Through his stand-up comedy act, Patton Oswalt has become known for his passion at the mic. When he goes off on a tear, with his modest stature and booming rhetoric, he's not unlike the id in all of us. Yet in person, he is soft-spoken and often quite pensive.
“If I talk about something that I don't like or something that I love, I want to be as honest with my anger and disgust as I am with my joy and exhilaration,” Oswalt explains, sitting on the porch of his Los Feliz home on a warm afternoon, while his French bulldog, Grumpus, suns himself on the front walk. “And also be very honest about how inarticulate our feelings can make us.”
He gets recognized most often for his supporting role on the sitcom King of Queens or as the voice of Remy the Rat in Ratatouille. Yet Oswalt's stand-up, and now his published work — as author of the heartfelt and hilarious memoir Zombie Spaceship Wasteland — have secured his reputation as a humorist of considerable integrity. He recently tweeted a link to a blogger who compared him to Richard Pryor and George Carlin, for being unafraid of thought-provoking material, though he quickly pronounced himself unworthy and is clearly humbled by such comparisons. Still, he laughs, “I'm not a modest person or I wouldn't be in stand-up.”
While Oswalt's act was known initially for its focus on fantasy and popular culture, his turn toward the political came during the Bush administration, when he felt compelled to speak out. “Because [Bush] wasn't just bad, he was like early-'30s, comic book, Republic serial villain bad,” he says. He also has criticized President Obama, whom he supported passionately but disagrees with frequently.
Even in his familiar geekdom territory, Oswalt finds plenty of ways to ruffle feathers. An article he wrote for Wired last year, “Wake Up, Geek Culture, Time to Die,” was a lightning rod for discussion online. Despite taking heavy criticism for his view that the Internet age has made much of what was special about being a nerd too broadly accessible, he enjoyed reading the discourse.
“I was really flattered,” he says. “Even the people that disagreed with me, and there were a lot … were always so articulate and intelligent. It wasn't just people saying 'Lame!' and 'Fail!' ”
In 2009, at his high school in Virginia, Oswalt delivered a commencement address that included a passage in which he discussed breaking away and seeing the world. The speech was evocative of the monologue by Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty in Blade Runner, a scene Oswalt notes in the Wired piece that he'd memorized as a kid.
Oswalt hadn't realized the similarity. “Oh, my God!” he exclaims. “What if I was totally channeling that? You could almost frame that section of the speech with 'I've seen things you people wouldn't believe,' and then you could end it with 'All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.' Then I should have just shut down and died in front of them.”