Patton Oswalt has carved out a place for himself as one of the most vital cultural critics of our time, both on stage and behind a keyboard. You may not always agree with him, but it’s hard to deny he’s intelligent, unrelenting, and unafraid to absorb a backlash (and throw elbows back at his accusers) when he speaks his mind. Oswalt offers enviable authenticity to those who are paying attention, and in his latest comedy special, Talking for Clapping (which is available to stream now on Netflix), he demands that attention while talking about the sometimes confusing rules of the road for political correctness, the magic of pants when engaged in a political debate, and being a father.
In our interview with Oswalt, we touch on some of those same things, focusing on the differences between his PC attitudes and those of Donald Trump, how fatherhood has impacted his comedy, whether he has the time or want to look back on his career and assess, and whether he and KFC will ever align.
Is the plan still to do a comedy special one year, then a book, then a special?
Those are the plans. However, as far as the third book, I really want to wait until inspiration hits me on this. I don’t want to just churn out something because I’ve announced a schedule. When I said that schedule, I think that was more of the dream, but the reality is… It’s just like my stand-up: I want to wait until I’ve got something really, really good that I can sink my teeth into. I have some vague ideas of what I want the next book to be, but it’s nothing that I’m going to say that I’ll definitely do or won’t do. It’s that the thing of you know when you know, and right now, I just don’t know what the next book is yet.
Is there a possibility that it will be fiction?
I think this third one will also be nonfiction. I think I have one more nonfiction book in me before I do fiction.
Is there any significance to doing the special at the Fillmore Theater, going back to San Francisco, a place you lived earlier in your career?
It was a combination of what… I feel like a bit of a cheat, only because San Francisco audiences are so awesome. There’s no real ice-skating uphill when it comes to doing comedy in front of a crowd like that. They’re just so open and ready. Yeah, there was also that… I guess it was a personal nostalgia factor and also personal curiosity of, “How far have I come as a comedian?” Because that’s where I remember making my biggest leaps forward in terms of skill and content-wise. I’m like, “Let’s see how far I’ve come.” I wanted a combination of those things.
Now, you’ve been doing this for more than 25 years. Are you at a point where you’re kinda taking stock of your career, assessing what you’ve accomplished, and asking what’s next?
We got the offer from the Fillmore, and there was that personal… There is a little bit of ego there, like, “Oh, the people that have performed at the Fillmore.” That was always the place when I was an open-micer there. That was, “Will I ever do the Fillmore?” So, to get to do a stand-up special there, it was a nice little… I guess it was a bit of an ego rub. But I really, really try to avoid doing any kind of taking stock or assessing where I am in my career because that just tends to freeze you a little bit. I think that is the job for other people, and if you start doing it, I think it impedes your momentum forward as a writer and performer. So I try not to take stock. That’s something that I think I should be doing way, way, way later down the road, or someone else should be doing it and not me. It’s your job to create, not to catalog.
You still feel good about doing it, though? You still feel energetic about it. You don’t see an end in sight, right?
No. It’s too much fun. It’s so fucking fun. That’s the thing. When people say, “Oh yeah, I’m still energized. I’m still driven.” It’s not that I’m energized or driven, it’s just fucking fun. It’s not like it’s something that I have to sit and go, [adopts exhausted voice] “Okay, gotta get ready to go on.” It’s nothing that I have to gird my loins for. It is a genuinely relaxing, fun thing that I only get to do for an hour at a time in the middle of all the other stuff I have to do. That’s literally how I think of it.
This special featured a decent amount of talk about what it’s like to be a father — reflections on that. Can you talk a little bit about how your comedic voice (for lack of another term) has changed since you had a kid? Also, just your career objectives. How has that changed?
I think that anything that happens to you if you’re really being present and honest as a comedian affects what you do. All of my albums and specials, it’s almost like an edition of a magazine as to what was going on in my life. There are specials where I’m like, “I’m never getting married. I’m never having a kid.” Now, I’m, “Hey, I got a kid. I’m a dad now.” Although, if I had decided not to be married and not to have a kid, then in my special, I’m sure I would’ve been very open about, “Hey, I’m 47. All my friends are married and raising families, and I’m not. Here are some funny perspectives on that.” Whatever you do or don’t do is grist for the mill if you’re a comedian, which, I think… again, it’s another thing that’s so fun about my career. When people go, “Oh, man, once you have kids and get married, you stop being a good comedian.” No, it’s once you stop being present with whatever’s happening to you is when you become a terrible comedian.
You mentioned not being able to keep up with the “correct glossary of terms” in the special, and you’ve had your scrapes on Twitter with the kinds of sensitivities and objections that usually are labeled as political correctness. Obviously, it’s not the same, but I’m wondering if seeing Donald Trump’s much more, obviously, severe and proud flaunting of PC concerns has caused you to look at or evaluate your stance and soften your view at all?
No, not really, only because I think people like me, and Jim Norton, and Sarah Silverman, we’re people who really… We care about language for a living. It’s our job, and it’s also our passion. If we’re really examining PC culture, we’re not just… None of us are all just throwing the whole thing out the window and saying it’s all bad. We’re like, “No, there are good and bad parts of it.” Donald Trump is not being anti-PC. Donald Trump is just being fucking horrible.
It was the same thing when people confused… They don’t understand the difference between dark comedy and just being mean. He’s just saying the first most defensive and un-creative thing that comes to his head, and then what he’s doing is he’s then trying to use the, “Oh, because I’m anti-PC.” It’s like he’s doing it after that fact. He isn’t someone that gave a fuck about language and censorship or the first amendment. He’s just a mean-spirited, frightened asshole who, just lucky for him, this whole anti-PC thing came along, and he, without even understanding what it means, just jumped onto it.
Saying that, “Oh wow, your fights against PC, it’s a lot like what Donald Trump does,” that’s a lot like going to Lena Dunham, “Oh, the way that you’re exploring sexuality on your show, Girls, it’s a lot like these handheld crack whore videos that I was watching on PornHub,” and it’s like, “No, no, no, that’s a guy just exploiting people versus someone that’s really trying to explore something and be challenging about something.”
Does that perception bother you, though, that people might see those two things and wonder if they’re the same, like that he’s against PC and assuming that you’re against PC, even though I don’t actually think …
Yeah, but you know what? The only people that get that confused are dumb people, so fuck it. It’s not my job to be… I’m trying to elevate and go for the smarter people. Of course, there’s always going to be dumb people that go, “Yeah, first amendment. Fuck it, first amendment.” Those are not the same thing.
No, I think you did a really good job on the special of laying out your opinion on it. Just sticking with Trump for a second, why do you think it is that none of his remarks have managed to make a dent in his candidacy?
They have made a dent in his candidacy. We just don’t see it yet because all we’re doing right now are Republican primaries. He has a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage that are just going to keep… He is playing for the loudest people in the room. When it comes to a national level, it won’t even be a blow-back. It’ll be a huge like, “Oh yeah, that asshole.” Even conservatives and Republicans. That guy Adam Baldwin that I fight with all the time on Twitter, even he and I have met on the spectrum of agreement of like, “Oh yeah, this guy Trump’s horrible.” Again, we’re watching all of this in slow motion right now. I think the news media has been disgusting with the way that they are kowtowing to Trump for ratings, especially cable news. MSNBC right now, I’m more disgusted with them than I’ve ever been disgusted with Fox in my life. They just want ratings, period. When this gets to a national level, it’ll be an entirely different game. Trust me, it’ll be an entirely different story.
Yeah, it’s really disheartening to turn on a cable news channel and see a 30-minute pre-game show while they’re focusing on his podium, like an empty podium while other candidates are speaking.
Literally, MSNBC was running his rallies; no commercials, no commentary, no analysis. They had a camera on, and then I turn over to Fox News, and they’ve also got the rally on, but they have people there going, “Okay, here’s what’s happening and this is ridiculous.” It’s weird when you’re actually going to Bill O’Reilly for sanity on this thing. That’s how dangerous and frightening this has all gotten.
The last question is another very serious one. Do you think there’s a chance you might one day take the baton and play the Colonel in the KFC commercials? Can there be peace in our time between you and KFC?
[Laughs.] I think the irony level would kill me if I did that, so I’m going to have to say no.
(ED. NOTE: Patton’s wife, writer Michelle McNamara, passed away today at the age of 46. Our deepest condolences go out to him and his family.)