Patton Oswalt on Fighting Conservatives With Satire
The comedian on how he found himself addicted to classic movies, the best way to watch the Star Wars movies, and why he really just can’t stand Salon.com.
As anybody who has seen his now famous rant on Parks and Recreation knows, Patton Oswalt can get a little obsessed.
The popular actor, comedian, and Twitter savant is now out with a memoir about his former addiction to classic films, Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film. The memoir follows Oswalt from 1995 to 1999 as he was starting out on his comedy career in Los Angeles. At the same time, he was obsessively watching classic films at the New Beverly Cinema, checking them off in anthologies about the best films ever made. It is a funny and sentimental read. Some of the more surprising joys to be found are the comedian’s own takes on the classic films—they are deep, passionate, and personal.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Oswalt opens up about why he found himself addicted to classic movies, the best way to watch the Star Wars movies, and why he really just can’t stand Salon.com.
What made you want to write a memoir now about your “addiction” to film?
My publisher had asked, “If you wanted to write another book, what would you want to write about?” So I started to think about anything in my life that would be worth people giving it any amount of time. Was there something linked to something a little more universal as far as experiences are concerned? So I was looking back at the years, and that really popped out at me, those three years. You could literally see, starting from May 20 when I discovered the New Beverly it was suddenly like this every day, obsessively going to movies. So looking at that and that at that time I was also pursuing my career—so there was something here.
Why do you think you were “an asperg-y movie fan…a jabbering repellent acolyte?”
I think it was because I naturally have OCD anyway, and now here I’ve discovered this thing that I can start checking off lists such as everything this producer did, everything this director made, or from this genre or from this country—and just devouring it along those lines. It just really fed into a lot of pathologies I had going for me.
A lot of your reflections on the classics are pretty intense, have you ever thought about being a film critic?
No, only because I think I’d be a really lousy film critic now because I’ve been in so many movies, and know what it takes to make them. It would be really hard for me to be harsh to a bad movie. Even bad movies, I know the work that went into the thing. That’s what makes a bad movie even more tragic. It wasn’t that the movie sucked because the people that made it didn’t give a fuck. They worked just as hard on that as the people who made the good movie did. They either lacked skill or lacked luck. Sometimes it just comes down to fucking luck. That’s seems to be a very hard thing for me to criticize.
I just recently rewatched all six Star Wars movies the other day…
Oh wow, from the beginning? Or from Episode IV on?
I went back and forth between new and old.
That order has a name. It’s called the Machete Order. You discard the first Episode. That one just doesn’t exist. You don’t even watch it. You watch Episodes IV and V, and then after Empire, you go back to Episode II, and it’s now suddenly flashback to Darth Vader which kind of ends with him going, “I’m your father.” Then you watch Episode III where you see how he loses, then you go to Episode VI where his son who you left off comes back to redeem him. It becomes a beautiful film. You can read about it online, there’s a whole interesting essay about how there is not a single piece of information or character in Episode I: The Phantom Menace that you need to watch any of the other films, or to make them work in that order.
You write about The Phantom Menace and how it’s just terrible. A lot of the culture around movies in the sci-fi/fantasy genre is about deconstructing them ad nauseam. Has this become more difficult for you to do as you’ve learned what it takes?
It really has. I used to do that endlessly. Now it’s like, all I’m doing is waiting for someone else’s lead to start my imagining. They put the goddamn work into it, and I’m this parasite that’s coming along and being an armchair quarterback. I wasn’t out on the field and getting bruised and bloodied up. Now here I am going, “Well they didn’t do this,” and so on. I’m very careful and wary about doing that now. There’s just not the fun in it like it used to be.
If you read the Onion’s AV Club. Their line of attack is really smart. This film is bad because it’s cynical. They’re not rubbing their hands and laughing out loud. It’s like, oh this person’s an amazing actor, why are they being forced to do this?
You write a lot about how you were a jerk or a snob when it came to comedy or film.
I was the worst. I was the fucking worst.
At what point did that change?
There wasn’t a specific moment. There was a change probably in growing older, but it also came from now that I’ve been in movies and seen the other side of it. I’ve been doing comedy long enough and writing it, so now I know how hard it is to come up with original stuff. It’s easy to sit there and go, “Well, that’s already been done.” Also I came across the phrase “It’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it.” That really turned my head around. Because I was going more on about how things had already been done. Well in that case then Star Wars never should have been made because they’ve already made movies about spaceships.
You talk a bit also about your time at Mad TV. Do you remember what the worst sketch you pitched was?
My problem is not that I have a worst sketch, it’s what was the laziest sketch. A shitty sketch—I’ll take a shitty sketch over a lazy one, a shitty sketch is they tried something and failed. I was just pitching lazy shit. Like I would do something making fun of somebody who was already down. I would do a sketch about Bob Dole and his arm. There’s a lot I don’t like about Bob Dole but his arm and recovering from his arm injury, that’s actually a good thing about him, I was just too young to realize that, because I was so angry about how culturally clueless he was. So my way to point out his cultural cluelessness is to be even more clueless?
What do you think drew you originally to comedy?
It just seemed really fun. It was getting to create jokes at the source, and to get to hang out with comedians. It seemed like the perfect place for me.
So you’re quite well known these days for your tweeting.
Haha, what a sad thing to be great at, but yeah, I guess I am.
When there was talk of you being nominated for an Oscar for Young Adult, which didn’t happen, your tweeting at the Oscars got a lot of press. What was that like?
It was extremely gratifying. But to me, it was really weird, it was way more gratifying to me—and I think this is true of a lot of Oscar nominees—is obviously to even get talked about getting nominated, but ultimately what’s great is to get something fresh and new and build something from nothing, from the ground up. So the biggest thrill for me was getting a script as good as Young Adult, and getting to work on it, and not knowing if I could pull it off. And then pulling it off. So the talk of an Oscar nomination, the other awards I got for it—they almost seemed like they were happening in an ether, because I’d already gotten the best award, which was getting to work on that movie from the ground up.
The other Twitter topic you are well known for is the topic of Salon. What’s going on there?
That’s all about them wanting to get people to read them, and doing anything they can, and so they put up a comedian’s picture and slap the word rape next to it. The thing Salon is really good at, which is when they point out somebody who is being willfully ignorant about a subject so they can appeal to a certain audience. When they write articles “Did The Onion Go Too Far?” or “ Is Patton Oswalt Supporting Rape? ” They already know the answer, but they know by feigning ignorance they can create all this debate about it. It upsets me because I used to really, and still do sometimes, love the articles Salon writes. They used to have Heather Havrilesky and Glenn Greenwald, and now they have become Fox News with all this look-y look-y shit. It hurts progressives. It’s very personal but the fact is that that they want comedians to think twice, three times, four times about any kind of comedy.
It’s like, no. Us liberals, comedy is our best weapon, and if you’re going to take that away from us and make Margaret Dumonts and let the right-wingers be Grouchos, we’re completely fucked. I don’t want to sound like a supervillain, but I won’t fucking allow it. That is going to hurt the progressive movement in this country more than anything, is people suddenly going, we’re the scolders, we’re the shushers, we’re the ones offended by everything. Whereas one of the best weapons against conservatism is satire and offensiveness and bad taste—those were always our best weapons, and they’re fucking them up for everybody.
Do you think it’s becoming harder to be funny if there are fewer things you are “allowed” to joke about?
Right now it seems hard, but here’s what great about comedy: comedy and outrageousness mutate and evolve faster than the scolds and shushers. I agree with what Lindy West said. I’m not against rape jokes, I just want better ones. We’re going to find even more refined and clever ways. Any comedian that is making a rape joke is doing so because they’re disgusted and sickened by rape.
It’s like what Roger Ebert used to say, “These people can count beans but they can’t make soup.” These are people who are criticizing comedy who are not funny, who do not get comedy, and all they do is look at the separate words. They don’t look at context. They don’t look at delivery. They don’t understand irony or satire or any of that stuff. They just can look at words. So we’ll just find better ways to look at darker subjects.
In a weird way I am glad this is all happening. There’s this British comedian who recently said if 10 percent of political correctness is people censoring comedians, maybe it’s worth it if we can also now point out when people are being misogynistic or racist or punching down—maybe that’s the cost of it. The other good thing is it will make satire even sharper. Nothing made Groucho funnier than having this Margaret Dumont around not understanding the jokes. Nothing’s gonna make the satire sharper than having something as dull and dull-witted as Salon around not getting these jokes. Their review of John Oliver’s brilliant new show literally included the line, “Does it have to be a straight white male hosting the show?” Oh my fucking god people. But, maybe it’s good that that’s around. For all the years they’ve railed against the New York Post and Fox News, they are using those techniques to attack other progressives that are on their side. They always make fun of the Tea Party for the Tea Party’s litmus test and they have the narrowest litmus test on people that are already their allies.
What do you think is the best fantasy work that has not been adapted that should?
Oh, easy. Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean series. It’s a post-punk version of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. It’s fucking awesome. That would be an amazing series of films. Or, better yet, if Showtime wants to mount an answer to Game of Thrones, which I love, look at Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean.
What do you think of George R.R. Martin’s response to people bugging him to and finish the books before he dies?
I’ve got to say I’ve got to agree with him. He’s writing those for himself ultimately. I’m always on the side of the artist rather than the audience. There’s plenty of other fantasy series you could be reading. There’s plenty of stuff to take up your time. Jesus Christ, I mean I would rather Dan Clowes put out one brilliant comic a year than something every month that was just OK. Fucking leave him alone, let him do what he wants.
Are you excited, nervous, afraid, all of the above for the new Star Wars films?
I am cautiously optimistic, and I’ll leave it at that.