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Patton Oswalt by the book: From sketches to a full portrait

Ryan Russell

Patton Oswalt’s new memoir, “Silver Screen Fiend,” describes the stand-up comedian’s five-year, almost-daily habit of watching movies at LA’s New Beverly Cinema in the mid- to late-’90s. The book — his second, after 2011’s essay collection “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland” — details his efforts to overcome the obsession, his growth into adulthood, and the then-burgeoning alt-comedy scene. Oswalt performs stand-up at the Wilbur Theatre Wednesday night.

Q. Why did you want to write a memoir?

A. I’d written the first book, and I just wasn’t confident enough to just do a full memoir, so I interspersed it with little comedic bits and short pieces that weren’t very personal. And the stuff that tended to stick out and that people liked were the more biographical things.


Q. Was writing this book easier or harder than writing your last book?

A. It was different. It was just as hard writing impersonal comedy sketches as it was sitting there opening myself up on the page. This one felt a lot more conversational. It tended to make things a little easier to write. It was easier to initially write than to go back and neaten things up; that tended to be kind of hard. I was being so truthful. Am I being dishonest by going back and editing and cutting things out? That part was a little difficult.

Q. Was there anything about that time in your life that you learned by writing the book?

A. There were all kinds of moments when looking back, like, “Oh, I was letting ambition kind of devour fun, I was letting anxiety devour presence.” It was a lot of the way that you look at the world in your 20s, in that you’re the wronged hero of this amazing saga, and everyone else is just getting in your way. A lot of people have way more empathy earlier on, but it just took me a lot longer to go, “Everyone’s got their own story going on. You’re not the star of this movie.”


Q. Your book is almost entirely in the present tense. Why did you make that decision?

A. I think I made the decision because I’m so bad with grammar and tense. That’s always been something I’ve been very weak at, so I surrendered to that weakness. Also, when you remember things, you have to go back into that moment as if you’re living it in the present tense. That’s the only way that it works, clearly.

Q. One of the most interesting things in the book is how your location — Virginia, and then Los Angeles — affected your comedy. Is that still the case, now that the Internet has opened up people’s visibility?

A. Well, the Internet opened everything up, but you still have to leave your house and live your day to day. And that changes from almost block to block within the same city. So there’s always going to be those differences for the people who are open enough and present enough to be attuned to that. But what I think I’m seeing is that there are some people who are losing being attuned to their place and time and the differences in place and time when they travel, because they’re just looking at a screen the whole time.

Q. Even with the Internet giving comedians so many opportunities, especially with YouTube and podcasts, is practice still the way to get going in stand-up?


A. Visibility doesn’t mean anything if you’re not good at what you do. Whether you’re a musician or a filmmaker or a writer or a performer, you can get all the Twitter followers and Instagram views that you want, but if you’re not putting anything interesting or good up, then what good does that do you? You still have to go do it. That part will never change.

Q. Over the years, your comedy has changed from joke-oriented material to storytelling. Why do you think that happened?

A. It happened because I’m getting older and I’m changing. The stuff that I think is funny and valuable constantly changes. And you know, five years from now, my act will probably be not a storytelling act, but something I didn’t expect it to be. Any comedian that you see over time, if they’re really committed to the craft, it changes pretty radically.

Q. Do you see that shift from joke telling to storytelling in the comedy scene overall?

A. I guess now maybe, especially because people are much more online and wired, they’re a little more used to personal narratives. But I think it also just comes from getting older and getting more comfortable. When you’re younger, you’re putting up shields to look cool. You do that with jokes. As you get older, you make your connection more by opening yourself up a little bit, and that sounds more like stories.


Interview has been edited and condensed. David Brusie can be reached at dbrusie@gmail.com.