If it hasn’t already, August should be renamed “Patton Oswalt Month.” In the span of just one week, he’s given us a new Comedy Central stand-up special, My Weakness Is Strong (already available on CD and DVD), and a feature film called Big Fan, opening today in New York and Philadelphia (and everywhere else in September), in which he plays that most unlikely of things, at least for those familiar with Patton’s oeuvre: a guy who gives a shit about sports. If that’s not enough Patton Oswalt for you and you live in Los Angeles, you can see him perform tomorrow night at the New Largo nightclub, where his legion of fans will likely be mouthing along to the bits they’ve already memorized from My Weakness Is Strong. It’s an embarrassment of riches from one of the funniest comics who kinda resembles John Wayne Gacy of our generation.
I called Patton to talk about Big Fan, and while he was gracious and hilarious, he was also noticeably tense. Which shouldn’t be surprising, really. Big Fan is Patton’s first leading role that isn’t an animated rat, and the directorial debut from The Wrestler screenwriter Rob D. Siegel, so expectations are high. Although the movie is about football—Patton plays a New York Giants fan that gets brutally beaten by his quarterback idol—he was reluctant to discuss the sport with me. Which I guess makes sense. Asking a comic to have an opinion about football is like asking Peyton Manning to rate his top five favorite Watchmen characters.
Eric Spitznagel: It’s always a risky thing when comics try to play it straight. Razor’s Edge wasn’t Bill Murray’s finest hour. Were you at all hesitant about doing Big Fan?
Patton Oswalt: No, not at all. The thing is, Bill Murray was a fucking superstar when he did Razor’s Edge. He had movies like Meatballs and Stripes and Ghostbusters under his belt. But me, I’ll take any job I can get. I can’t afford to be picky. I’m not the kinda guy who’s like, (in a snooty thespian accent) “I’m in between projects right now, so I gotta decide on my next move.” I just want to be hired for something! And it didn’t hurt that this was such a well-written script, and I’m already such a fan of Robert’s writing, both The Wrestler and his years writing for The Onion. This was a very big deal for me.
And for Siegel, too. It takes some balls to direct a dark, somber drama and give the lead to a guy who headlines at the Laugh Factory.
He put up his own money for this thing. It was definitely a risk. The fact that he wanted to put it in my hands, that was fucking flattering. I think that’s what gave me the excitement and the confidence to go do it.
Being funny is your comfort zone. During the Big Fan shoot, was it like trying to keep a straight face at a funeral?
Well no, in fact it was the opposite. Sometimes I would try to tag things with jokes and Robert was like, “No, that’s not what we’re looking for here. Just read the lines.”
Did that bruise your ego?
It helped that the script was so well written. It reminded me in a way of Ratatouille, where it was like, “Oh, all I have to do is just read the words as written and I’m going to look pretty good.”
Was there a specific scene where you tried to insert some humor and it just messed with the whole tone of the film?
There was a night-driving sequence—which thankfully Robert didn’t use—where I riffed this long soliloquy about what I’d do if I ever met Quantrell Bishop, my fictional, heroic object of desire in the movie. I remember saying things like, “I’d just recite his stats to him until I was almost singing, and he’d be looking at me the way I look at him when he runs. Because when I think of all his achievements, I feel like my brain thinking equals legs running.”
Wow. That’s on the brink of poignant.
It was all very ironic and self-aware and “Look how I’m consciously using this guy’s limited vocabulary” or some such bullshit like that. At least that’s what I must have been thinking, patting myself on the back for “capturing something”. But later, when I had time to think about it, I realized that this guy lacked the ability to say something funny or clever even by accident.
That’s a rough road for a comic, swearing off ironic and funny for dark and melancholy.
I don’t even think it was a commitment to dark and melancholy. It was a commitment to a void.
You have some pretty intense emotional scenes in Big Fan. How did you get there? Have you ever grappled with depression?
I’ve grappled with the sort of depression that completists get. There was a period in the mid-90’s when I’d obsessively go and see movies. Los Angeles at the time had rep theaters everywhere, so I’d see three or four movies a day. And my personality began to… flicker a little bit.
I don’t follow.
I was dimming as a person, losing my grip as a human in the world and turning into a machine that consumed light and sound in popcorn cathedrals. And after awhile it hit me I wasn’t enjoying the movies anymore. I just wanted to see every movie in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia or Danny Peary’s Cult Movies. And the thing is, there’s no satisfaction is checking off yet another title in a book, just this low, humming panic that grows as you realize the check marks aren’t working any magic on your mood or place in the world. I got out and away, eventually, but I didn’t leave it totally behind me.
Mickey Rourke, who starred in Siegel’s first film The Wrestler, got a little carried away with the method acting, cutting his face with a razor blade to add some bloody realism to a wrestling match. Were you tempted to follow his lead? How much of your character’s black eye was the real deal?
No, that didn’t happen. What was so horrifying about the beating scene is that I had my face on the floor of a strip club. That’s what was fucking horrifying.
What goes on down there anyway? Does a strip club’s floor smell vaguely spermy?
We shot it at a place called The Headquarters, and it’s actually where Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg. It’s a pretty nice strip club, for the most part. But you don’t normally put your face on or near the floor of club like that. And when you do, it’s like, “Oh, this is where all the horrible is. It all sort of sprinkles down here like a winter snowfall.” You can smell the years of thwarted dreams.
Did you make a lot of stripper friends on the set? You must have at least a few new BFFs with names like Raven or Destiny.
Not really. I only remember one of the strippers, and that was… (Laughs.) Look, strippers are wonderful people and they’re our number one resource. But they’re very fucked up. One of the last days we were filming at the strip club, I brought two very, very old bottles of scotch for the crew, so we could all do a toast together. Because the crew were like the nicest people on the planet, and they were doing this movie for fucking nothing. So we’re pouring shots of scotch and this stripper walks over, and you could just tell she was coked out of her mind.
It was that obvious?
She never stopped talking. It was all, (in a high-pitched, hyper stripper voice) “You guy doing a toast? Can I do a toast with you guys? What is this stuff?” I was like, “No, no, hold on, this is really, really good scotch. This isn’t the stuff you drink just to get fucked up. This is the super smoky stuff.”
That’s adorable. So you’re basically trying to explain the difference between single-malt scotch and discount hooch to a coked-out stripper?
Exactly, yeah. But she grabbed the bottle anyway and poured herself a tumbler. You understand what I’m saying? We’d all poured ourselves shots, just enough to sip on. But she poured an eight ounce tumbler of this stuff. So I gave my toast and thanked everyone, and she said “Yaaah” and slammed the entire tumbler!
Sweet mother of god.
And then she wiped off her mouth and went back to work.
There is so much wrong with that story, I don’t know where to begin. I think I’m most disturbed that she went right back to work.
Well… she’s a stripper.
Yeah, but how does a person function with that much alcohol in their system?
I didn’t think to ask her. I avoided that question. “Hey, let’s sit down and really get inside your mind.”
Your character in Big Fan is from Staten Island, yet you don’t have any discernible accent in the movie. What’s the deal?
I lived on Staten Island the whole time we shot it, at a little hotel, and I would talk to people and listen to their accents. But then Robert and I talked about it, and we decided that I shouldn’t even bother with the accent. This guy is such a blank and so lost, not having any kind of accent actually says more about him. We thought that since everybody around him had such strong Staten Island accents, it made more sense if he was just nothing. Because he doesn’t really interact with people. He’s never had a reason to develop any kind of personality, which makes him seem more adrift.
Interestingly, your character’s life could be described as a failure pile in a sadness bowl.
I guess it could. Jesus, am I ever going to get away from that stupid fucking bit?
I almost expect to see it mentioned on the movie poster. “Big Fan…. from the guy who brought you that awesome rant about KFC Famous Bowls!”
(Sighs.) It wouldn’t surprise me.
Do you regret coming up with that bit? Even with a new album out, the Famous Bowl routine still seems to follow you.
No, I don’t regret it at all. I was truly horrified when I first saw the Famous Bowls. And I’m proud that, for once, I actually achieved something I was aiming for, which was to unveil an actuality. When you can do that with something so innocuous and disposable, all the better.
Given that Big Fan is a movie about football, I guess we should at least mention football.
If we must.
Would you call yourself a football fan?
I wouldn’t, no. I don’t follow sports. I don’t hate sports, but I don’t really follow them.
But you’re at least familiar with the game, right?
No, not really. It’s just not something I’ve ever enjoyed or watched.
You’ve never watched a football game on TV?
Seriously? Even just a few minutes by accident, while flipping through channels?
No, sorry. I just don’t follow it at all.
But you just did a movie about a guy who’s obsessed with football. Surely you must’ve picked up something. Could you explain the game to me in layman’s terms?
I really couldn’t.
You couldn’t describe the basic gist of it? If I asked you to tell me what a touchdown is, you’d have no clue?
You can keep asking questions if you want, but all you’re going to get is “I have no idea.” This won’t go anywhere, but by all means, keep going.
I’m sorry to beat a dead horse, but I’m honestly perplexed. You don’t have any sports allegiances whatsoever? Woman’s softball, maybe? Or beer pong?
None. Is there a Rollerball league somewhere? Intramural Thunderdome?
What’s the difference between having an obsession with football and a nerd fetish you’re more familiar with, like science fiction or cult films?
I don’t think there’s any difference. The object is irrelevant to the drive and focus. It’s a way to take up more space in the world by believing in something bigger than yourself. The New York Giants and the Jedi Knights are equally relevant if you’ve got emptiness to fill.
But don’t sports fans seem a little scarier? They’re more likely to break a chair over somebody’s head. At worst, a Star Trek fan is just gonna insult you in fluent Cardassian.
I hear the Cardassian language, when used in anger, can sting harsher than nacho-tainted urine, and packs more punch than a flung keg tap.
Have you ever had a Big Fan moment? There must be somebody you admire enough to stalk? Tommy Wiseau from The Room, maybe?
(Laughs.) Yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I don’t think anybody I’m obsessed with could lay out a beating, so I’m pretty safe.
That’s a good point. Wiseau couldn’t hurt a fly. He’d just throw up his fists and scream, “You’re tearing me apart!”
(Laughs.) And I don’t think Neil Gaiman is going to snap my neck anytime soon.
But I’m not talking about getting your ass kicked. You’re telling me you’ve never made a fool of yourself in front of somebody you admire?
I tried to French kiss Lance Henriksen in the rain tent at Coachella. In my defense, I was flying on X and thought he was Ed Harris.
All joking aside, you’ve never said or done something you regret when trying to impress one of your idols? I find that hard to believe.
Luckily, I’m usually so star-struck and paralyzed that I never say anything. Awkwardness has saved me from awkwardness.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com)