Here's a theory: Patton Oswalt is the Death Cab For Cutie of the comedy world. It's not such a stretch. Oswalt is a self-avowed 'troll'--short, squat and a bit impish. The Death Cab boys probably wouldn't describe themselves as 'a duffel bag filled with mayo and ball bearings,' as Oswalt did in an essay he penned for The New York Times Magazine, but like Oswalt, they're average-looking dudes with exceptional talent.
Oswalt and Death Cab are smart and clever and geeks to the core. But here's the thing about that--they also appeal to people who aren't. They're straight out of the comic-book-loving, obscure-band-knowing, pop-culture-obsessed indie underground. Yet the mainstream wants them, too.
Unlike Death Cab, Oswalt never performed for the cool O.C. kids at The Bait Shop, but for nine seasons he did play Spence Olchin on the CBS comedy The King of Queens--a show that managed to deliver palatably subversive humor to millions. He's had guest roles on TV shows from Seinfeld to Aqua Teen Hunger Force and films from Magnolia to Reno 911! He's written scripts and has worked behind the scenes doing punch-ups for big Hollywood comedies. And most recently, he had the starring role--or at least his voice did--in the Pixar film Ratatouille.
'Mainstream and indie credibility are both equally worthless,' Oswalt says of his dual existence. 'You just gotta be happy doing what you're doing.'
Still, mainstream success has made it easier for him to do what makes him happiest--standup comedy--without a shred of compromise.
Like David Cross and Zach Galifianakis before him, Oswalt has been adopted by the underground music scene. Possibly it's because he's a music fan, can read insidery websites like Pitchfork and recognize the names of bands. Or because of his bit about how everyone who listened to '80s metal is now gay. Regardless, online music media--Pitchfork, Popmatters, Almostcool, etc.--treat him like the newest dance-punk phenom from whichever Canadian city is the new citadel of hip.
Earlier this year, he performed at the South-by-Southwest music festival, a marquee act alongside the likes of Bloc Party and Amy Winehouse. His first stand-up album was released by a label called United Musicians. This July, his biting, decidedly un-mainstream observational comedy album Werewolves and Lollipops was put out by Sub Pop (the same label that brought the world Death Cab singer Ben Gibbard's side project, The Postal Service).
'[Sub Pop] approached me,' Oswalt explains. 'They put out so many of my favorite albums that it seemed like a perfect fit.'
Comedy albums aren't as commonplace as they used to be, but Oswalt was weaned on the likes of Bill Cosby, Steve Martin and Jonathan Winters.
'I still like the old-school comedy album,' he says. 'It's all audio--people can listen and paint whatever picture in their head. I think that's a viable form. I guess it's something from my youth. One of the reasons I got into comedy was the comedy album.'
On Werewolves, Oswalt riffs on everything from the KFC Famous Bowl ('a failure pile in a sadness bowl') to the Bush administration, in one of the most hilarious Dukes of Hazzard send-ups ever. It's the kind of sharp comedy that makes Dane Cook look even more like an unfunny frat boy (if you think Cook's 'relationshit' jokes are the apex of humor, you won't dig Werewolves).
Oswalt has also taken an indie approach to standup touring. Rather than headline at big, overpriced clubs, he gathered a roster of up-and-coming talent to perform at smaller, more affordable rock venues across the country. The tour is called The Comedians of Comedy ('Kings' was already taken), and opening acts Jasper Redd, Brent Weinbach and Sheng Wang add to the pervasively offbeat, indie tone.
Unlike Cook, who can make 18,000 people laugh without a punch line, Oswalt's stand-up doesn't appeal to the masses. On the IMDB.com listing for The Comedians of Comedy, one user snottily remarks of Oswalt: 'There's no fucking indie comedy. You're either funny to most people or you're not funny to most people.'
'I don't think you should be funny to most people,' says Oswalt, fired up. 'You can't entertain everyone. Why does he care that I'm appealing to a niche audience? He's angry that I'm happy not having a massive fan base? ‘Oh, how dare he not appeal to everyone.' Fuck that! Is he also mad at David Lynch and small indie bands like Yo La Tengo? They should play goddamn stadiums, and if they don't they shouldn't even play? That's ridiculous.'
Patton Oswalt and The Comedians of Comedy perform at House of Blues on Wednesday, Oct. 10. Doors open at 7 p.m. $23. 619-299-BLUE