Patton Oswalt is, admittedly, hard to pin down. He is a busy actor, comic book writer, sitcom narrator. But at his core, Oswalt is a stand-up comic.
On September 20, he will release his fourth hour for Netflix, which he named Ve All Scream. He also serves as an executive producer, along with David Rhett, Neil Marshall and Marcus Raboy, as well as directing the special, a new role he is particularly proud of. In fact, Oswalt now puts directing other Hollywood projects at the top of his professional list.
The hour, which he filmed at the Paramount Theater in Denver, touches on everything from aging to the pandemic. According to Oswalt, the setting was less about geography than where his Denver stop fell on the tour. He also wants to switch his locations from special to special, and has already filmed hours in Seattle and San Francisco.
Earlier this month, Oswalt applied The The Hollywood ReporterA call from his car to the 405, where the Emmy-winning comic spoke candidly about creating content for a broken America and struggling with vigilantism and cancellation culture.
You have a lot. How did you decide it was time to tour?
It’s funny, everything I do in other areas, writing, acting, producing, is to increase my visibility and continue doing stand-up. Stand-up is always something I do. I’m either in the process of working on the next set or thinking about what the next hour will look like. So it’s not that I find the time, but that everything else fits in around me while I’m doing stand-up.
I realized. When it came to putting this set together, what did you want to say with it?
I never approach the particular in terms of what I want my thesis statement to be. I want it to be as accurate a reflection as possible of how I was at that time. So my last special, I felt like I was coming out of grief [Oswalt’s first wife died in 2016] and I hugged love again [he remarried in 2017] and things were kind of hopeful. This one isn’t so hopeful, but it feels like, OK, we’re kind of coming out of a lot of, not necessarily darkness, but loneliness. And so I admit that, oh, these days we’re programming a lot of our own loneliness and trying to fight that and, in a funny way, show that there’s a danger in that. I say at one point [in the special,] we all remember saying before the pandemic: “If only I could get a month to myself to sort out my life.” And then the universe said, “Well, how about four? How about 12?” So it really embraces the absurdity of it, the whole monkey-paw aspect of the reality we live in.
You titled your tour, Who’s Ready to Laugh? Is that the question you’re asking yourself: are people ready to laugh again, and has what they’re laughing about changed to that end?
I meant it more as ironic, asking, “Hey, who’s ready to laugh?” Like, after all the hell we’ve been through, the absurdity of what a comedian is doing right now, I really feel like the emcee in Cabaret a lot of time. Like, what am I really doing against this seeming tide of darkness that we’re facing? So the title was supposed to be funny in a desperate way. My interpretation was more, like, “Hey, I’m the party on the Titanic now,” because that’s how it feels these days.
We live in this very fractured time, and you don’t shy away from topics like vaccine resistance in your comedy. Do you find that your material is received differently when you travel and are you worried about alienating your audience?
I think I’ve always had a lot of faith in my audience to just kind of get on board and get whatever the joke is, instead of trying to predict ahead of time, like, “Okay, what’s the mood in the country? What can I say?” It’s like at least my audience knows that, and I hope this doesn’t sound like bragging, but they’ll understand that I’m joking and that I’m trying to embrace the absurdity of everything we live in. I think someone told us, during our life, that there was going to be a deadly pandemic and that people would react to it like people during the Salem witch trials, like “This isn’t real,” we would [think they were crazy]. But that’s the madness we live with, and there’s no escaping it.
But while the rest of us work in our bubbles, you travel from country to country, seeing how things are different, or not.
Yes. But, you know, it ended up being very hopeful for me. I’m going to quote my friend Bobcat Goldthwait here, but once you get out into the world, especially as a touring comedian, you learn that Twitter and the Internet are not the world. Twitter and the internet are amplifying a mutant version of the world for entertainment clicks. But in the real world, people, for the most part, struggle to help each other and live their lives and try to be just human beings. Unfortunately, it’s as if we have bad parents who model terrible behavior for us, and we are children. That’s what we’re seeing right now.
Who do you find yourself rejecting material for these days?
A few months before the special, I’m going to book two nights in a row, once a month, down at The Irvine Improv, a road comedy club where you really have to edit and hone your stuff. There is nothing more humbling than a night crowd that has no time for you. Will let you know [how you did] doubtless.
There are many people who will tell you that going on stage right now is scary, both because you don’t know what might happen and because you don’t know how your material might come out of context. Are these concerns you share?
I think comedians deserve context in what they say. You shouldn’t just “cancel” out of context, but I also think comedians have a responsibility to evolve and try to push things forward. And pushing the envelope doesn’t mean digging your feet in as the envelope moves forward – you should be in front of that envelope, that’s how you should be pushing it. Then again, the whole battle over vigilance is nothing new. This happened in the 80s, it happened in the 90s and it will happen again in a different form. That’s what I was talking about [in the special]. Just kidding in the future, what will I get fired for? And you don’t know, but you want to at least try to make progress.
The other thing I would say is that comedy has always worked better with limitations. Think about the limitations that Richard Pryor and George Carlin had, and before them, Lenny Bruce, and they found clever, brilliant ways to work around whatever limitations there were, that’s what made it so fun and exciting.
How does it feel today? What are the constraints under which you work?
I don’t know, it’s not something I think about. There should always be taboo subjects and there should always be smart ways to talk about them. You want both of those things. But like, if everything is allowed, then there’s no excitement in comedy.
Nothing feels dangerous, and thus nothing exciting.
Yes, just so.