Archive for the ‘ Misc. ’ Category

At Least The Pooch Had Fun: My Interview With Patton Oswalt

At Least the Pooch Had Fun: My Interview with Patton Oswalt

Poor, poor neglected blog.

I have been meaning to put something worthwhile in here, and I am still forever writing down ideas and even whole paragraphs in my head, but exhaustion, monetary commitments, the usual, tedious depression, other writing projects and love all conspired against the blog. That’s an excuse I’m sure I’ve used before. It just has the added benefit of being true.

Part of the problem is that at least a few of my better essay ideas, which is something I really wanted to see a lot of on this blog, have been finding a place over at Drunk Monkeys. I’m not complaining about that. I’m always grateful to sell work. It’s just that inevitably the blog suffers as a result.

I still have ideas. I just haven’t gotten around to them. I’m going to do my best to work on that. This blog can’t just be short stories and poetry. It’s still supposed to be a testing ground for new ideas, new venues that will hopefully have some kind of positive implications.

I guess I just don’t kick my ass hard enough about getting on those ideas.

The first person I ever interviewed was Harvey Pekar. This was around 2004. I had seen the wonderful, hilarious and moving biopic based on his life and work, American Splendor, and I had read several collections of his brilliant, insightful comics. Getting his number from 411, calling him up and getting an interview were just a lot of messing around, wanting to do an interview and not knowing where to begin.

Harvey was definitely the man who had written those comics and inspired that film. He was funny, cranky, intelligent and gracious. I couldn’t have asked for a better first interview.

I was saddened when he passed away a couple of years ago. A view of the world like his is one we can never have enough of.

Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to interview a long list of writers, actors, musicians, filmmakers, performers and others. I won’t run down the entire list, but even a partial list would include George A. Romero, Henry Rollins, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, Vernon Frazer, Jill Sobule, Lance Henriksen, Tony Todd, Sid Haig, Ray Succre, Lloyd Kaufman, Utah Phillips (one of my all-time favorites, and another treasure who is unfortunately no longer living) and several others. I don’t really care if someone is or was famous. I interview people that I think will be interesting to anyone who might read it. I also interview people because I’ll always be a junkie for good conversation and for any opportunity to learn something.

The interviews unfortunately don’t come along as frequently as they used to. I don’t think there’s any special reason behind that. I just don’t get the same opportunities as I used to. Working for a horror movie site in 2006 gave me a slew of people (many of which I sadly didn’t get to interview), I tried to have an interview every month when I ran my own literary magazine and working for Unlikely Stories kept me busy with writers and other creative types. It’s not that I suddenly can’t interview people anymore. It just doesn’t come up in the usual line of work these days.

I still have a dream list though. People I think would make for a brilliant conversation. I won’t run down that list here, but it’s always there, and I’m always hopeful that the universe will throw some fantastic flash of good fortune my way.

Patton Oswalt was on that dream list. I still remember catching the hilarious, sincere documentary, The Comedians of Comedy at random one night on TV. The film was a record of Oswalt touring the country with fellow comedians Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford and Zach Galifianakis, performing shows in small, intimate venues, busting each other’s balls and discussing their careers and concepts of comedy. Besides being funny The Comedians of Comedy is a great piece on at least a part of what it is to be a working comedian. Its intelligence on the subject is a big part of what makes it so good. I can watch it at least once a year, and even imagine getting my own stand-up aspirations back on track someday soon.

A year or two later I picked up Patton’s album, Feelin’ Kinda Patton in a closing Tower Records (remember those?). I’m still amazed that my girlfriend at the time didn’t crash the car from laughing so hard (I guess it’s a bad idea to put on a comedy album while driving). I’ve enjoyed every single one of his albums, but that particular set might well be my favorite. I can get a laugh just from thinking about his bits on the apocalypse, gay retards, Tivo, Robert Evans, horrible liquor billboard ads, Black Angus and probably everything else on the album. I go through my comedy albums once or twice a month while working. Feelin’ Kinda Patton is always an essential.

Oswalt’s career has only gotten bigger since I saw Comedians of Comedy on TV so long ago. He’s been in several big movies, turned in strong, scene-stealing performances on shows like The United States of Tara, has put out a book, continues to tour and continues to be one of the best I know for summing up exactly how I feel about something.

Anyone who knows me even a little knows how much I could get out of an interview with him.

So, when a woman I was seeing at the time told me her mother was his French teacher, I put forth the idea that maybe she could help me set something up. I didn’t actually think anything would come of it. I’ve requested interviews with all kinds of people, and I’ve gotten just as many rejections with that as I have with short stories or poetry. It’s not a big deal. Like the rest of the rejection process, you get used to it.

It was a surprise then to actually get the interview. I guess it shouldn’t have been all that big of a surprise. Oswalt has always struck me as a nice guy, and it wasn’t completely unreasonable to imagine he would be willing to do something. It was just a question as always of his schedule.

Getting a response was a phenomenal opportunity. That was the only real way to look at it. I’ve tried not to be hero struck by some of the names I’ve interviewed. In my mind it’s probably a better idea to focus on that phenomenal opportunity aspect. Namely the chance to talk to someone who is a brilliant veteran of their field, and the occasion to ask good questions and continue to work at being a reasonably competent journalist.

It had been ages since my last interview, and I looked at being able to speak to one of my favorite comedians (and a pretty damn good actor, too) as a challenge. Oswalt can deliver a great interview. I’ve seen this for myself in The Comedians of Comedy and elsewhere. All I had to do was come up with the kind of questions he would be interested in answering. That’s the part I’ll probably never stop worrying about. Coming up with worthwhile questions is either easy enough to knock down in an hour, or difficult in such a way that it takes days to come up with even half of what I would ideally like to ask.

Oswalt’s questions took almost a week to put together. Blame it on the fact that I was nervous over not having done an interview in over a couple of years. You can also blame it on just being intimidated at interviewing someone I admire. It was probably a combination of the two. It wasn’t like I had never spoken to someone I had a great deal of respect for. It had simply been a while, and I wanted the interview to come off well. It was my hope that a really great conversation with a really great comedian like Patton Oswalt could serve to benefit me in the short and long runs.

Setting it up was easy. Patton was extremely gracious and accommodating, and the interview was going to run on Unlikely Stories. All I had to do was come up with the questions.

And I did. I don’t think I’ve sweated the prospect of coming up with good questions that much since I interviewed Bret Hart in 2008. Oswalt has done more than a couple of interviews in his twenty-year career. I couldn’t imagine there was a question he had never been asked, but I wanted to think I could try to come up with something.

That turned out to be more of a problem than a means of motivation. I did come up with what I thought were pretty good questions. Doubt worked itself into my thoughts as soon as I finished typing them out, but I thought I had the makings of a pretty good interview. A lot of work had gone into the questions, and I used knowing that to send them to Oswalt, sigh with relief and move on to the next thing.

I expected to wait several days, maybe even a week or two, to get the questions answered and sent back. They wound up appearing in my Unlikely Stories email just a couple of days later. Initially I was thrilled. The sooner I got the questions back, the sooner I could write up the rest of the feature, and the sooner all of it could appear on Unlikely.

Reading the answers for the first time is almost always fun. I either format the interview to match the rest of the feature, or I think of and then send out some follow-up questions. What I did with the Oswalt interview was stare in what started out as mute disbelief, and then quickly became bitter-but-still-mute disappointment. Four or five times I read over it, and the one thought I kept coming back to was simple: This had to be the worst interview I had ever done.

It demands repeating that Oswalt was extremely gracious in every way. At no point have I ever held him responsible for his short, almost annoyed answers to my long-winded, occasionally pretentious questions. The fact that he answered them and did that so quickly at least suggests to me that he was still being a nice guy. It just happened to be that the questions were lousy. He answered them as best he could. I thought about this as I looked over the complete interview. The cringing at the questions I had thought of started early on, and by the time I finally stopped reading them, I didn’t want to look at the damn thing ever again. What I wanted was a do-over. What I didn’t want was to have to send it to Unlikely Stories. Nothing could make this thing worth reading, or make me look like anything less than a complete ass. My ambition had completely screwed me over. I looked pretentious and arrogant. Oswalt simply did the best he could with the questions he was given.

Am I being too hard on myself? The couple of people I’ve shown this to have told me so, but two things I’ve never been good at taking are praise and reassurance. I’ll be working on that for what I suspect will be the rest of my life. It’s on the eternal (well, until I die) to-do list.

All the reassurance in the world isn’t going to convince me that I couldn’t have done a much better job with this. I’d like to think that can potentially be a positive thing, and that I’ll do a better job with whoever I interview next.

I’m running the interview here for a couple of reasons. I parted ways with Unlikely Stories after a working relationship of nearly ten years. This was fine, except that it happened before the Patton Oswalt feature could run. Even if I’m not happy with it I still think it would be a shame if it never saw the light of day. That’s probably my little bit of ego talking. I worked hard on this, and it would be too bad if nothing came about as a result of that work.

The other reason is that I want to keep running things at this blog that aren’t just reviews, homeless short stories and derelict poems. An interview would certainly qualify. An interview gone badly is probably even better. I still want this blog to be home to all kinds of things, and that may as well include projects that went to hell in a hurry.

I don’t dislike those particular projects. I just hope that I leave them with some kind of knowledge. Screwing the pooch is only a drag if I didn’t learn anything from it.

And I love learning. Almost as much as I love silly hats.

If you didn’t know that expression, well, go look it up. It’s not literal. I swear to God.

And I’m fully aware of the weirdly perverse pleasure I’m going to get from sharing a project in which I look like a legendary idiot. We’ll just say it’s all part of the learning experience.

And we’ll also keep in mind that this interview was conducted back in January of this year. Some of the questions might be a little bit dated. I’m not editing or changing a thing. Doing so would kind of defeat the purpose of sharing it.

This blog is neglected, but it’s not finished. I get busy, and I get depressed at running into what I feel like is the same brick ad-nausea. Those shouldn’t be excuses. I don’t want them to be, so we’ll hopefully see a little more life in this town over the coming months.

It’s been almost a year since I’ve opened up shop. Why not think of something that might celebrate that a little?

Gabriel Ricard: There will always be people who say that there’s no room for humor amidst whatever might be going on in the world at that given time, socially, economically and the like. I’ve never believed that to be true, but even I had moments in 2011 where my ability to find humor in things took a hit. There were times when I just couldn’t laugh, and I have to admit that scared me. Did you experience any thoughts like that over the past year? Was there ever a point where you thought, “Jesus, I just don’t think I can find humor right now. There’s just too much awful shit going on.”?

Patton Oswalt: No, never.  Sorry, but there’s always something funny about something.  Just depends on the approach and context.  Anything.

GR: Strictly in terms of comedy, more specifically your material, what would you say was the most compelling news story of 2011? Or has something gone down in the early months of this year that blows last year out of the water?

PO: I don’t think in terms of a specific news story.  I try to filter what I see (or fail to see) as larger trends through my own limited, personal view of the planet.  That’s where my comedy comes from.

GR: Artists of all kinds speaking out against George W. Bush during his presidency wasn’t a particularly radical concept. However, I always thought that you were one of his most persistent and vicious critics. At least, in terms of the mainstream. I remember reading something rather moving you wrote in the wake of Obama’s election in 2008. We’re nearing the end of his first term, and even some of his staunchest supporters have begun to wonder if they backed the right horse. A common sentiment in your stand-up during the Bush years was anyone or anything would be better than Bush. I would imagine you still feel that way, but I would be curious to know what your thoughts are on Obama’s first term, and if you see yourself voting for him in 2012.

PO: I will vote for him again.  He’s failed at a few things (his health care bill could have been stronger) and succeeded at some others (the auto bailout, killing bin Laden).  But Bush failed at everything.  Everything he tried he failed at.  

GR: You’ve been doing stand-up now for twenty or so years now. That would certainly qualify you as a veteran of your profession. Does it feel like it’s been that long? Do you see yourself slowing down, spending less time on the road?

PO: I’ll spend less time on the road, but probably the same amount of time going up onstage, in little rooms around Los Angeles, working on new material.

GR: Does it help the stand-up that you’ve worked in so many other fields? Writing books, writing for television, writing comic books, voice-acting in television, films and video games, appearing in live-action films and television. You’ve certainly covered a pretty wide spectrum so far. Does it help to work at these other things, and then come back to stand-up?

PO: Yes.  Anything else I do is to increase my visibility and fan base so I can do more stand-up.

GR: What’s the strangest or most surprising job you’ve ever had as a writer, actor or comedian?

PO: None of them have been particularly surprising.  It’s not like they sneak up on me.  And they’ve all been a little strange.  I mean, they’re all creative pursuits.  They’re supposed to be strange.

GR: Is Ratatouille still the thing you’re most recognized for?

PO: No.  I only did a voice in that.  Why would people “recognize” me?  My face wasn’t in it.

GR: I think what I love about people who only know you from Ratatouille is showing them some of your stand-up. This has come up a couple of times, and the reactions tend to be something along the lines of “Really? That’s the same guy?” I would say that’s a testament to your talent as a performer, that you can do an all-ages film like Ratatouille, and then do a stand-up bit about a guy looking bored to tears while shaving his balls. Did you encounter a lot of surprise from people that you can go from one of the spectrum to the other like that? I always imagined you must have met parents who know your stand-up, who are then accompanied by their children, who know you from Ratatouille.

PO: No.  I didn’t write Ratatouille. I was a performer for hire.  I was doing my stand-up for 19 years before Ratatouille.  Everyone understands that.  Why would they be at all surprised?  Unless maybe they don’t know how movies work.

GR: You’re getting a great deal of good press for your performance in the new Jason Reitman film, Young Adult, with Charlize Theron and Patrick Wilson. You play a character named Matt Freehauf, a guy who lives with his sister, walks with a permanent brace and cane, has a whiskey distillery in his garage and much like Theron’s character, is haunted by the past. It’s still a comedic role, but I would say there’s a lot more depth going on with this character than some of the others you’ve played over the years. The only other film appearance of yours I can think of that comes close to mixing humor with darkness so well is the 2009 film Big Fan. Was this a difficult role for you to play? What did you utilize to play what looked like an extremely challenging character? Other films? Your own life? I read somewhere that you consulted both an acting coach and a physical therapist to prepare for this.

PO: Yes.  Every role is difficult because it’s new and it’s a different voice and you want to serve the script and the overall project.  But doing a new stand-up bit is difficult.  Writing a book is difficult.  It’s all difficult in different ways.  And yes, I consulted an acting coach and physical therapist.

GR: Is it your hope that perhaps the critical success you’ve received with Young Adult will lead to other varied roles?

PO: Isn’t that why anyone does any project?

GR: Are there other roles lined up? Anything we can look forward to?

PO: Quite a few things.  Can’t say right now, though.  Too nebulous.

GR: Were you allowed to improvise a lot in Young Adult? Is that something you typically do in acting? I guess I thought this because you seem pretty capable of going with the flow in your stand-up, commenting on your surroundings or even on a particularly annoying audience member.

PO: I was allowed to but I didn’t.  I thought the script was really good, and I was excited to deliver it.  A few lines here and there.

GR: Speaking of audience members, I did happen to read about the woman who attempted to record a bit of yours, your response to that, a different comedienne’s response to the entire incident, and then your rebuttal, available on your website. Can you tell us a bit about that? The entire incident brings to mind other incidents of you dealing with hecklers or just people being obnoxious. You have a great talent for handling them, keeping the show on track and even creating some new material right there on the spot. I guess there would have to be quite a trial-and-error approach to learning that kind of thing.


GR: Do these people ever damage your enthusiasm for performing live?

PO: No.  They’re few and far between.

GR: Do things like YouTube, Facebook and other sites make your job as a comedian even more difficult? In that you have to be aware that even defending yourself in the midst of a performance may entail having to later defend the defense, if that makes sense.


GR: As I said, you’ve been in comedy for a long time. I’m guessing there were a fair number of lean years, and I was wondering at what point you realized that you were finally starting to make some headway? What kind of discouragement did you put up with?

PO: The same discouragement anyone puts up with who pursues anything creative. No money, bad jobs – but it was always fun, and I didn’t have to do anyone else’s work, so I never really minded.

GR: Tell us a bit about your book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, a collection of essays that was released last January. Now, this is going solely on your stand-up, but putting together a book like this struck me as something that might have been in the works for a really long time.

PO: I’d always been writing – online, stuff for magazines, TV shows and screenplays.  I just had enough stuff out there that eventually a publisher came calling  That’s how it usually works.

GR: Can we ever expect for another essay collection, or perhaps a novel?

PO: Another essay collection, yes.

GR: Are there any comedians under-the-radar that you’d like to mention?

PO: Kyle Kinane.  Rory Scovel.  Natasha Legerro.  Karen Kilgariff.  Hannibal Burress.

GR: As I said before, your career has run for roughly twenty years now. What are the biggest things that’s changed in comedy over that period of time? What has remained the same? Most importantly what is it that keeps you coming back?

PO: There were no “big changes” — they were all small and gradual and to be honest, I was concerned with just getting onstage and writing new stuff.  Same with what remained the same.  The changes are for the industry and audiences to deal with.  I keep coming back because it’s fun, and I don’t want to do anything else.

Anybody Alive Out There?

I’m not great at written introductions.

You’re going to get a sense of that very, very quickly.

In person? I’d like to think I do a fairly good job. I tend to look at myself as a writer and entertainer (not the healthiest or smartest way to go through life, but it seems to dictate the pace for my days and nights nonetheless), so I’m always gunning for a good first impression. I can’t say if that actually goes through or not, but I seem to be doing okay judging from the fairly decent-sized assortment of people who put up with my nonsense on a day-to-day basis.

But written introductions? Shoddy at best. I love opening lines. It’s one of the few things I sincerely believe I’m good at as a writer. That doesn’t seem to translate to something like this. I’m at a loss for anything interesting to say, so the end-result is a lot of rambling before I finally get a sense of what I might want to say.

You should see the ten years of journal entries I’ve got on this computer. The long-winded energy in those is off the page.

The whole point of this blog is to give myself yet another avenue to get my writing out the door. Writing has been one of the great consistencies in my life for most of my life. I’ve been coming up with all kinds of weird ideas since I was about three years old. The stories, comics and other oddities I came up with were one of the few things I got complimented for in elementary school. At thirteen it was already difficult to imagine doing anything else. By sixteen it was impossible. It’s up for debate as to whether or not that’s a good thing. I wonder often if I perhaps might have been better off focusing on something a little more practical or, oh, I don’t know, more useful.

Unfortunately I’m twenty-six years old, and I just don’t have the patience or energy to go out and find a new passion and then create the energy necessary for it.

I’ve added to the writing over the years. I’ve been lucky enough to work for a popular Virginia radio station writing and reading news copy, in professional writing, as a stand-up comic and even as an actor in theater and film. All of it ties into that entertainer persona I’ve crafted for myself. Everything is a gig. Everything will eventually work its way into some form of creative effort on my part. That would explain my addiction to traveling and get wrapped up in as much weirdness as humanly possible.

At the end of the very long day all of these things amount to the only thing I’m really good at or interested in doing. I can’t say if anything I do is extraordinary, but the whole creative shtick is the only thing I’m really comfortable with. For good or ill I’m stuck with it for what I imagine will be the rest of my life.

So, the whole deal with this blog is that I hope to put together a column for it. I’ve written a few of those over the years, and it’s something I’d like to get back into. It may not be a column though. I may just wind up throwing a whole bunch of reviews of books, films, music and the like. I do a fair bit of review work for Unlikely Stories and The Modest Proposal, but with this I hope to write about things that wouldn’t necessarily fit with either of those publications. I’m also planning to toss up any short stories or poems that I’ve been unable to sell to literary journals. I may even deal in some novel and screenplay excerpts (I’ve written two).

And then there might be times when I’m just going to rant and pretend I’m making some kind of larger point.

This entry would be an excellent example of that.

Contrary to popular belief I can actually be a very private person. I don’t plan to lay everything on the line here, but I hope to perhaps reveal a little more about myself and hopefully promote my work as an actor and writer in the bargain.

Thanks for your attention and any support you might throw my way.  I’m grateful for anyone who is willing to dig what I do.