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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Patton Oswalt semi-interview

Just got off the phone with alt-comedy superhero Patton Oswalt. And boy is my brain tired! Tired from winging it, scrambling around trying to come up with an angle that would get him talking. He remains, out of the literally hundreds of interviews I've done with comedians, from amateur to headliner to touring celebrity, by far the most challenging interview subject. Scroll down for the transcript of the ten-minute conversation we had.

It's poor form for a journalist to comment on the quality of interview in a story, and I wouldn't even mention this if I were writing a proper preview. I'd just pick some of the better quotes from the interview and build the story around it. But this is a blog and I thought I'd give a glimpse into my process. And by all means, please do not judge his stand-up act from his rather passive-aggressive nature in phoners with the press. I don't. I've seen him live at least twice that I can remember and he's great on stage. Really funny and smart. (I use the term 'passive-aggressive' because his tone remains friendly throughout even though he's clearly not interested in giving too much.) And in no way should you take it as a reflection on the type of person he is. By all accounts he's a super-nice guy. He just doesn't like doing press. Fair enough. I say he shouldn't. Just tell the promoters you don't do press. Maybe it's frustrating for him that he isn't the star he feels he should be, considering his credits (Comedians of Comedy, King of Queens, Ratatouille, among many more). Jerry Seinfeld doesn't do press and doesn't have to because his shows sell out. Many artists don't do press if their shows sell out. Based on his abilities, Oswalt's shows should sell out. He's that good. So he could be resentful. But I'm projecting.

I sort of have a rule of thumb: if an interview doesn't go well, I blame myself. I need to make a connection with the subject and ask interesting questions. Some subjects are naturally chatty (Norm MacDonald wouldn't get off the phone with me – we spoke for 90 minutes), whereas others require some finesse (Jimmie Walker was extremely tight-lipped and leery until I proved to him I wouldn't bite and then he opened up and it turned out great). This was my second time talking to Oswalt and despite the curt replies I received the first time around (as did a colleague at a competing newspaper), I had high hopes this time.

This interview opportunity came up only yesterday. Too late for me to run anything in the paper to fully plug his upcoming show on Saturday night at the Vogue Theatre. So I knew it would be a quickie. I wanted to talk to him about a great essay he wrote in his book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland called The Victory Tour, in which he describes the worst two weeks of his professional career: working at a comedy club in Surrey. That's it, really. And to give a plug to his upcoming show here in the blog.

Doing my radio show/podcast each week for the past six years has given me experience in knowing how much to prepare for an hour-long interview. Usually, I over-prepare and have way more questions left after the hour is up. Keep in mind, that's very little. That's because most performers going into an interview situation like to talk. That's what they do for a living, afterall. They don't look at each question as a literal question to be answered succinctly, but as a jumping-off point for conversation.

The way I work is I jot down a series of questions. I ask one question then follow-up naturally based on their answer, so that one question might represent five minutes of conversation. When that topic is exhausted, I move on to the next question. The problem with a guy like Oswalt is that he provides short answers and there is no give-and-take. With a short answer, there's not much for me to work with on a follow-up. If I rephrase the question, the answer gets shorter. So then it's on to the next topic. Rinse and repeat.

I've heard Oswalt on podcasts and I know he can converse so I'm guessing it's partly that he doesn't know me. To him, I'm just part of the stupid duplicitous press asking superficial question that are beneath him. I'm sure there's a way I could have reached him better. I just don't know what it is. You can read the transcript and maybe you'll conclude that my questions were weak and uninteresting. And maybe they were. Yes, many of them were closed. That is, they required a yes/no answer. But that's only if you choose to answer them that way. In 99 percent of interviews I do, a yes/no question – or even a statement – will provide just as good a response as a carefully-worded open-ended question. Because it's a conversation. I also know that those same questions asked to virtually anybody else I've ever interviewed (save for Steven Wright), would have netted a 20-minute talk at minimum, i.e. at least twice as long as this one ran. But be that as it may, there is something of interest here. Maybe.

Guy MacPherson: So you’re coming back to Vancouver. That’s good to see.

Patton Oswalt: Mm-hmm.


GM: And it’s not Surrey.

PO: Say that again?


GM: (louder) I’m saying it’s good that it’s Vancouver for you and not Surrey. I read your essay in your book.

PO: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! Yeah, that’s definitely a relief.


GM: Very entertaining. How much of that was poetic licence? Do you keep notes? How do you remember all that?

PO: I remember keeping notes on that one right after… well, as it was going on, in an old, old notebook. And I went through it and I realized, oh, that’s actually a really good story and it encapsulates a lot of what’s bad about being on the road.


GM: Yeah, it sure does. It seems – and it could have just been the whole situation or your early days – but it seems like a really lonely existence. Is it as much now?

PO: Um, well now I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to go out for weeks at a time and for the most part I can try to pick my openers so I can hang out with somebody that I like.


GM: I see that you’ve picked Graham Clark, is that right?

PO: (pause) Yes. (pause)


GM: Yeah, yeah. Good local comic here.

PO: He’s funny.


GM: Was the Smile Hole the Comedy Cave?

PO: Yes.


GM: You know, I never went there so I don’t know the people involved. Any hints?

PO: (pause) Say that again?


GM: Are there any hints as to who was who? Who was Reed? Who was Gary?

PO: I forget their real names. I think Reed might have been a guy named Sean. I’m not really… That part is very hazy.


GM: Right.

PO: I just remember it as being around bad people.


GM: But that character Gary was really a comic who was taking jokes out of joke books and doing knock-knock jokes and stuff?

PO: Yes, he was like a friend of the owner’s. He would go onstage and just recycle old jokes.


GM: Do you know that Surrey is the default local shitty area that comics joke about?

PO: That I did not know.


GM: Yeah. That’s standard. Surrey is that place.

PO: Wow.


GM: Have you been back to Surrey since?

PO: No. (pause)


GM: So when did you get turned off the clubs? That obviously helped, right?

PO: That was one of, you know, a thousand little incidents that made me try to work harder so that I could start doing small theatres and rock clubs and not do comedy clubs anymore.


GM: What is a good thing about clubs? It couldn’t have been all bad, right?

PO: Good thing about comedy clubs?


GM: Yeah. Anything?

PO: Nothing.


GM: (laughing) Really!

PO: They’re all bad. (pause) It’s just not a form that I work well with anymore. I don’t want to compete with snacks and drinks. I know that sounds snotty but I’ve just chosen this newer path and I want to stick to it just as long as I can. Clubs are not fun when you’ve been doing comedy for a long time. They’re just not.


GM: That is the worst part, I think, all the interruptions from the wait staff and everything.

PO: Yeah, it’s just so false. The whole feeling is not the way that comedy or performance should be done.


GM: You paint the [Surrey] club and its patrons as awful, but you also were saying that you weren’t funny. I mean, you were a few years into it.

PO: I mean, I was young. I didn’t have the experience to deal with it.


GM: Right. So it was kind of like a perfect storm of awfulness.

PO: Oh, totally. Yeah, yeah. An inexperienced guy with arrogance beyond his skills faced with an audience who were demanding things above their own paygrade. Everything was awful.


GM: I heard you talking with Marc Maron about your youthful arrogance and things like that.

PO: Oh, yeah. You’re supposed to be arrogant when you’re young. Because you don’t know anything yet so the only way you can kind of assert yourself and form yourself is by being vocal about what you hate and what you disdain. But you haven’t really created anything yet. I mean, I think that’s how a lot of youth is and then that is what leads to wisdom.


GM: Yeah, I guess that’s true. We all know all the answers when we’re young and as we get older we start to know more questions. We realize we don’t know as much.

PO: Sure. (pause)


GM: You talk about reading in your book, but you can tell from your writing that you’re a reader, too. And that’s a compliment because, you know, you’re a good writer and not all comics are even though they put out entertaining books. Yours is a little more crafted, I think.

PO: Um, I try to, yeah, but I try not to lose the soul through the lattice of the craftwork.


GM: Yeah, yeah, definitely. It’s not Nabokov but it’s still craft, right? I believe that a lot of good comics are really good readers. I don’t base that on anything other than a hunch but do you find from the comics that you know that the best ones read a lot? Or is there no correlation there at all?

PO: I don’t really know what the correlation is because I don’t have a solid line as to the reading habits of every good comic, but I’m going to assume they either read a lot or try to be aware and connected with the world in one way or another.


GM: It’s a language thing, too. It’s spoken but you’re crafting specific words. There are some comics that just go out there and are naturally funnyish, but for me, anyway, the good comics really craft words or think a lot about the words they’re choosing. (pause) Right? Would you agree with that?

PO: Oh, definitely. Yeah. (pause) I-I agree. (pause)


GM: Yup. Good. I’m moving along.

PO: (pause) Okay.


GM: (pause as I scramble for the next question) How long did the book take to put together? Were you constantly writing on the road?

PO: As best I could. It’s hard to write on the road. Harder than I thought it would be. It took me about a year to put that together.


GM: Did you decide you wanted to write a book or did they approach you?

PO: I got an offer from an agent and we went to different publishing houses and shopped it around and we found one that we liked that could really get behind it. So, I mean, I’d been doing so much writing at that point on the internet and in different magazines. I think that’s what caught the agent’s attention.


GM: And is it a process that you liked? I mean, you can’t really like having to sit down and come up with stuff, but is it something you would do again?

PO: Oh, yeah, I’m going to do it again. We’re talking about a second book. I liked the process very much. I like sitting down and kinda seeing where my imagination would take me. That actually ended up being really fun.


GM: Do you know if the next one is going to be a similar essay-type book?

PO: Yeah, but maybe more deeper essays, more autobiographical with a more linear structure. We’ll see. I’m sure it’ll change once I do the writing of it. We’ll see.


GM: You’re coming here to the Vogue Saturday. Is it part of a tour or a one-off?

PO: I don’t tour anymore. (pause)


GM: Okay. So it’s not then.

PO: Right.


GM: We saw you last, I think it was two years ago, was it? At the comedy festival?

PO: I forget.


GM: You also played the same theatre, the Vogue Theatre.

PO: Oh, cool!


GM: Yeah, you remember which one it is?

PO: I don’t, I’m sorry. I do a lot of dates.


GM: The act is always evolving and changing. So are we going to see some of the classic bits or are we going to see all new? What is it going to be?

PO: (pause) It’ll be all new. I mean, once I put a bit on an album I don’t do it anymore live.


GM: Right. Well, I don’t know that those were on albums. I’m talking about from when you were here two years ago.

PO: But I put out an album two years ago.


GM: Okay. Right. Okay, great. Now, the situation you had on Broadway with Megan Mullally, did that rock your confidence or did that just strengthen your resolve that she’s an asshole (laughs) or something?

PO: Who can say? (pause)


GM: Well, about you.

PO: Sure.


GM: Did it give you pause and think ‘What am I doing?’ or did you just think, ‘Ah, what’s her problem?’

PO: Ah, who can say?


GM: Ha ha! Is that an artful way of saying ‘no comment’?

PO: (sigh)


GM: Are you going to go back to something like that, go back to live theatre?

PO: (inaudible)


GM: Sorry?

PO: Oh, I don’t know.


GM: No?

PO: (pause) I dunno.


GM: (pause) Alright. (pause) Well. (pause) Thanks for your wordy replies.

PO: Done! Great!


GM: Goodbye.

I should mention here the presenters for Patton Oswalt. They're new to me, but a welcome addition to the comedy scene in town. They're called Funny Farm comedy and they'll be bringing in name acts that don't often play Vancouver. After Oswalt on Saturday, they'll be presenting Tracy Morgan at the Orpheum on May 20 and Rob Schneider at the Vogue on July 22. The more comedy the merrier, I say!

6 comments:

makyamcbee said...

Hmmmm,

I am currently engaged in a vicious Google-off with Mr. Oswalt. Perhaps this less than stellar interview performance will convince you to back me in this much-publicized contest. Either way, keep up the good work.

Guy MacPherson said...

That's a noble endeavour, Makya McBee. Good luck with that. I'd read a book by Makya McBee. I'll have to remember to visit the Makya McBee site regularly, not only the page about the Google-off (http://makyamcbee.wordpress.com/the-patton-oswalt-google-off/) but the home page, too (http://makyamcbee.wordpress.com/).

Anonymous said...

Not really related to Patton Oswalt or Makya McBee (I don't take sides in the google war) but I gather our friendly neighbourhood thought police have rendered a verdict in the Guy Earl fiasco. It's a joke, but not in a ha ha kind of way...

Jude

shawnster said...

AAARGH! This Patton Oswalt makes me so mad! I enjoyed my interview with him a couple of years back so much I asked someone else to do it for me this time thinking she might have a better experience but she said the same thing. Guy's right, why do interviews if you don't want to talk? You just come off looking like an ass.

Along with David Cross, one of my worst interviews (out of literally hundreds) ever. It's too bad, 'cos Oswalt's genuinely funny.

Anonymous said...

Makya Mcbee should offer an interview, bet it'd be better that Pattons!

Makya McBee said...

Thanks for your support. I am available for interviews on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 4:15 pm and 7:35 pm.