This week, alternative comedy’s single greatest sentence constructor Patton Oswalt premieres Tragedy + Comedy = Time, his fifth hour-long special for Comedy Central (airing April 6), and his soon-to-be-released fifth stand-up LP. Having built a career on punk-rock touring cycles and venomous rants against fast food chains, Oswalt is now masterfully and hilariously playing the long game, embracing less esoteric references (though Werner Herzog still gets a shout-out) and accepting the things that make him an adult. As the guy who once took down Jackyl on a comedy album lays out: “I don’t hate any music any more… When I was 25, not only did I not listen to music, I had to fucking let you know.”
Rolling Stone caught up with Oswalt to discuss his changes as a comedian who’s making “my language simpler and my ideas bigger.” And, oh yeah, to talk about Toto.
There’s a pretty brutal bit in the new special about depression and Toto’s “Africa.” Did you know “Africa” is in the Top 100 of the iTunes Rock chart right now?
I hope that’s not ’cause of me. I actually kind of respect that song because I looked at the lyrics, and it actually kind of makes fun of… It’s about a white dude trying to write a song about Africa and failing because he’s never really experienced it. I almost wonder if it was a swipe at the Paul Simons and David Byrnes at the time that were all into these Afro-rhythms. And he’s like, “Well, I’m just a contented white guy, I’m not even going to pretend.” There was something snarky about the song that I ended up digging.
So you’ve come around a little bit to it?
A little bit. Yeah. But again, because, like I say in the special, I don’t hate any music anymore. That’s what happens when you… How old are you, man?
Mmmm, you got a couple more years of hating stuff, and then you’re just gonna go, “Oh God, I don’t care. Just let me listen to what I like, I don’t care. I don’t have the energy.”
So nothing chaps your ass in contemporary music?
You know what? No. This is going to sound really weird. Maybe some of the stuff that Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga sometimes do, I understand when people bring [it] up like, “Oh, this might be damaging teens here.” But we had just as many damaging things sung and shown to us on MTV all through the Eighties, and we survived it. Not to sound callous, but the ones who didn’t, they were probably were the ones who shouldn’t have anyway. So I think we all need to overcome our bad influences. I’m glad that they’re still out there.
I wish something chapped my ass about music, but it really doesn’t. I’m glad that Justin Bieber‘s doing what he’s doing. In a weird way, he’s showing kids that you’re supposed to rebel. He’s just doing it on such a massive level, that I think it’ll make other kids feel not as bad about their rebellion. They’re like, “Well, look, I’m not crashing Lamborghini’s. I just got an embarrassing tattoo. No one’s going to get hurt, I’m fine.”
People on our side of 30 are supposed to hate dubstep.
Because everything is such a niche market, if you hate dubstep, it means you went out of your way to go hear it. It’s not like they’re playing dubstep in a Red Lobster, or at a Wal-Mart while you’re walking around. If someone’s like, “If I hear another dubstep…,” well you probably should stop searching for dubstep stuff to listen to.
You know who had great insight on that? Insane Clown Posse. Their attitude like, “Why does everyone hate us? Like, when are you going to even hear us? We’re not on the radio, we’re not on MTV…”
Exactly. That’s the thing about Insane Clown Posse. Like when people get mad about the Gatherings of the Juggalos, I’m almost like, I’m happy that they’ve been gathered in one place. I actually like that. Rather, what would you prefer? The scattering of the Juggalos all over the place? That’s a good thing that’s happening. They’re being contained in a small place. “No, I want them everywhere.” Well, I don’t. I wish the gathering happened all year round. Where would you hear that, unless you were breaking your ass to go find it? “Yeah, I really hate this Insane Clown Posse music.” Wow, so you tracked them down and bought it out of their trunk? Because as far as I know, that’s the only place they sell it.
You do a bit in the special about being 25, raging against Creed and Nickelback. But when you were 25, in 1994, those bands didn’t exist yet.
Oh, they didn’t? See, the Nineties were such a blur to me. I don’t have the specific timeline down. I think people understand that I’m talking about that more overall state of mind. Especially that [state] we had all through the whole post-grunge era, where we were so concerned with who’s selling out, and who’s corporate and who’s mainstream. Those bands weren’t out. But my shitty attitude was bigger than time, basically. Maybe my shit-dar detected them coming?
On one of your old records, you talked about how Hasil Adkins and GG Allin made you feel when you were in college. Does anything give you that feeling today?
Hmmm. Of feeling like you’ve discovered something totally primitive and stripped down? Not really. Again, partially because of my age, and partially because I bet I just don’t have access to whatever the new underground is anymore. The one thing that I still have is, in my neighborhood back in L.A., this place called Frankie’s, which is a combination record shop and barber shop. They have one barber chair, that’s where I go to get my hair cut. And this guy that runs it also runs a tiny record label, so he’s always playing in the store these new bands. So there’s been some bands I’ve discovered, like Bleached, and the Bass Drum of Death. Thee Oh Sees! King Khan and the BBQ, to me, still has that great kind of psychobilly feel to it that I like. I don’t mean to put any of these guys in genres, but it’s that just, where can I find something that sounds like someone dropped a mic into the pit when something was still forming?
Over your last two specials, you’ve backed down a bit on the reference-heavy style of comedy. You used to drop Leon Redbone’s name or Cormac McCarthy’s name, and now it’s a little more welcoming.
There’s two reasons for that. One, I was younger and I was out to prove something. I was insecure, and so I was trying to present the world with a mixtape to show everyone how fascinating I am, even though I secretly think that I’m boring and stupid. I’m like, I’ll try to make myself sound exciting and smart. So, that’s why I threw all those fucking references out there. Also, as you get older, just like as I’m stripping down in terms of what I love and hate, I’m stripping down in terms of language. I want things to be more of an actuality and less of a kind of decorative collage. It’s like the older Samuel Beckett got, the more primitive and basic his vocabulary became. It wasn’t that he didn’t know all of the big 25-cent words, he just saw that they didn’t pierce as hard as, “I can’t go on — period. I’ll go on — period.” Maybe I’m subconsciously moving towards that? I’m trying to make my language simpler and my ideas bigger.
This and the last album feel so transitory, like there’s clearly a… I don’t want to say “metamorphosis,” because that implies that something beautiful is going to come out of it — ’cause all I know is that it feels like mid-wreck. It’s like when you know, when a plane is landing and there’s that moment when you’re coming through the gulfstream, and you’re like, “Is this the landing process, or is this the beginning of a wreck?” So that’s where I feel like I am right now.
Do you think that has anything to do with having a kid and being a comedian who does jokes about having a kid?
Exactly. And also just, I can’t live my life the way that I used to. I’m completely living for someone else, and for something else — both a daughter and a marriage and a wife, and the idea of what this child is going to be in the future. If I’m living totally for that — and beforehand all my best comedy came from just living inside my own head — can I get comedy out of this new stance? That’s a scary thing to embrace. But that is part of growing up, unfortunately.
I think John Cleese said, a lot of times you’d be like, “You haven’t really done anything funny.” He goes, “I haven’t felt the need to be funny. I worked a lot of my shit out.” So I’m right now, I’m in the scary thing of, “Am I starting to work my shit out?” We’ll see. I’ll warn you… not that I hate comedy or hold my fans in contempt, but becoming self-actualized and peaceful is worth way more than another album.
I was talking to a friend of mine. This friend was, again, a very tormented, brilliant, hilarious comedian. And then he got married, and he was really, really happy. And then this club owner was like, “You know, just saying, when you broke up with your last girlfriend, you got that great ten-minute chunk.” And my friend was like, “So, burn all this down for another ten minutes of comedy? That’s what you’re proposing? That’s what you just laid on the table for me.” Look, hey, I’ll admit, there is still that impulse in me. Is that worth the trade? And that’s the danger of this business: OK, do I engender more chaos and misery and I get this much more of a chunk? What’s the exchange rate? That’s something that I think we always fight with.
Now that you have a child, does the thought pop in your head, like, “I should be careful about what I say in case I have to explain something in the future?”
Oh, yeah. I think about that all the time. And if any comedian says they don’t, they’re lying. Or they’re not thinking.