Comedy Chats

Patton Oswalt Discusses His Movie Addiction and Twitter Break

The comedian visits Seattle and Tacoma with his new book Silver Screen Fiend and fresh standup.

By Seth Sommerfeld January 5, 2015

Patton Oswalt: Film addict.

Patton Oswalt’s 2012 performance at Tulalip Resort and Casino was such a delightfully sauced mess that the story became a 10-minute bit on his most recent standup special, Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time. But he clearly wasn't scared off by that crowd of—what he calls in the bit—“the drunkest human beings [he’s] ever seen,” as he's booked his return trip to our neck of the woods at the end of January for a double dip of comedy and literature. On January 30, he’ll unleash his nerdy blitzkrieg of standup at the Pantages Theatre in Tacoma, and on January 31, as Seattle Arts and Lectures Hinge series, he’ll discuss his new book Silver Screen Fiend with The Simpsons producer and writer George Meyer at Town Hall.

Ostensibly a follow-up to Oswalt’s first memoir, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Silver Screen Fiend is part autobiography and part love letter to the classic movies he gorged on while breaking into the L.A. comedy scene. The original plan was to write about the low-budget space operas and black-and-white noirs he geeked out about at the time—until he looked at old calendars and started drawing connections between films he watched and jobs he had. It's a personal tale of cinematic addiction and standup scrapping told in Oswalt's distinct and always entertaining voice.

Before he heads to town, we caught up with Oswalt to chat about the new book, the benefits of his self-imposed Twitter break, and his unwavering admiration for Seattle.

When I first heard about Silver Screen Fiend, I assumed it would just be you gushing about films, but after reading more it became clear you were setting it up to be the second act of the memoir following Zombie. Spaceship. Wasteland. What made you decide you wanted to weave your Los Angeles comedy beginnings into the love of movies narrative?

You know what? I’ll be honest, that was not my original plan when I began writing. When I began mapping it out, when I did the first two chapters, I started to realize, “Oh, this isn’t just about me sitting passively reacting to film.” Because when I was looking back at my film calendars and the schedule, when I was writing all these movies down, also on the calendars were other events—shows that were happening, things that I taped—and I realized, “Oh wait a minute, if I saw that movie two days before doing this thing, then that affected this thing that I did.” And then I started realizing that’s a much better way to give my view. Way better people than me have written about these films, so I realized that, “Oh, this is a much more—I hope that it’s a much more—unique and memorable way to write about these movies.” Not just about the movie itself, but then how it affected me as one tiny individual going about his life.

Is there an example? Like one where you know, “Oh I saw this film and it made me do a better set here or something like that?”

There’s one chapter about when I was shooting Down Periscope. When I did that movie, I only had one line of dialogue—I’m basically a glorified extra. So I did my first week just sitting in the background, and then the next week coming up I would be shooting my line. And I went and saw Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, where his brother Clint has a couple of lines in the movie. And he has one line—the way he delivers it… I mean it’s just one line, but he delivers it so perfectly that it sort of changes the tenor of the film. And I got it into my head that, “Oh, one line can really make an impact on not only the scene that you’re in, but everything that follows afterward.” So I kind of grandiosely take that with me back to the set of Down Periscope thinking “Yeah, I’ll bring this to the movie.”

And then also—and I go into very embarrassing detail about this—seeing movies almost became an athlete’s superstition for me. I had these five classic film books: Danny Peary’s three volumes of Cult Movies, Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, and then the Film Noir Encyclopedia. If I saw a movie that was in one of those books and then I checked it off, then the (standup) set that I would have after that would be really, really good. Like, it was my stage superstition. So it took the movie watching a couple steps away from simply enjoying an experience in films into, “Okay, I gotta do this and check these off, because then that will feed into my career and my set.”

Did your consumption of films change dramatically when you moved to L.A.?

Before I moved to L.A., I just didn’t have access to that many theaters where I was living. San Francisco was a nice transition between living in D.C. and living in L.A. But once I moved to L.A., it was all about “I don’t want to watch movies on video tape or DVD, they only count if I see them on a screen.’ So, again, it just became this weird OCD compulsion of mine.

Have you always the kind of person who marks time by your pop culture experiences?

Yeah, absolutely. For me, you know music, films, comics, images, anything that I’m doing is a way to kind of take me back. I mean, it’s a cheesy device when they do it in movies, except that we do do it in real life. You’ll hear a song and go, “Oh, Len’s ‘Steal My Sunshine’? Well that was summer of…” you know? So—good, bad—it can all take you back.

So you took a much-publicized Twitter break in 2013, is it safe to assume that was directly related to finishing up the book?

You know what? No, it wasn’t. The book was done, I turned that in before the Twitter break. It’s actually weird how the Twitter break is sort of… it’s kind of foreshadowed in the book. I thought, “I’ve got to extract myself from this pop culture echo chamber that I’m putting myself in,” the same way I had to distract myself from, “I’m just absorbing movies and not doing anything.” You know? So that was… oh wow, I didn’t even think about that. Yeah, I mean I had finished the book, no thanks to Twitter, no thanks to all the other bullshit I do online.

*Laughs* So are you going to do a Twitter break again?

Yeah, the Twitter break is going to become a regular thing for me. June 1st through Labor Day, I’m off the Internet. That was a really good move.

So it’s going to be like a yearly detox?

It is, it really is. I mean, it’s a mental thing. It gives you back your faculties for longer attention span and better critical thinking: maybe I’ll just get all the facts before I react.

So having released two very distinctly different memoirs, have you given any thought on how to frame the third?

Now that I’ve written a second memoir… see the first book is good with an asterisk, I think, because I was so nervous about, “Can I just write about myself, and does anyone give a shit about this?” that I hedged my bets and put a lot of, like, very impersonal comedic pieces in there and didn’t fully commit to the memoir aspect of it. And the second one, where I’m just writing a memoir, I’m like, “Oh, I think I can actually pull this off.” So the third one… I have very vague idea of what the third one is going to be, but I think I could actually, maybe start thinking about that (at the end of 2015).

Given the openly nerdy aspects of your personality did you employ a sort of outsider’s edge and anxiety to motivate you?

Well, with me it was almost the opposite, because the only thing that I ever felt like I had to break into was standup. That was the thing where I felt like there were barriers and then I got through them. And the barriers were all because of me; it had nothing to do with the industry. It was all because of my own internal barriers. Everything else since then—acting and writing—has been something I’ve kind of tumbled into because of standup. But it wasn’t like, (scrappy dramatic voice) “I’ve got to get through in this career.”

If I do ever direct a film, that’ll be a thing. That’ll be the next actual from the outsider edge trying to break in. And again, it’ll be because of my own barriers and self-doubts and second thoughts. So that’ll be like have come full circle the way that I was in standup, where I’m like, “Oh Jesus, how do I do this?”

I think the Tacoma standup show will be the first time you’ve performed up here—outside of Bumbershoot—since that infamous Tulalip show.

Oh gosh! I think you might be right.

And are you ready to finally pull off all the scabs from that?

*Laughs* I have a feeling that what happened to me in Tulalip, it only happens in a places like Tulalip. I don’t think that the Pantages in Tacoma is going to be full of people who have just experienced an hour of $2 shots and are just screaming. I mean, god I hope so. I hope that’s not the case.

Well that wasn’t the case when I saw Weird Al there, so I doubt it would be the case just for you.

Oh my god. Was he at the Pantages?

Yeah, he played the Pantages in 2013.

Wow, that’s awesome. How was the show?

It was a great show. I mean, Al’s terrific every time. He like always delivers. And there are more costume changes than a Lady Gaga concert. It’s just…

Crazy! It’s crazy what that guy does!

I’m so excited for when he finally gets on the road again because he hasn’t toured in support of Mandatory Fun yet.

I know! I mean, what is that tour going to look like? I cannot wait.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the upcoming Seattle trip?

Seattle for me is a day spa as a comedian. I’ve never had bad sets up there, except for at Tulalip, which you could argue wasn’t a bad set either. And that kind of isn’t even Seattle. To say that I’m looking forward to it is sort of a “Well, yeah… duh. I get to go to Seattle.”

Patton Oswalt
Jan 30 at 8, Pantages Theatre, Sold Out

Patton Oswalt: Off the Page
Jan 31 at 7:30, Town Hall, $35 (Includes a copy of Silver Screen Fiend)

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