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The craft behind the comedy of Patton Oswalt ’91

The following story was originally published in the spring 2016 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. Since the time of publication, Patton Oswalt's wife  who is mentioned in the article — passed away. The William & Mary community extends its condolences to Oswalt, his daughter and their family. Read Oswalt's tribute to his wife, Michelle McNamara, here. - Ed.

Patton Oswalt ’91 knows he may get utterly destroyed at any time. This, he says, is a good thing. You, too, should welcome it.

“It’s July 18, 1988, between my freshman and sophomore year,” he says. “I need to figure out what I’m going to do with my life, and I don’t really know. I don’t even know what I’m going to major in at this point.”

Patton Oswalt (photo by Timothy Archibald)Before he became a best-selling author, revered standup comedian, epicurean Pixar rodent, omnivorous pop culture critic and wide-ranging character actor, Oswalt was working as a paralegal, a sportswriter and a party DJ in Northern Virginia. Amidst all this, the 19-year-old Oswalt decided to try his hand at standup comedy. After all, he loved comedy records and was always cracking jokes, so why not? It was open-mic night at Garvin’s in Washington, D.C. To put it mildly, he “didn’t do well.”

“But I loved the life,” he remembers. “The hours, the ‘hang,’ the other comedians. I loved the world of it — the whole night world.

“I think it might have been Yeats who said this about the ‘lunar and solar professions.’ The lunar professions are the artists, and the solar professions are the bankers and the people that make the world run. So I thought, I think I belong in the lunar world.”

That’s classic Oswalt: using Irish poet W.B. Yeats to remember an early standup routine that consisted of “four minutes of silence and one single laugh.” He remembers that night as the beginning of his journey as a standup comedian. His life plan, in a sense, was utterly destroyed — and then reborn.

“I’m very open to annihilation and rebirth, I guess,” Oswalt says. “I don’t know where that comes from, but that’s always been a thing that I crave on some level: some sort of physical, symbolic or psychological apocalypse. Then you rise from that. Everything I’ve ever done that was significant came from massive mistakes and massive failures.”

Massive mistakes

After the Garvin’s show, Oswalt returned to William & Mary a changed man. His dream to be a successful stand-up comedian was so powerful, he chased it in every available moment.

“I wanted to be out in clubs telling jokes, so every Friday afternoon, I’d finish my last class, drive off and do a gig,” he says. “That was it. It paid for my rent in college, which was nice.”

Oswalt lived with a friend off South Boundary Street, and what free time he did spend in Williamsburg, he spent making people laugh. Or at least trying to. Every Wednesday, and for one weekend a month, the budding comic kept performing, bombing and learning in the ’Burg. On other weekends, he left town to do the same.

“I had to go on stage every weekend — I had no choice,” he says. “It took the process of thought and anticipation and self-sabotage out of it. Because whether you go up and do great, or you eat it, they’ll say, ‘Well, see you next Wednesday at 8 o’clock: you’ve got to host.’ That was my first time learning that you can eat it, and get up the next day and the world didn’t end.”

Oswalt often traveled to clubs and hotels in Newport News, Richmond, D.C. or even distant Norton, Va., in the southwest corner of the state. He began to develop his confidence and started to build a career. Gigs started to line up months in advance.

And then something important happened, which wouldn’t be clear until years later.

Appetite for destruction

“I was in a psychology class,” he says. “They were showing slides of the art of the insane, and it was in the middle of all these other drawings.”

Vincent van Gogh’s “The Night Café.”

In his latest book, Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt remembers seeing the painting for the first time. “The menace and magic of that painting grabbed me,” he writes. “Tendrils of glistening paint whipped out, snagged my eyeballs, and held fast.”

In 1888, van Gogh had retired to Arles, on the Mediterranean coast of France, and began painting purely from memory for the first time. Suddenly, his works became less representational and drew more upon the feelings and memories associated with the places he recalled. The process was heretical to van Gogh, who believed his passion and talent were “demonic,” as Oswalt writes. Instead of staving off van Gogh’s darker artistic urges, Arles intensified them, and inspired some of his finest work. In mere months, he had painted “The Night Café,” “Starry Night over the Rhône” and “The Yellow House.” A year and a half thereafter, he would be dead.

A century later, in a William & Mary lecture hall, Oswalt was transported. He felt the visceral, evocative details — common to the art of schizophrenics — that animate “The Night Café.” “It kicked me in the head,” he writes. The moment stuck with him, and finally coalesced in his book as shorthand for artistic transformation.

A Night Café, in Silver Screen Fiend, is anytime an experience changes your life or perspective forever. It’s a tribute to the power a piece of art or an event can hold over anyone who will let it in, and a warning against the risks that come along with it. It just took a W&M psych class and Vincent van Gogh to put a name to them.

“That’s the danger of the Night Café,” Oswalt says. “It can save you, and it can also destroy you.”

Maximum risk

So what does a doomed painter’s mental illness have to do with standup comedy?

Not long after graduation, Oswalt drove cross-country to San Francisco — “the last time it was cheap to live there” — where an early standup performance caused him to realize the routine he had honed in clubs all over the mid-Atlantic would not fly on the West Coast. He and a friend threw all their jokes into the garbage that same night. Another Night Café.

“It was one of those great liftings of the veil,” he says. “I had been living this false confidence and going on a wrong path. It was like the whole floor dropping out from under me: ‘no, you actually have to start from here, and now get truly strong.’”

These personal Night Cafés, according to Oswalt, can’t be found on purpose. Where Garvin’s had taught him he wanted to be a standup, San Francisco taught him that there’s an art to making people laugh, and it takes craftsmanship.

“It’s about being present in your life and open to what your life is doing — that’s what leads you to the Night Café without you looking for it.”

Acceptance of that sort of risk — being susceptible to that act of destruction and rebirth — wasn’t easy to come by in show business.

“That came from years of trying to be cool and trying not to be vulnerable, and realizing what a waste of time that was,” he says. “Cool is the enemy of comedy.“To talk about anything — anything physically going on, any failings you have, any thoughts you have that might not be the best thoughts — you admit weakness or competitiveness or pettiness or meanness about yourself in order to laugh at it, or cope with it, or illuminate it for other people. That can be a really risky thing to do.”

Walking contradiction

But after hundreds of standup performances, the biggest creative risk for a young Patton Oswalt was his dream of directing a film. His latest book, Silver Screen Fiend, is, on its surface, Oswalt’s love letter to film and its unmatched ability to inspire him. But the book is more than that, too: it’s a revered comedian’s reckoning with his many past selves, his creativity and his own personality. He doesn’t flinch.

“It was like writing this book was almost a confession,” he says. “These are the things that stay with me for better or worse, and maybe by acknowledging them, I can break loose.”

Silver Screen Fiend begins in 1995 Los Angeles. Oswalt had left San Francisco and settled in a little apartment off Hollywood Boulevard. Sitting alone in the New Beverly theater, he discovered another world he wanted to enter: directing. It began with Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” and would go on to consume four years of Oswalt’s life.

He started to check off the hundreds of films in five books — three volumes of Danny Peary’s Cult Movies, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film by Michael Weldon, and The Film Noir Encyclopedia — by watching each one in a theater, in its entirety. Anything else didn’t count. As the book goes on, Oswalt nearly misses gigs for this and definitely loses a girlfriend.

Oswalt’s book careens from tales of his creative life, to reverence for both classic and B-grade movies, to passing references to Hollywood blockbusters of the era. Buster Keaton films rub elbows with “Batman Forever” in the same week; Oswalt follows “Gone With the Wind” up with “Alien” four days later. Not every film gets the detailed look that, say, “Dr. Strangelove” does, but the impression is strong that Oswalt watches each with the same care. Unlike his standup, which is the product of careful observation of the world and unceasing practice onstage, the aspiring director consumed film obsessively, convinced he’d know exactly when the time was right to strike. But the films eventually start to bleed together, and his “$5-a-night film school” turns into a delay tactic.

“You’re very very aware of the things that have influenced you, and you want to create your own stuff,” he says. “You wonder if your stuff will shine brighter than the little suns that gave you the energy to start doing it. There’s that anxiety there.”

His two identities — workaday standup comic and grand-inspiration filmmaker — dovetail throughout the book, weighing the need to get out there and create against the impulse to stay in and consume. It’s a theme he also tackles in his first book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, and a battle he’s been fighting since his teenage years in Sterling, Va.

“In the suburbs, things are very safe and laid out. You know where things are, so there isn’t a lot of adventurousness,” he says. “That’s always tempting to fall back on. I had to fight that instinct to fall back and cleave toward safety rather than adventure and variety.”

But in Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt does not pull punches when that adventurous philosophy did not extend to his dreams of directing. As he and his friends criticized an extremely well-known and extremely disappointing late-’90s blockbuster, Oswalt recalls:

“[We were] assuring ourselves that some invisible foot was keeping us down. … that’s ultimately where our comfort was. There was comfort in preemptive disappointment. Because it was never your fault.”

That cynical, fruitless (if hilarious) discussion, eventually made Oswalt realize that doing supersedes complaining. And that was the kick in the head that brought him even further into the artistic game — and out of his four-year film addiction.

That disappointing movie was “Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” And “Sunset Boulevard” it was not. Upon emerging from his film obsession, he’s built significantly on a career that has come to include four TV specials and four comedy albums — as well as countless guest star appearances on shows as diverse as “Veep,” “Justified,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Community” and “Parks and Recreation.” He narrates ABC’s “The Goldbergs” and will appear on-screen in “The Circle” as an eccentric entrepreneur later this year.

“You just have to start,” he says, showing no signs of stopping.

City of angles

Today, Oswalt lives with his wife, true-crime writer Michelle McNamara, and their daughter Alice in a quiet Los Angeles neighborhood. L.A., he says, is “five of the best cities in the country, and three or four of the worst.” The feverish impulses that animated his youth seem to have evolved into a calmer confidence.

“People in their 20s act the way people in their 70s should act,” Oswalt says. The hustle of young people — especially in show business — is relentless, urgent and frenetic, thanks in part to the sense of impending doom: aging.

“They’re like, ‘oh my God, I’m running out of time,’ but they actually have time. … My mom is 70. Mom’s old adage is ‘eh, it’ll work out, whatever.’ I’m like, ‘you should be acting the way I was when I was 22 — you have a right!’”

He hopes Silver Screen Fiend connects with audiences (it hit paperback in October), but he hopes that maybe it also serves as someone else’s Night Café.

“I really hope someone, in a very smart way, rejects whatever is in that book, so they become something unique and new,” he says. “A lot of that is me having to reject a lot of the lessons I got and move beyond them.”

Annihilation and rebirth again. But Oswalt also embraces the notion that all of his past characters and selves — the young William & Mary student, Remy from “Ratatouille,” the bestselling author, Spence from “King of Queens,” and a score of guest roles and talk-show appearances — are wrapped up in the man he is today.

Oswalt smiles. “I really, really lived in my 20s and 30s,” he says. “I’m not saying that as a brag. I just traveled everywhere, I did everything I could, and I experienced and tried everything that I could. So I have this great bank of scars and experiences, highs and lows, that I can kind of draw from.

“Now I get to watch a new persona and intellect watching my daughter grow into this world. Not to get all sappy, but I’m well-aware of the dangers of this world, and the way that this world seems to be going bad on some levels. I’m trying to give her a sense that there’s a lot of wonder out here for you, if you look for the wonder.”

It’s a philosophy he hopes people will apply to comedy going forward, Night Café after Night Café.

“That’s what your life is for,” he says. “You figure it out what it is that you like, who you love, and you get deeper into those things. Especially with another person or a great piece of art, there’s always endless new angles and facets to them that you didn’t see the day before.

“That’s what truly falling in love is, that’s what raising a kid is, that’s what revisiting a great painting is. You come back to that person or thing or experience as a different person, so now you’re looking at it in a different way. That just creates endless variety and fascination for your life.”