Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Gnome

In the first of a trifecta of Fun January Outings, I had the pleasure of attending an interview with Patton Oswalt at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. Thanks, Pat!

The interview was part of the City Arts and Lecture series, which I haven't previously attended in person, but which I almost always catch on KQED radio. I love these - they're invariably insightful, generally amusing, and either bring up interesting people or provide rare fresh glimpses into familiar figures. The broadcasts are always edited down into hour-long segments, so in addition to the thrill of Oswalt I was curious to see how the live event compared.

First off, Herbst Theater itself is great. It's in a kind of sketchy area of town, but once you get inside, the building is pretty impressive.... smaller-scale than great theaters, but with an understated elegance that's really pleasant. I arrived about half an hour early, and so had plenty of time to buy a copy of Patton's new book, "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland." Would there be an author signing? Why, yes, there would! Hurray! I haven't been to one of those in, gosh.... since Terry Pratchett came through Kepler's or Chris Kimball came to Books, Inc., I guess.

The event was the final entry in a series to benefit 826 Valencia, a great local non-profit. It looked like most of the crowd was there to see Oswalt. It was mainly people around my age, but plenty of folks my parents' ages as well. There was a lot of chatter and a good vibe in the lead-up to the event proper.

The interviewer was Andrew Leland, the editor of The Believer magazine, which I am vaguely aware of but have not read. He introduced Oswalt while acknowledging that we all knew who he was, paying special attention to his recent major film roles. Oswalt came on stage, and they went to it.

The early stages felt a little rough... still enjoyable, but Andrew would typically start asking a question, Patton would start answering, then Andrew would try to interject another point or clarification, and they'd muddle through it. Patton was game for answering "serious" questions (very early on, Andrew did actually say, "But, no, seriously..."), but in general he seemed to enjoy getting on a riff and doing something funny with it. We loved him for this, of course. After a while he and Andrew fell into more of a rhythm, where he would get a full question from Andrew, spent several minutes doing whatever he wanted to with it, then he'd take a sip of water and give a barely perceptible nod to Andrew.

Early on, Andrew said that he'd detected a common thread among the various roles that Patton had played. "You mean, someone offered me a part?" Patton replied. "Yep, that's it! The common element that ties everything together. Either I auditioned for a role, or someone offered me a role, along with money, and I said 'Yes!'"  Andrew eventually clarified that, in King of Queens, Ratatouille, and Big Fan, Patton has played obsessives: characters who are completely enthralled by a topic, whether it's comics, food, or the New York Jets. Patton whole-heartedly agreed. He's been obsessed by a lot of things ever since his youth, and continues those obsessions forward today; and, having that kind of experience with his particular topics of fascination, he can understand what it feels like to have a similar level of dedication to other areas.

The interview ranged all over, but a lot of it was at least loosely related to Oswalt's new book. Here are a few fairly random remembrances:

Early on, Oswalt talked a fair amount about imagination. He credits some of his inventiveness to growing up in the suburbs, with limited access to artistic resources. He would collect comic books, but wouldn't be able to find all the issues, so he'd have to imagine what happened in the story, to fill in the gaps in a satisfying way. Andrew asked him how that related to his experiences working in a [very bad] movie theater, whether he felt inspired to "fix" the [very bad] movies he saw there. Oswalt said "no" - at that stage in his life, he could fill in the gaps for incomplete works, but a movie was a fully-realized thing... he could dislike it, as he did, but didn't feel like he had the capacity to, say, rewrite the script or provide alternate direction.

He also talked a lot about comedy tours, and the state of comedy in general when he was starting out, from the late 80's through the mid 90's. These were some of the most hilarious moments of the evening, reminiscing about the truly horrible venues he'd played at.  One place was called "Sir Laffs a Lot". It was a comedy venue in a hotel. Basically, they would drag in exercise mats to block off the area underneath a grant staircase from view. They would set up folding chairs inside for the audience, erect a portable bar, bring in a Radio Shack microphone, then shine a desk lamp at the comedian. That was it. When the show was over, they would take the mats down, cart everything away, and poof! Like that, the comedy club was GONE. Oswalt said something like, "I realized that I had been performing under somebody else's stairs, like a comedy goblin."

He remembered one time that he was doing a show, and a table full of loud, drunk, obnoxious women was right in front of the stage. He decided that he'd just ignore them and do his show. Things were going well, until at one point one of them shouted at him, "You aren't even listening to us!" "And," Patton said, "She was right! I didn't know what to say to that." In a more philosophical sense, Patton strongly believes that when an audience comes to see a show, their focus is all on the comedian. And the comedian's focus is... all on the comedian. Nobody should be paying any attention to the audience. If the comedian isn't having fun, if he or she isn't loving what they're doing, then the show will suck and nobody will enjoy it. So, Patton doesn't worry about, say, whether he's being "too literate" for the audience, or if they'll "get" a pop-culture reference, or whatever. His job is to be funny, and that humor can only come out of exploring stuff that he finds amusing.

Andrew asked how Patton writes his jokes. He replied that he can't write his bits. He's tried, and he knows that lots of other comedians can, but he's incapable of writing off the stage. EVERYTHING that goes into his act comes from him being on stage. He'll come up there with some ideas about what he wants to talk about, and over the course of many shows he'll gradually arrive at the right mode of expressing what he wants to, but it's an organic process that comes out of the presentation. Patton says that the down side of this is that the first few audiences to encounter a new bit generally get screwed over. "Like, a few years ago, I would say, 'Ummmm.... you know what's really, really awful? KFC. It's like.... really gross. And stuff...  Sorry, I'm still working on that bit.'"

Andrew asked Patton if he'd read something from his book. Paton gave a stage laugh. "Oh... I don't think these people came here to listen to me read.... DID YOU?!?!" People started clapping and cheering. Patton's gaze shifted to one of mock horror, and he shook his head sternly while glaring at us. Finally he opened the book and started to read, quickly stopping in a fit of giggles. "I'm so bad at this!" he said. "I've never been on a book tour before, I have no idea what he hell I'm supposed to do. I'm just spinning on this chair like a mad gnome, dispensing gnomish words to you all." He picked it back up and began reading again. The excerpt describes his FIRST experience writing - ZSW is his first published book, but back in high school, he wrote two "novels." They were both inspired by The Road Warrior, and fit into the "wasteland" category of the Zombie/Spaceship/Wasteland characterization. I don't want to spoil it here, you should read the actual book, but it's awesome. In one of his stories, the main character spends the first 80 pages equipping himself; the book ends after he gets the really cool gun, because Patton couldn't think of anywhere to go after that.

Patton thinks that the Internet is great for comedy. Everyone alive now has a chance to see everything that's been done before; at any time, you can watch SCTV, or SNL, or Monty Python, or Kids in the Hall. That's inspiring people to be even greater, to build on and exceed the best of what's come before. In the next generation, though, he expects that there will be a reaction against the omnipresence of the Internet. The big thing will be getting offline: building mystique by staying offline. He's waiting for the first person who will put one of those cell-phone-signal-blockers in their performance room, blocking anyone from being able to document the event. (Sadly, of course, people could just record it and then re-broadcast once they regained signal. Still, it's an interesting thought.) Honestly, I wasn't totally sure whether this was really a "serious" prediction from Patton, or if it's, um, a new bit he's working on.

Patton didn't name-drop a whole lot, but the one comedian who he repeatedly invoked, always in very warm terms, was Louis C. K. For example, at one point he (Patton) was talking about how his comedy has evolved. When he was starting out, he was fairly young, and inexperienced, and didn't totally understand how the world worked (which, itself, is manifested by the "zombie spaceship wasteland" theory that he posits in his book - fascinating stuff!). Because of that insecurity, his early jokes were focused outward on the problems of the world. "Oh, look at that dumb thing! Boy, I sure am smart to see the problem with that!" Now, though, his comedy is almost all about himself: specifically, the dumb things he thinks, the dumb things he does, etc. Andrew had asked whether Patton was worried about bringing his family into his routine; whether he thought about how his daughter would react to jokes about her once she grew up. Patton said that he doesn't worry about that too much, because his humor is always against himself. His jokes aren't, "Boy, my daughter is really stupid!", they're, "Wow, I did something incredibly foolish to my daughter." Anyways, he said that Louis C. K. is another comedian who works in this kind of mode, which is why he likes Louis so much.

As Andrew wrapped up the interview portion of the evening, he closed with a question that went SOMETHING LIKE the following. "I'm not a... I used to read comics, but I haven't for years, and you have. I keep hearing that there are really good comics now. The 'hero' comics. What do you think makes them so awesome?" Patton cracked up. "That has to be the worst question ever. 'So... comics. Sup?'" He did give a really, really great response, though. He specifically called out who I've come to think of as the three masters of the renaissance: Gaiman, Miller, and Moore. (Through sheer coincidence, that's the same order in which I encountered them, although it isn't the order they wrote.) He says that what they did in the 80's is basically what Mel Brooks did in his early films. Mel Brooks had some topics that he absolutely adored - Broadway musicals, Western movies, and the movie Frankenstein. He'd gone so far as to buy the props for the Frankenstein movie and was keeping them in his garage. When people would ask Brooks why he held on to them, he said, "I don't know! I just have to have them!" Mel's love of these topics led him to ask questions and perhaps be more critical. "Frankenstein is awesome, but isn't it weird how...." or "Broadway is great, but it's kind of silly that..." These things didn't diminish his love of the subject; rather, they came out of his love, and when he then had the opportunity to create his own works, he incorporated a higher level of appreciation that included comedic criticism into his approach. That, Patton (convincingly) argues, is what made the first wave of the new comics rennaissance so exciting. These were people who great up with Superman and Batman and all the rest, who loved the medium and all that it could do, and through their love could see the flaws in the genre, and when they started creating their own comics, it raised everything above. We're now seeing the second generation of artists following in their footsteps, and the upwards trend continues.

At the end of every City Arts program, there's a set ritual they follow; even though I've never been to one before, I know it by heart from the radio. They bring up the house lights, send out roving microphone-bearers to interested parties, and direct the interviewee's attention to each person in sequence. Either Patton hadn't heard this before (and, really, why would he?), or he'd just decided to have some fun with it, because he kept giving better and better reactions each time someone said, "The next question comes from the left of the orchestra" or "The next question comes from the center of the balcony." He'd respond with, "Wow, that's some Spider-Man s*** going on there!" or "I feel like you're giving instructions to a sniper. 'In case this next guy tries to rush the stage.... he's at the right center of the orchestra!'"

The questions he got were really good. Here are my recollections of a few and the responses:

"I'm from Madison, Wisconsin, and I thought you totally nailed how those Midwestern cities are. You grew up on the East Coast, so how did you get to figure out what these places were like? Did you just pick it up from your tours?"

Yes. Patton loves places like Madison and Athens, oases of culture and awesomeness within a sea of mediocre, blah surroundings. He had a great time in Madison one Feburary when he was touring with a group of other comedians. They had to do shows in Sheboygan and a bunch of other places, but they got to spend a few days in Madison. Patton remembers sitting in a cafe on an unseasonably warm February day, talking with one of the other comics about how great it was to be in a town with great coffee and good bars and lots of books. Then, a group of wrestlers in town for the high school national championships walked by and yelled "Faggots!" at them. So... Madison is awesome, expect when the wrestling champsionships are happening.

"What happened with your Broadway show?"
[This was totally news to me, so I didn't understand any of the names in the reply - sorry!]
They were in previews, but someone (the director?) quit, so they had to shut down the show. Apparently, this happens a lot on Broadway - every year dozens of shows start previews on Broadway, and many of them close before they ever open.

"Can you compare and/or contrast what it was like working with two of our greatest filmmakers, P T Anderson and Steven Soderbergh?"
Patton really enjoyed answering this one. He loves them both, but they're very different. Anderson is very much an auteur. He has this complete vision in his head about what the movie will look like, and nobody but him can see the whole thing. When you're working with him, you can see him editing the film in his mind while they're shooting. Patton remembers standing in a custom-made wetsuit, when it was scorching hot outside, as the crew poured bottle after bottle of Aqua Fina over him... he was so hot that he was sweating profusely, and then he was so incredibly hot that he stopped sweating. He asked Anderson what he was doing there, and Anderson said, "You're the first frog to fall from the sky." And so he was.
Soderbergh, on the other hand, seems to want to make as many movies as he can, as quickly as he can. He's like a modern-day incarnation of the great Old Hollywood directors. He'll show up, point out where everyone needs to go, take the shot, ask the DP if it looks OK, maybe take it once more if necessary, and then move on to the next shot. He's a craftsman, who turns out great work with minimal fuss. Soderbergh wants to release several good movies every year; P T Anderson wants to make an AMAZING film every two decades.

"I need to challenge something you said earlier. You claimed that the performer needs to just focus on themself, not on the audience. However, you also said that you refine your act over multiple nights, so doesn't that mean that you ARE focusing on the audience?"
No. It's absolutely essential for the comedian to pay attention to their internal voice telling them what's funny; trying to chase after the audience's whims will destroy everything. "I understand what you're saying, man, but... you're f***ing wrong."

"Two questions. First of all, I moved to California from the East Coast, and I totally get what you say about that experience. To me, it feels like the West Coast is way more laid-back, but also really anal about it. So, how do you explain that difference in cultures? And my second, totally unrelated, question is, when will we finally get to see 'Rape Stove: The Stove that Rapes People'?"
Big laugh. "Well... we started previews, but the director quit, so we had to shut it down." Bigger laughs. "It was artistic differences. I wanted the rape stove to swing down from the top, others wanted it to swing open from the side, and we couldn't resolve it."
He totally gets the east-to-west thing. When you first get here, everything seems wonderful. Everything's more relaxed, people are having fun, and you can just do drugs, hang out, and have a blast. The problem is, that isn't the real world. That's true of Berkeley, and also of those other cool little oases around the country. You can wear your jester cap while riding a unicycle down to the park, but it doesn't really mean anything. People eventually feel like they need to grow up. So... yeah. He can't articulate it yet, but there's definitely a huge difference there.

"Years ago you described a comedian named Dr. Pepper who performed at an open mike in Toronto. Has anyone ever stepped forward to claim the title?"
No! To this day, nobody knows who Dr. Pepper is. It totally happened, but it seems like he's vanished.

And with that, we gave Patton a HUGE round of applause and filed out. I grabbed a relatively early spot in line, and soon was happily departing with my personalized book. As usual, I failed to think of anything interesting to say to him... I should start studying for book-signings ahead of time, so I can present something better than, "Thank you for coming, I really enjoy your work!" He was super-nice, and we (very) briefly chatted about R.E.M., which (as I learned while frantically reading the first chapter of ZSW prior to the event) was a formative influence on his teenage years. Oh, yeah: right after writing about the horrible movie theater, he synthesizes Philip K. Dick with "Fables of the Reconstruction" (AND manages to show off both his depth of knowledge of R.E.M. and his innate niceness with a pithy footnote that simultaneously acknowledges and dismisses the album's alternate title).

Obviously, I had a blast. I'll try to post a notice (here or on Facebook or something) when I hear word that the interview is ready for broadcast. Sadly, City Arts does not post past programs online for later listening, but it will totally be worth your time to make the time to listen to the live broadcast... Patton was funny and insightful, and did his own part to advance the state of the art of this lecture series.

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