Patton Oswalt: ‘Comedians have a responsibility to evolve’

Patton Oswalt has a new stand up special coming out in September called We All Scream. This one was filmed in Denver because Patton likes all his specials to be filmed in different locales. To promote it, he did a phone interview while he was driving on the 405 in LA. I can tell you now if I ever do a phone interview while driving on the 405 the majority of it would not be suitable for print. But Patton not only kept from cursing out his fellow commuters, he had some interesting comments on the state of comedy. The reporter asked him about touring across the US with topical subjects like the pandemic and pandemic deniers and vaccines. In addition, the reporter asked Patton about cancel culture, whether he worried about his comedy being taken out of context and people coming for him for it. Patton gave a thoughtful answer that touched on the fact that most jokes will likely be taken out of context at some point. But he also said that it is the comedians’ responsibility to evolve with the times. The objective should always be to push the envelope and not dig “your feet in while the envelope moves forward.”

On worrying if his material would land in different states: you know, that ended up being really, really hopeful for me. I’m going to quote my friend Bobcat Goldthwait here, but once you go out in the world, especially as a touring comedian, what you find out is that Twitter and the internet is not the world. Twitter and the internet amplifies a mutant version of the world for entertainment clicks. But in the actual world, people, for the most part, are struggling to help each other and live lives and try to just be human beings. Unfortunately, it’s like we have bad parents who are modeling awful behavior for us, and we’re the kids. That’s what we’re seeing right now.

On cancel culture and jokes quoted out of context: I think that comedians deserve context in what they say. You shouldn’t just “cancel” out of context, but I also think comedians have a responsibility to evolve and to try to push things forward. And pushing the envelope doesn’t mean digging your feet in while the envelope moves forward — you should be ahead of that envelope, that’s how you should be pushing it. And again, the whole battle over wokeness, it’s nothing new. This happened in the ’80s, it happened in the ’90s and it’ll happen again in another form. That’s what I was talking about [in the special]. I do a joke about in the future, what am I going to be canceled for? And you don’t know, but you want to at least try to keep progressing.

The other thing I’d say is that comedy has always worked better with restrictions. Think of the restrictions that Richard Pryor and George Carlin had, and before them, Lenny Bruce, and they found clever, brilliant ways around whatever the restrictions were, that’s what made it so fun and thrilling.

[From Yahoo]

I liked Patton’s quote about feeling hopeful from touring. While I love Twitter, it does give you a skewed view of what’s going on around you. And it colors your perceptions of the people out there. So it’s nice to hear a liberal comedian come away from a tour with hope. Of course, he’s a white male with decent health insurance, so maybe his experience wasn’t universal.

As for context, a joke should hold regardless of context. Sometimes a comedian gives an example of what not to say in a joke and someone puts that on blast without context to start trouble. But I feel like that gets usually gets clarified quickly enough. If, however, a comedian has to defend the joke with a bunch of context after the fact, maybe just retool the joke. But yes, nobody should be deliberately misquoted to start a rage-fight. I think Patton was being diplomatic with that part, though. The evolution part is good. Comedians have always been our fortune tellers. They are supposed to be out front of what’s going on. And the restrictions that Patton refers to were put in by those in power. Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce weren’t coming for marginalized groups or punching down. Again, I think Patton is trying to be diplomatic by not singling out a person or offense, but comedy isn’t a blank check to say anything, it’s about saying something that will make a difference.

In a beautiful bit of irony, Patton was called out, out of context, on Twitter, for his quote about cancel culture:

Photo credit: Avalon Red and Cover Images

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17 Responses to “Patton Oswalt: ‘Comedians have a responsibility to evolve’”

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  1. Merricat says:

    Patton Oswalt is a pretty decent guy, and a very funny comedian.

    • mia girl says:

      Good actor too. His performance in Young Adult is so nuanced and moving.

    • Joan Rivers says:

      Was thinking he was the quirky comedian who died too soon — it was GILBERT GOTTFRIED. My fave!
      But Patton & Bobcat Goldthwait are still here. Those 3 should’ve gotten together w/Judy Tenuta & whoever else I can’t think of, and talk about what makes THEM “quirky.” I’d love to hear them all on a classic video about what makes for “quirky” in a comic.
      Special. Patton is more normal than GG of course. But he’s got a foot in both camps.

  2. Laalaa says:

    I remember him for this relationship, I see they are still together? Yay!

  3. Kitten says:

    We’ve been watching a lot of old Carlin bits lately and man, he is just the best example of timeless comedy. And yes he had some restrictions on his comedy (“seven dirty words”) and some victories as well but he also had a shit-ton of self-restraint. His delivery, inflection, the way he builds his comedic routines–just masterful. There are some great comedians out there doing some fantastic stuff and TikTok has been a great outlet for funny, mostly unknow creators to build an audience. But there will never ever be another George Carlin.

    • StellainNH says:

      I love Carlin.

    • Mabs A'Mabbin says:

      He was the best. So damn dry. But what Patton says about evolving is what I’ve been saying from the start. I’m glad he gets it. It takes a certain maturity to thoughtfully look at your program from every angle.

    • Joan Rivers says:

      AND when you think of when Carlin started & how much he evolved, just looking at THAT is amazing. He grew from the Hippy Dippy Weather Man into so much more. And Joan Rivers did too. They both GREW a lot.
      Carlin was prescient too, he was often so beyond his times seeing wisdom for the future. Yet, able to get the drug scene but not be taken under by it.

  4. Jessica says:

    I generally disagree with a lot of what Patton says but I absolutely agree that what you read on Twitter and most blogs isn’t how the majority of Americans feel about well…anything. And I love him with Meredith especially after the tragedy with his first wife and adore her relationship with Alice and his late wife’s family. They all clearly love each other.

    • Ariel says:

      I watched the HBO docuseries on his late wife and the serial killer she was trying to find. Of all the horrific things in it- involving rape and murder- the single most heart wrenching moment is his 911 call, the morning Michelle died. Brutal.
      So glad he and Alice have been able to move on, and i don’t have enough accolades for a step-parent that steps up to the plate and declares themselves- Team Kid, in whatever capacity that looks like for their particular family.
      And some of his earlier stuff is cringeworthy- as not all comedy stands the test of time, which is fine. His last three specials are amazing- all on netflix.
      though the middle one, Antihalation- he talked about his wife’s death, and having to tell his daughter that her mom died… and now i’m tearing up at my desk thinking about it.

  5. Ari says:

    My partner and I have been together for 15 years and one of our earliest moments of ‘holy shit, I love this person ‘ was bonding over Patton’s albums. There are jokes that are REALLY problematic in those albums and some that stand the test of time. As someone who laughed along with it, I’m just as culpable and hopefully I have evolved too. It’s encouraging to see PO aware he needs to evolve as well -which might be why his older jokes are brought up much? As a trans person online I get so much online hatred which has unfortunately translated into real life scary shit (a group stalked and harassed me and some drag performers at a library reading for kids after posting about it), but other than that, I do see that the cesspool of online vitriol vs real life situations is vastly different.

    • outoftheshadows says:

      Damn, Ari, I hope you and the drag queens are okay.

      I love your reading of this situation.

      • Ari says:

        Hey, thanks! We were ok – the public library did not play around and security escorted them away as they had broken the library’s policy of “disturbing” other patrons (ie. The drag performers and the kids/parents there for the reading). Good thing because the cops and courts did nothing. We couldn’t get protective orders because the judge didn’t deem calling us “groomers and pedophiles” as a “significant threat” to our safety. Oof.

      • outoftheshadows says:

        Don’t mess with a librarian’s quiet time.

        That said, I’m glad they handled it. I really despair at this country, sometimes, but the backlash is also because we’ve made serious gains. Keep up the good fight–as long as you feel safe enough. Otherwise, protect yourself. We need you well. <3

  6. Another Anna says:

    I like his point about restrictions producing sharper comedy. I remember once I saw this clip of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Conan O’Brien talking about comedy. Conan specifically was talking about “comedy compression,” meaning that comedians need to have restrictions so that they can be creative.

    That being said, just once I am begging someone to push back on cancel culture framing. Is it “cancel culture” or is that just a catchy name for accountability? If you use your power to abuse people and then you lose that power as a result, that’s just consequences. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and I think there is a lot of overlap between mobbing and “cancelling.” For me, the difference lies in the instigating event and the power dynamics. There are people who legitimately get publicly shamed way out of proportion to their supposed “crime.” But the concept of “cancel culture” is a weaponized right wing bad-faith argument and we shouldn’t accept its premise quite so easily.

    • Dutch says:

      I think the line is between “accountable” and “cancel” is razor thin. The internet likes to pile on in the moment, carry a grudge and never forgive. The term “cancel culture” has been weaponized by people with an agenda, but it’s also become ubiquitous term now like “Marvel movie” — you get the gist of what the user means even if the specifics don’t exactly line up.