Outspoken comedy vet Patton Oswalt spoke to Marlow Stern about his new film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the problem with stand-up comedy, and how comedy actors still get “no respect” at awards shows.
Patton Oswalt is no stranger to comedy. The 44-year-old has been performing stand-up since the late ‘80s, garnering two Grammy awards for his hilarious comedy albums. He’s also managed to infiltrate several other mediums, whether it be television, starring on the CBS sitcom The King of Queens for close to a decade, or film, where he’s done everything from voicing celebrated animated characters like the rat-chef Remy in Ratatouille to his award-worthy performance as a cripple opposite Charlize Theron in Young Adult.
In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, his longtime pal Ben Stiller recruited him to play Todd, an eHarmony customer service representative that goes above and beyond the call of duty. While Walter (Stiller) is off on a globe-spanning adventure in search of a photonegative from acclaimed Life magazine photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), Todd regularly phones him to discuss his dating progress.
In a candid conversation with The Daily Beast, Oswalt discussed the film, the state of stand-up comedy, awards hosting—he’ll be MCing the Independent Spirit Awards next month, his favorite movies of the year, and much more.
For the bulk of the film your character serves as Walter’s bridge to the “real world.” And the scene where you two finally come face-to-face is a very important moment in Walter’s quest for self-realization.
What’s most crucial is that Walter is finally comfortable talking to somebody face-to-face, and is comfortable with not being sure of something, and having things go the way they did. At that point, he thinks he’s been defeated, he’s been fired from his job, and he has no money, but he’s himself for the first time. I’m another signpost along the way to him becoming more of a person.
How did you film your telephone conversations with Ben? In a studio booth?
I went everywhere he was, and I was just off-camera talking to him so we could riff stuff back-and-forth. We filmed it off-and-on over the course of a few months earlier this year.
What’s your take on online dating? It seems to be getting quicker, and more and more impersonal these days with sites like Tinder, where people literally just look at a picture to choose a potential partner.
I’ve been married since 2005, and been going out with the person I married since 2003, so I’m 10 years gone and never really entered that world. And I haven’t heard any horror stories from any of my friends. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But I fall to my knees and thank the universe that I don’t have to deal with that world, because I don’t think I’d be very good at it. I think I would be a drifting pixel in the online dating world right now. It’s not really how I like to interact; it’s not how I shine.
Oh god, comedy acting is terrifying. It’s so difficult to land it. It’s almost impossible.
What is your preferred mode of communication? Walter makes a lot of lengthy, long-distance phone calls to you, and even the long telephone chat seems to be getting more and more outmoded.
Yeah, I don’t really like talking on the phone! I like a very long email or a face-to-face. One of the reasons I don’t do a lot of radio is I hate calling in to shows when I’m not in the studio. I hate it. The timing is weird, there’s a delay, and it just doesn’t feel natural.
You were excellent in Young Adult. Many, myself included, thought you deserved an Oscar nomination. How do you feel your acting career is going?
Oh, thank you! If there were only a few thousand voting Academy members just like you! [Laughs] I tend to think of it more in macro terms. As much as I’m a film actor, I’m a film buff, so I think about the changes in the industry that are going to affect me getting to make the choices I like to make and getting to see the films I like to see. The fact that everything is in this digital disarray right now is both bad—because is it going to change the blockbuster release schedule model?—but it’s also good, because it’s kind of like it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s where studios and networks are throwing their hands in the air and saying, “You know, maybe we should make some bold choices.”
Many, like filmmaker Mark Duplass, have decried the fact that while there are micro-budgeted features and studio films, the mid-range $2-10 million films are becoming a thing of the past.
Well, not to sound cynical, but maybe the $2-10 million movies have got to find a way to become interesting. In a way, that’s a good thing because if the $2-10 million movies aren’t exciting people, then there’s room for someone to come along and work within those means to create something interesting.
Is filmmaking a goal of yours?
Yes. Eventually I will [direct], but I’ve given up figuring out exactly how and when it’s going to happen. I’ll know and I’ll just go for it, but right now, I’m still learning how to make movies by being in as many as I can and observing.
You’re also hosting the Independent Spirit Awards this year. That seems like a really fun show.
I am! [Laughs] God. I need to get through the holidays and then I’ll really start giving that some serious thought. It’s laid-back and boozy.
Thankfully, Indie Spirit hosts don’t get destroyed in the media the same way Oscars hosts do year after year. It really seems like the most thankless job in showbiz.
But the fact that it’s an impossible job will keep people coming back trying to nail it. It’s the Everest of hosting, and eventually somebody’s going to nail it. We don’t know whom it’s going to be, but it means somebody is going to crack that code. It would suck if, say, it was like Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? and in the second episode someone hit a million. It’s the climb—and the failure—that’s part of the fun. I love Seth MacFarlane, James Franco, and Billy Crystal. They made a fuckin’ run for it and tried. I love the attempt. Letterman! I’d rather see an honest flameout than a 72-degree nice try. Just fuckin’ go for it.
Have you thought anyone did a great job at hosting the Oscars recently?
I thought Hugh Jackman did a great job. I don’t know why he didn’t get more praise than he did. I thought Jon Stewart did a terrific job, and I thought Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin were fine together. And, if I remember correctly, Ellen DeGeneres was a really terrific host.
As a film buff, any favorite movies this year?
American Hustle just bulldozed me. I was not ready for how great that movie was going to be. Holy shit. It’s the best movie of that kind I’ve seen since Goodfellas. I saw it in the theaters and I’m probably going to see it again. I have a big chunk of time tomorrow and I haven’t seen The Hobbit yet, and I’d genuinely rather see American Hustle again. It was such an alive film and I haven’t seen one of those in a long time. And Jennifer Lawrence is that rare thing: she’s a great actress and a movie star. Usually, people only get to be one or the other and she’s both.
Any other favorite movies this year?
I loved Inside Llewyn Davis. I saw a director’s cut of The Act of Killing, which was one of the greatest movies I never need to watch again as long as I live. Goddammit. Too fuckin’ much. You need to hug your children after that thing. Oh, and Gravity! That was one of those where you thought, “Movies in theaters still matter.” A friend of mine just got a screener for that and I told him, “If you don’t see that in IMAX 3D, it’s not worth watching.” It does not work on TV. But it was so amazing. You have this biblical level of destruction and it’s silent. How unnerving was that? It was terrifying. But I’m so excited that someone made a movie where it only works if you see it in the theater. That’s great.
You have a new comedy special coming out in January. What do you think of the state of stand-up comedy?
The stand-up world’s been great for a long time. I have quibbles with the way stand-up is portrayed in the media and in the press. People who don’t understand anything about stand-up and have never set foot in a comedy club write about it and say, “Well, stand-up comedy is kind of dead.” You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I’m in the only profession where someone who doesn’t see stand-up at all gets to write about what we do, and do these objective pronouncements about it. The crop of comedians coming up right now is insane. I’ve never seen this much talent.
Who are you excited about?
Kyle Kinane, Hannibal Buress, Shelby Fero. There are tons of great comedians out there, but people go, “I guess the only comedians out there are you, Sarah [Silverman], and Louis CK.” No, those are just the only ones you know. I have no quibbles with stand-up. It could not be healthier. I have a lot of quibbles with the way people write about it and cover it. [Stand-up critics] want to be funny and they’re not. People can watch a great actor, see a great athlete, and read a great writer and say, “OK, they have that skill.” But everyone thinks they have a right to be funny, and everyone also in their minds thinks, “Well, I’m funny too.” Being funny is just as rare a skill as a facility for brain surgery, playing the piano, chess, or advanced mathematics. Not everyone gets to have it, and a lot of people just can’t accept that.
De Niro’s said he found comedy acting so much more difficult than dramatic acting.
Oh god, comedy acting is terrifying. It’s so difficult to land it. It’s almost impossible, and yet for some reason, I think because it’s entertaining, it gets discounted a lot during awards season. There was this great essay that Roger Ebert wrote in his “Great Movies” essays about The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and he said I thought it was good, but I didn’t recognize it as a great film because I was a young critic, and I thought a movie that fun and entertaining couldn’t also be a great film. Making a non-stop entertaining film is really fuckin’ hard to do, and it takes a while to recognize that.
It’s crazy to think that a comedy legend like Bill Murray wasn’t nominated for an Oscar until Lost in Translation.
Unbelievable … Unbelievable.