It’s hard to limit yourself to just one topic when talking with stand-up comic, actor, and pop culture oracle Patton Oswalt, and so a conversation initially focused on his fantastically smart and silly new Netflix special, We All Scream (which you can stream now), veers a little. Make no mistake, there’s a lot here for fans of Oswalt’s comedy as we discuss the special (which is his directorial debut) and why he never blames an audience for a missed joke. But we also discuss the rah-rah patriotism of Top Gun: Maverick, the positives of nostalgia overload, and the dangers of over-enthusiastically trying to shepherd a new generation to the “good” art.
All of this is to say that what we have here for you is further evidence of Oswalt’s fertile mind and a nice appetizer for a special that is as comfortable talking about our tenuous grip on what is cool and what is inoffensive as it is joking with doctors and grocery store managers in the audience after spinning a tale about a barn full of pubic hair.
We spoke in May 2020 (right in the middle of lockdown) and I just remember asking (in a tearful frightened voice) “what… what movies are you watching? I don’t know what to ask?” It was a great conversation on my part.
I’m sure that interview was a portrait of psychosis.
[Laughs] And it was still early. So, I love the special. But are you really that hard on yourself for what you did or didn’t get done during the pandemic?
It wasn’t that I was so hard on myself for what I didn’t get done. What I’m really hard on myself for was the self-delusional, aspirational nature of what I mapped out that I was going to do. And you realize, “Oh, all of the hubris that I make fun of in other people, I own in spades.” And so it can be a little sobering when you see that aspect of yourself and know that exists.
I remember years ago, I got laid off from a job, and in the first week I reorganized my house, I converted all my CDs to digital files. I really thought the pandemic was going to be the same thing. And I signed up for Duolingo and stuff, and I did not learn Italian. Patton, I did not learn Italian.
I’m still trying to learn Italian. Oh, my God, there were going to be so many things I was going to do and I just absolutely did not do them. Friends of mine learned to cook, they wrote screenplays and stuff, and I just couldn’t do anything because it was weird. It felt like, “Why am I trying to create something for a world that might not exist when I’m done with it?” You do need the world pushing back or waiting, even if they’re waiting to tear it apart. For me, at least, you feel like you want to feel like, “Is there someone waiting for this? Or else, why am I doing this?”
You talk a little bit about being open-minded and the passage of time, and you are someone who’s very notably into comic books, geek culture, things of that nature, Star Wars — the things everybody’s into now, basically. But there’s a gatekeeping aspect to that in a lot of people. How do you steer clear of that? Has being a father helped you get to a place where you’re able to accept, “Okay. Everything’s not about me?”
Yeah. It’s actually two things. The first thing that’s very important; everything is not about me. And a lot of people have trouble, I think, embracing that, but what’s even more important is you have to step the fuck out of the way. I’m still very in touch with remembering what it was like when I was a kid, what it was like to be in elementary school and then middle school and then high school, and trying to form yourself and nothing, nothing made you recoil quicker than an adult that wanted to have a guiding hand in the kind of media that I consumed or the music that I liked. Everything good that happened from our generation and from any other generation before that, or any other generation that is going to follow us, is from kids being left alone to figure stuff out for themselves.
My parents were not into science fiction, they were not into comic books. I found what I needed to find by myself. And so I don’t want to be the jock version of a nerd dad saying, “You’re going to sit down and watch these Marvel films,” I want her [Alice, Oswalt’s 13-year-old daughter] to figure out [what she likes]. She likes some Marvel stuff, but there are other things she likes that I don’t understand, but that’s her thing and I’m letting her go do it. I’m not going to try to cram my ’80s childhood into my daughter’s 2020s childhood, that doesn’t make any sense.
Sometimes it just freaks me out a little, how there’s still this continuing push (in Hollywood) to make things feel relevant that happened 30, 40 years ago.
Except, here’s what’s kind of cool about that, there is always going to be the force of nostalgia on culture. People look back at, “Oh, but the ’70s had Star Wars,” but they also had a lot of crappy reboots and redos of TV shows and movies, just like any other decade because everyone wants safety and it’s the people that reject the nostalgia and plow forward with the new thing that creates the new nostalgia.
So yes, for as many reboots that are happening right now and as many revisitations, there are also people that we don’t even know about yet, that are kicking against that and aren’t liking that. And, I feel like we have a better quality of reboots, something like Cobra Kai is a reboot about the dangers of nostalgia and rebooting things, about how that just creates more problems. The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, which is “all the Marvel Avenger stuff that you were rah-rahing for was actually kind of evil in a way, wasn’t exactly all good.” And that needs to be examined. So maybe the smarter reboot, the smarter nostalgia, will make people more leery of it when it’s done badly or when it’s done for propagandistic purposes.
It’s so hard to figure out if there’s a path that people can actually identify that will tell them what is going to succeed. Like Paper Girls just got canceled, but that was a great comic.
Right. Not only did they not give it a chance, I didn’t know that it was on until after it had been on. There was no build-up to it. I don’t remember seeing a trailer and that’s one of my favorite graphic novels of all time.
You just launched a comic with Dark Horse, Minor Threats [issue 2 comes out October 5]. As someone who is putting stuff out there in this world, do you try to figure out what the dynamic is to try and find success?
The only thing that will ever find success is when someone is making something that really is passionate for them, that they are excited to do. And if you feel that excitement, that’s what makes the thing push through. It’s why Squid Game was such a sensation. That was something that obsessed that guy for, I think 15 years he worked on that thing. It was just this thing that he could not get out of his head. So looking at whatever the trends are now or trying to predict an algorithm will always lead you to disaster.
As I think a lot of these paint by numbers, blockbusters, have been showing us, there’s been a lot of stagnation. Whereas something like Top Gun: Maverick, which I had my problems with, but that thing, whether you like it or not, is a crazy piece of filmmaking because that was a crazy obsessive vision from crazy obsessive Tom Cruise, who is basically betting on himself. And there is an actual visceral thrill to that, to seeing that level of commitment and kind of near insanity. There’s something thrilling about that, that a lot of other movies don’t have.
What are some of your issues with Top Gun: Maverick? I’m curious because I have some myself.
There’s a spooky, unspoken throwback to America: right or wrong, if anyone looks at us sideways, we go after them, even if that enemy might not be there. There’s no tangible, physical enemy there, in a weird way, the enemy is the unspoken idea that, “Hey, maybe America isn’t so awesome anymore. Well then let’s blow up the fucking world!” Now, however, they do make it look spectacular.
But the enemy in that movie is not the Russians, it’s not terrorists, it’s doubt in America. It is an esoteric idea that needs to be bombed off the face of the earth. And there’s something really weird about that. By the way, and I’m not going to lie and go, “And I sat there with my arms crossed and I was disgusted,” I was thrilled out of my fucking mind watching that thing. It was incredible.
I loved it, too. I just was hoping he (Maverick) would die. He saved him (Rooster) and it was nice, but I like fucked up endings, which is helpful for life. That’ll eventually pay off for me, but everything else, apparently gets a happy ending.
But he can’t die because at this point it’s like, this is all about franchise bucks down the line.
So you directed this special, tell me a little about just the decision to do that. Was this a precursor to something down the road, or is it just you really wanted to just take control here?
Both. I wanted to take control and have an idea that there are visual things that I want to see in specials. There are visual things I want to avoid in specials. I see a lot of crazy camera work and a lot of spectacle in the place of substance, and I really wanted to just bet on the substance of the material over any kind of crazy camera moves. And I had those ideas in my head. So to get to be there during the filming and during the cutting really made a big difference to me. And then it also showed me that, “Yeah, you can direct a movie.” It’s about gathering people and being open enough to other people’s suggestions and ideas to all create something together. And that’s how you get past the fear.
When you’re starting out as a comic and you’re experimenting, how do you avoid being angry at the audience when they don’t get something? How do you stay humble in that moment and not just be like, “Well they’re stupid, they don’t get me.”
That was very much a feature of my youth. I’ve been doing it long enough now to know that. No matter how long you’ve been doing it, you’re going to have bad sets. I’ve seen people walk on stage where the crowd goes nuts. You’re seeing them feel like, “Well, there’s no way they can fail,” and then they try new stuff and it doesn’t work. Sometimes, something you think is funny, either you can’t sell it or you were wrong and it doesn’t work. And again, it’s never the end of the world when something doesn’t work. But it’s also never, “This audience is fucking stupid.” You either didn’t sell it or you didn’t a hundred percent believe in it like you should have. Blaming the audience is taking the responsibility off yourself. You’ve got to make every audience your audience, no audience is your audience until you start talking and then you convince them that what you’re doing is funny. So if they’re not laughing, you didn’t convince them.
Do you think that we put too much attention on comics at this point?
I think it’s actually a bigger problem, I think we put too much attention on us being entertained at all times. Some things in life, some important things, don’t necessarily need to be entertaining to you. You’re being entertained enough. There are people that I know that didn’t even agree with Trump, but still were like, “But he is really entertaining.” I’m like, “I’m sorry, you’re not being entertained enough?” We are nonstop entertained in this culture. So if, God forbid, ten minutes of politics is boring to you, but it’s making sure that the dams aren’t collapsing and the water is running, then let that be boring. And then go back to playing Candy Crush.
You’ll be fine. You don’t need to be entertained every millisecond of the day. So it’s not that they’re putting so much stress on me, it’s like people are acting as if it’s some kind of crime where a minute went by where I wasn’t entertained and that needs to be addressed. No, it doesn’t, a big part of life is having to deal with boredom. And if you learn to deal with boredom creatively, that’s where you can really create interesting stuff. But if you’re constantly looking to be overwhelmed and engulfed by a new realm or a new form of entertainment, then you’re never going to form anything of your own.
I think that’s accurate. For the record, I’m not entertained by the world at large right now.
Yeah. Me either.
Patton Oswalt’s ‘We All Scream’ is streaming on Netflix now.