Comedian, actor, and writer Patton Oswalt talks media culture, fame, and the less-than-favorable legacy of American Idol.

It seems lazy to describe Patton Oswalt as an “everyman,” but that image is central to the appeal of his comedy. His laid back demeanor‚ often punctuated with a pleasant smile‚ channels the familiarity of a neighbor or longtime friend. However, Oswalt quickly turns that image on its ear when he walks on stage and begins holding court on everything from science fiction and comic books to American politics and religion. Sure, his style is acerbic and sarcastic as often cited. But his comedy is also painfully honest in a way that is poignant‚ treading a delicate line between tragedy and laughter.

You’re a versatile performer, not only because of the diverse range of topics you tackle in your comedy, but also because you find time to act and write as well. Did you always want to pursue these different paths, or is the idea of assuming these different roles now just the nature of the business?

I don’t know if it’s the nature of the business itself, more the nature of the individual. I’ve always had a lot of interests and energy, so why waste it? There’s going to come a time when I don’t have a shitload of energy, but still a lot of interests, and I’d hate to think I squandered my time when I was young and had the energy to burn. Plus, a moving target is harder to hit.

As a comedian, I would imagine you’ve had a lot of memorable encounters with comedy club crowds–whether incredible, surreal, bizarre, or downright terrifying. How have these experiences influenced your view of American culture?

I let a lot of things influence my view of American culture, although the tiny sliver I get from comedy club audiences has always been fascinating. Besides the specific place-to-place feeling I get from traveling, there does seem to be an overall ‘media culture’ going on, and not in just Los Angeles and New York. In fact, the whole idea of ‘flyover states,’ where people aren’t as entertainment savvy, I think is gone now. People in America, and probably all over the world, are way more attuned to how the entertainment industry, whether or not it’s TV, movies, celebrity journalism, or the Internet, reflects and distorts who they are. The positive side of this is that disposable trends have less staying power. But the negative side is that everyone thinks they’re in show business or, even worse, that they’re somehow the put-upon ‘hero’ of some epic action comedy.

Right, the country is far more interconnected than ever before‚ which is undoubtedly a result of the rise, for better or worse, of media saturation. We’re almost too stimulated now. But, continuing with what you said, the idea that everyone thinks they are in show business. What would you say causes this? I feel like I’ve heard this jokingly referred to as the American Idol factor.

I think the American Idol factor is exactly and succinctly it.

Now I’m going to go deeper, and get even more confused and incoherent. But I think there’s been a subtle shift in America over the past three or four decades. There used to be a time, it seems to me, when the general public was fascinated by athletes, musicians, actors, and writers‚ anyone in the creative arts‚ who could do things everyday people couldn’t do. You could listen to Nat King Cole or Peggy Lee, or watch Marlon Brando, or Ted Williams or Muhammad Ali, and be excited because you were experiencing human abilities taken to the outer spectrum of possibility. And this excited, inspired, and challenged people.

Now, the opposite is happening. People want comfort and reassurance more than inspiration or challenge. I think that explains the popularity of people like Paris Hilton, or a President like George Bush. People watch these individuals and can snort, ‘I could do that.’ And they’re right. And that makes them far happier than seeing someone do something original, or at least skillfully.

For every exception that proves the rule‚ Tiger Woods, or writers like Zadie Smith or David Foster Wallace‚ there are legions of corner-cutting, C+ celebrities like Barry Bonds, or Dan Brown.

The notion of fame is such an integral part of what you do‚ from becoming a recognizable performer to sustaining longevity in a business that seems extremely volatile. In your career, have you seen a direct correlation between success and fame? Or would you say the two are mutually exclusive?

I used to think there was such a specific connection between fame and success that they were inseparable. But now I’ve worked with and met so many people who have loads of fame but no ‘success’‚ in other words, they got famous not from doing anything they really cared about or that reflected who they are. So now I think fame and success are, for the most part, more of an odd couple.

Could you give me an example of what you mean when you say you‚ “I’ve met so many people who got famous not from doing anything they really cared about or that reflected who they are.”

Well, I don’t want to name names, because some of these people are otherwise nice, friendly people. I think the answer was pretty self-explanatory. Imagine someone with wealth and acclaim for doing something that doesn’t bring them any pleasure, or that they are proud of. Like Salieri in Amadeus, ‘I was distinguished by people who didn’t have the ability to distinguish.’

As Americans, we can get obsessive, whether loyally following celebrity gossip, or tuning in to Court TV or CNN for round-the-clock coverage of the latest terror plot, natural disaster, or triple homicide. What do you think it is that breeds this behavior?

It’s a self-nourished state of affairs. We devour gossip, murder, and disaster, so the media feeds us more.

I would agree to a certain extent, the idea that it’s a self-nourished state. But what would you say then is the key ingredient that attracts us to these types of stories?


Expanding on this thought a little more, what changes have you noticed in the way that entertainment is packaged and sold?

I don’t see any changes. It’s the same come-on we’ve had since the carnival days. Now they’ve got more avenues in which to do the lookee-lookee.

Have YouTube and Myspace made the path to fame or success for comedians, musicians, bands‚ easier? And is credibility lost due to the lack of old-fashioned struggle?

Yes, but has the struggle really changed? No matter how easy it gets to promote yourself, you still need to do the work of coming up with something original, or you’ve got no endurance. If anything, it’s put much more emphasis on the substance of the performer or artist. Yes, they can build a lot of fans in the short run, but those fans aren’t going to stick around if you eventually have nothing to say.

So, is it safe to say that audiences are becoming more intelligent? Might this be a benefit of living in a media-centric culture?

Well, they are becoming more intelligent about the media. We’ll see if that’s positive or negative.

While watching your Comedians of Comedy series, I was really struck by something you said during a backstage interview. I’m paraphrasing here, but you stated that most comedians do stand up in hopes of securing their own sitcom or movie deal, but you and your circle of friends take roles in sitcoms and movies so you can continue to do stand up. When and how did you come to this realization?

I never really came by it as a ‘realization.’ It’s how I approached my career, and I assumed everyone else felt the same way. The ‘realization’ came when I found that it wasn’t so.

This may just be an isolated, personal observation, but comedy seems to be undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Sitcoms are experimenting with different formats, programs like The Daily Show have been recognized with Emmy awards, and comedy albums are charting fairly well on Billboard. What are your thoughts on all this?

I’m excited and hopeful. More talented people are doing it for the right reasons now than ever before.

Living in a media-centered culture, do you think the notion of fame will still remain so attractive to us? Or do you think, in time, the glitz and glamour appeal of Hollywood will begin to lose some of its shine?

Sadly, no. It seems to be a primal human need. Or, at least, it’s become one.

Originally interviewed for Fame & Misfortune. Illustration by John Jay.

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