Interview: Checking in with Patton Oswalt about “Finest Hour”

It’s unique to see someone like Patton Oswalt, known to the mainstream for his many television and film roles (King of Queens, Ratatouille, Big Fan) staying so true to his stand-up roots. In his latest comedy album, out today, Finest Hour, which recently premiered as a Showtime special, Patton pits playfully ridiculous premises — Jesus trying to join the X-Men — against a more grown-up version of the comedian; among other “adult” topics, he opines about the difficulties of parenting and how sleep deprivation yields hallucinations.

Throughout Finest Hour, you can hear the crowd of almost 2,500 people fully engaged and on the edge of their seats at the historic Moore Theater in Seattle. I got to chat with Oswalt as he was filming a new movie in New York City. The call took place on Sept. 11, 10 years after the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists. We discussed where he was 10 years ago during the tragedy and what it was like doing comedy shortly after, as well as preparing for the taping of his special, and finding his voice as a comic.

It’s the 10 year anniversary of 9/11; where were you when it happened and what was it like going onstage after?
I was sleeping in LA. I got a call at like 7:18 in the morning from a comedian friend of mine who said, ‘Hey turn on the TV,’ and I said, ‘What channel?’ and he said, ‘It doesn’t matter, any channel.’ And I was like, ‘Oh fuck.’ So I was a little shaken up, but I never had a worry that, ‘Oh, am I ever going to be able to do comedy again?’ There’s been comedians during worse times in the world. There’s always been a need for some kind of relief. I had a feeling that things were going to go in a very bad way, domestically, and I was very scared that the retaliation would go in the wrong way as well. It wasn’t a question of courage or bravery on my part, I just knew that there would be stuff to talk about. And I had a feeling that this would be a clusterfuck.

Did the crowds get on board with you right away during that time?
It wasn’t so much got on board, I just went onstage. I remember I went on at Largo the week after, it was on the 18th, and that was my whole set. I just had talked about what had happened during the week, dealing with people, and dealing with how the media was covering it, and just the philosophy of it all. Some of it wasn’t funny, and some of it was, but I just went right on. I said at one point, ‘Everyone talks about how with these countries, it’s all religion and violence with them, but we’re like bloated Peter Frampton, the late 70’s Led Zeppelin version of religion and violence and these guys are the Ramones, so never forget that. It’s just that they’re willing to carry their own amps.” So it was kind of like that feeling.

You recorded Finest Hour in front of a sold out crowd of almost 2,500 people. What’s your process like preparing for a big special like that?
Whatever the last special was I ditch all that material and start doing smaller sets and building up a new hour. Because I was so busy doing other things, because I had a kid, it took me longer. It took me a year and a half to get the new hour. But I steadily just kept going onstage and doing it. I’m trying to get beyond processes. The thing I do is a couple nights a week I just get onstage no matter what.

After you’re on TV and in movies and you build a fan base, do you feel more pressure to be funny than when you first started?
No, because this has always been fun to me. The only pressure I feel is to be honest with myself onstage and do stuff that I really, really enjoy.

How long did it take you to find your comedic voice?
It took almost 10 years, but I still feel like I’m finding it. It’s like every evolving thing. I don’t think anyone really finds their voice because no one ever really is done living their life till the end. So that’s something that will always change.

What advice would you give to a comic who’s having trouble finding their voice?
Go onstage more.

What were you like as a comic when you first started?
Stiff and unfunny. I wasn’t being very true to myself and by going onstage over and over and over again I found my voice. I wish there was a more exotic, clear way to say it, but it really comes down to going onstage more. If you’re not funny, go onstage more. If your career’s not going the way you want it to go, go onstage more. If you’re in a rut, go onstage more. There’s no other way to do it. It really is the answer to everything. As far as stand-up comedy is concerned, it’s the only answer. People that can’t accept that are not going to make it.

You got to work with some incredibly funny people on King of Queens; what was it like on set?
It was really fun. I was working with really talented actors and I was learning a lot because I wasn’t really a very good actor when I started. But by getting a chance to do it over and over again I got really good. I don’t know about really good, but I got way more confident in what I was doing.

Patton Oswalt — “The Ham Incident” by Laughspin

What was the one role you got where you realized there’s going to be a whole new level to your career?
The one that was like, ‘This might make me more visible’ was Ratatouille. Being the lead voice in a Pixar movie was a pretty big deal. That was the one I felt like, ‘Okay, maybe things will tend to be different after this’– in terms of voice over and stuff. That definitely felt really good. That was a huge opportunity that I was given out of the blue. So it felt really nice.

Is voice over work as challenging as acting onscreen?
Any different medium is a whole different set of challenges and you can’t compare it to others. It’s its own self-contained thing. When you try to draw from other areas that you’ve already gone in, it makes you kind of weak and complacent. Because you feel like, “Well if I conquered this other thing, how hard can this be?” Well they’re totally different things.

Patton Oswalt’s Finest Hour is available online and stores today. Download it at iTunes here.

Scott King

A Chicago-based writer and comedian, Scott King also contributes to As a comic he's appeared on the WGN Morning News and is a two-time finalist of Comedy Central's Open Mic Challenge.

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