special. See how that goes.
I really had a fun time doing this Comedians of Comedy. I’d love to be able to keep -- not to become an impresario, but I would love to do an episode of Comedians of Comedy, if they would give me a second season, where I have a regular cast of my touring guys, ‘cause there’s such a long list of other comedians I want to put on that show so badly, people that I think need exposure.
But I’d also love to -- there are so many comedians that are doing the UCB every week that have had zero exposure that are so fucking funny I can’t believe it -- and I’d love to do a show where it’s me and some people that I know can draw, but we’re not in the show, and we each get to bring up someone that we’re excited about and say, “Folks, I’m really glad you came out, I’m glad you’re fans, you’re a fun crowd, but this is someone that I really like that I want you to be able to see and this is his first time on TV and here we go.” And just cut that show together. It’s their first time, and we’re fans, and we want to bring them to you.
isoS: If everything goes well, do you see a time when there would be one show that’s the tour documentary and then a separate show that’s just the performances? Or do you always want to keep it in the mix?
PO: I want to keep it in the mix because what I find so fun about the show is you see things happening to us that we’re either aware of or not aware of, and then later on, on stage, you see we’ve formed a bit about it. And you realize, and also we realize, that this has gotten to the point where it’s a reflex action. It’s not like we’re going, “I’m now going to sit down and write a joke about what happened.” It’s just we write a joke about everything that happens.
isoS: But for the completists? I guess there’s always going to be DVDs for people who want to see the whole set…
PO: The bonus shit on the DVDs is gonna be amazing. The stuff we have for the DVDs is fucking astounding.
One of our biggest regrets, the thing that really frustrated us -- all of us, me and Blieden and everyone on the show -- was that Blaine was the special guest on the very first show, the one we did in Baltimore. His set was amazing: it was all this new shit he’d been writing. You know, he’d been working at Blue Collar Comedy, so it was this whole other level of him that I hadn’t seen of like brilliantly venting his frustration at what he had just gone through, and not in a direct way, but in this much more Zen -- ‘cause he’s so Zen -- and it’s this amazing performance that we got on film. But then we could not justify putting him in the first episode, because we have to introduce who the four of us are, and it’s confusing, especially if you have him, it’s such a captivating performance, and then we never see him again.
So he’ll be a whole separate section on the DVD, we just couldn’t justify putting him in the episode. And it’s so frustrating. Because he was so amazing. I mean obviously I’ve always been a fan of his, I really think he’s one of the best comedians working, but that night it was this whole other level. And also, he was so excited to be kind of back in his hometown, and in front of this amazing audience that was ready to go anywhere anyone went.
And I think me and Brian and Zach and Maria have very distinct, almost contradictory styles, and we got the kind of audiences that we’re just, “Oh, we’re going this way now, and now we’re going this way,” and there was no having to readjust anything. “This is where we’re going now -- good, got it.”
isoS: Bringing it back to what you’ll be doing down the road, do you think you’ll be doing stand-up when you’re seventy, and do you think that’s good? Do you want to be like a Carlin? Do you think there’s a point at which people should stop doing stand-up?
PO: If you’ve stopped having fun you should stop, but that’s up to you. I mean, Jonathan Winters is still hilarious whenever he’s fuckin’ around. Bill Cosby lately, has anyone seen him? He’s amazing! He’s gotten to this point -- I mean, I think you have to go through your fallow periods, but if you stick to it you get to this point where you can just talk and be so deep about everything. I mean, why the fuck not?
Some of my favorite comedians are older guys. Pat Cooper. I mean, there’s something beautiful about getting to this age where you’re like, “I don’t give a fuck who thinks I’m cool or not.” I’m still very much worried about -- and a lot of comedians, a lot of my contemporaries, though they would never admit it, are very worried about, “Am I still hip? Am I still relevant?” But when you get to that point where you’re like, “I could give a fuck.” That is when I think you really take off.
I went and saw that movie Comedian with Maria and I’ll never forget, we were coming out of the Sunset 5 and she says, “I never realized you could just do this forever. You don’t have to stop doing it.” ‘Cause I always thought there’d be a time when I’d be, “Oh, fuck, well I won’t be able to do this anymore,” and it’s like, “No, wait a minute. I don’t have to stop, I can just keep doing it.”
I say this in the documentary: I’m not -- and again, all my friends and everyone I’m a fan of is like this -- I’m not doing stand-up so that I can start doing movies or TV shows and never have to do stand-up anymore. I do movies and TV shows and write things so that I have more free time to do stand-up. Or I’m trying to increase my exposure so that I can do more stand-up. Everything is so that I can do stand-up; it’s not the other way around. And I know a lot of people that are doing stand-up so that they can get out of stand-up.
If you want to be an actor, go be an actor. Quit taking up stage time.
isoS: This is a terrible over-simplification, but maybe your whole crew, the people you came up with, the difference between you guys and the mainstream sometimes is just that that’s your approach: you start with it, you love it, your fans of it, you just want to do it…
PO: Hey man, when the comedy boom ended in the early ‘90s, a lot of guys stopped doing comedy. I know so many guys that were headliners, I look them up on the Internet, they’re not doing stand-up anymore, or I meet them and they’re not doing stand-up. They were like, “Well fuck it, there’s no money in it.” And other guys, when the boom ended, they started their own rooms and got day jobs so they could keep doing it. So…
isoS: Yeah, there’s something cool about that.
PO: Well, I’m very happy and humbled that I’m a part of that.
isoS: My mom has a magnet on her fridge that says, “Yoga for the rest of your life.” She’s kind of a pseudo-hippie. Maybe your magnet should just say, “Comedy for the rest of your life.”
PO: [laughs] I have one of a little ceramic bagel with googly eyes saying, “What’s not to like, buhbie?” Maybe that’s not the same thing.
Last edited by isoS on 12.2.05 3:38 pm; edited 3 times in total
Joined: 07 Jun 2005
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Also, Patton makes being a struggling, impoverished young comedian seem like a lot of fun. I mean, I know that for every story like this there are 200 others that end with a promotion to senior staff manager at Arby's, but still - doing whatever you can to get by, as long as you can be on stage and practice what you love doing...it's inspiring. Makes me wish my sense of humor could be translated to any kind of performance career.
Oh well. Time to get this status report sent to the client so I can meet the guys back by the coffee machine. Can't wait to hear what they have to say about last night's "Prison Break"!
Joined: 12 Aug 2005
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Seriously, post the second part now or I will refuse to pardon a ceremonial turkey. (i'm the unofficial president of turkeys) (you should be the official president of posting the second part right now)
And I don't think Bugs Bunny is a prick, he only gives it to people who deserve it (Fudd, Sam, Wile E, the construction guy, the boxer, that big dumb Beagle, etc). Whereas Daffy is a prick without provocation.
Can't wait for Part Deux.
_________________ "You've gotta parcel out the bunnies or else you're fucking up your whole life." -jesse thorn
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