Patton Oswalt on love and hate in comedy

Patton Oswalt preaches love instead of hate in standup.

“Actually, I think when you’re younger, anger and comedy mesh together very, very well,” Oswalt answers, “because there are things that you feel like, ‘Am I the only person seeing this?’ But then, as you get older, I don’t think anger and comedy mesh at all. I remember Chris Rock telling me, ‘Don’t get mad, get funnier.’ Getting mad doesn’t help you as a comedian. Anger eventually cancels out comedy. I think what you have to do is find the things that delight you, and if you really push the things that delight you, then the things or people that piss you off, it just makes them angry. If people you don’t like or people that you disagree with, if they see you on stage pissed off and angry, that’s actually kind of reassuring. Because they’re like, ‘I’m getting to that guy.’ But if you’re on stage, and instead of cursing what you hate, you’re celebrating the alternative and making that seem better, that’s what drives your enemies bugfuck. That’s what just drives them into the red.”

“Pointing out that stuff sucks is not edgy or dangerous anymore,” he says. “Everyone knows what sucks. What’s better is to find the stuff that’s amazing and hold it up. Even something like the KFC bowl, in a weird way, I love it. I love that we’ve gotten to the point where [there’s] an actual manifestation of the problem and we actually have it in bowl form. Before, it was scattered amongst 50 different fast-food chains, and it was so hard to make your argument. People would go, ‘Yeah, but there’s salads, and…’ Now I’m just like, ‘Here is the top-selling fast food item.’ Thank you, KFC!”

“[The KFC Famous Bowl bit] was also from sheer exasperation,” he says. “Like, finally, what I’ve been talking about all along about what is wrong with us. And also, ultimately, what’s wrong with me, you know? I need to lose weight because I eat a lot of crappy food. I think the best anger is the stuff that you are pointing at yourself, rather than, ‘Everything sucks and I’m here to point out why.’“

Here's another example: Oswalt on the wonder of Cheetos from a 2004 bootleg.

So I get that anger directed at yourself is great fodder for standup (like CK's making fun of himself in "Everything's amazing, nobody's happy").

But I'm surprised to read someone argue that being angry/mad is bad for comedy. Especially someone who has done great bits shitting all over George Lucas, his hometown, people who celebrate birthdays, those who advocate natural births, George Bush, etc. Even his "Big Fan" director Rob Siegel called Oswalt's comedy "hateful, misanthropic, and dark" in an interview (he meant it in a good way).

In general, it feels like people talking about what they love just isn't as funny as people talking about what they hate. Maybe more pleasant and positive energy and all that, but not as funny.

I've heard it said before that every joke has a target — there's someone or something being made fun of. And I often notice how true that is. Tough to reconcile that idea with this love business.

As for "find the stuff that’s amazing and hold it up"...is the KFC Bowl really something Oswalt loves? Seems like more of a love/hate thing. Maybe that's the sweet spot, something you love but also hate at the same time. Keeps the passion in there but ya also get the mockery that gives it a juicy twist.

Any other examples out there of funny bits that discuss something the comic really loves?

Anyway, always fun to listen to Patton talk about standup. He's one of the most eloquent out there when it comes to discussing the craft. Check out this "Comedy And Everything Else" interview with him if ya haven't already.


myq said...

Gaffigan talks about food that he seems to love all the time.

One example.

myq said...

Matt said, "I'm surprised to read someone argue that being angry/mad is bad for comedy. Especially someone who has done great bits shitting all over George Lucas, his hometown, people who celebrate birthdays, those who advocate natural births, George Bush, etc. Even his "Big Fan" director Rob Siegel called Oswalt's comedy "hateful, misanthropic, and dark" in an interview (he meant it in a good way)."

The article Matt quoted said, "As Oswalt has grown up, he’s started to see things differently—a change that’s affected his life as well as his comedy. “I think it was in my mid 30s,” he recalls. “I was hanging out with a bunch of people in their early 20s, and we were all busy dismissing albums and filmmakers and TV shows, and I went, ‘Wait a minute. These people are all 10 years younger than me. This is creepy. Why am I still trying to act this way? What’s a better way to piss off people I don’t like? Oh! I’ll start embracing stuff. That’ll drive ’em nuts.’”"

So, he certainly USED to come from a place of anger, but now doesn't WANT to anymore, is what it seems to me, from this piece. The idea that being angry overall isn't useful, and can actually make the people you're angry at feel BETTER about themselves, because you, who disagree with them, are angry and seem to feel bad. The best revenge is living well, etc.

He also seems to point out that the things he was angry about in others or other things, are actually things he's angry about with himself. (Which is a point that rings true in psychology in general, some might say... things you dislike in others are often things you dislike in yourself.)

I don't know if generalizations are a good thing most of the time, which I think is the point Patton is making, when the interviewer asks him about how well comedy and anger go together--he points out that that's a generalization (which certainly CAN be true at times but) that isn't necessarily the case all the time--and for Patton right NOW, it's not the case, or he's working towards it not BEING the case.

I don't think he would tell Lewis Black to tone down the anger. But I do think he would just argue that anger isn't NECESSARILY better for comedy than something else.

(And I also think that you can disagree with or dislike people or things without being angry or expressing your thoughts at them with/in anger. And that's a point Patton might make, if he believed it, thought it, wanted to, etc.)

Matt Ruby said...

Good point Myq about the age thing. I do think his latest album moves away from the anger angle a bit. But I still don't know if I'd classify it as filled with bits about things he loves.

PO: “Pointing out that stuff sucks is not edgy or dangerous anymore. Everyone knows what sucks. What’s better is to find the stuff that’s amazing and hold it up. "

Myq: Do you think he means just for older comics here? Or is he talking about comics of any age?

myq said...

When he says, "Pointing out that stuff sucks is not edgy or dangerous anymore. Everyone knows what sucks," I believe that speaks to a certain type of material that is perhaps too prevalent, to a certain persona that many comics take on, whether or not it jives with who they are or what they really think.

How many comics have you seen go on stage and just rant about stuff that they hate?

And I'm not saying (nor do I think Patton is saying) that it shouldn't be done, or that it can't be done, just that perhaps it's overdone.

We've discussed here the idea that any topic can be dealt with thoughtfully, and I'd say that that can apply to this point of view business as well.

There are plenty of negative comedians who aren't thoughtful, and plenty who are. I don't think many people who respect comedy would point to the poignant negativity of Doug Stanhope with disdain.

Equally, there can be comedy that comes out of positivity that is respected or not... Some might see Dane Cook's jokes about how he loves certain Jolly Rancher flavors as unnecessary. Though it's also a joke about how he will stab people who disagree with his flavor assessment. So he's covering positive AND negative here.

I believe the key to good comedy is being thoughtful. Whether you're being positive OR negative.

I think that quote of Patton's is mainly a RESPONSE to much of a certain kind of comedy that has come before, either from too many people who have done so without as much thought as necessary to make for compelling comedy, OR a response to himself in previous incarnations, which, despite being critically acclaimed and beloved by many, he now sees as less desirable than heading in this potentially more positive direction.

Perhaps he's becoming wiser in addition to becoming older, or perhaps just becoming different, and conscious of it and wanting interviewers and interview readers to be aware of this difference...

I don't believe he's closing the door on anger, though, but rather just opening other doors within himself, because of this quote...

"I think the best anger is the stuff that you are pointing at yourself, rather than, ‘Everything sucks and I’m here to point out why.’"

He still recognizes anger as legitimate, but is just advocating being more inward-looking...

This is the same kind of thing that I've heard from Eddie Brill in workshops where he's discussed folks getting on Letterman--specifically, Bill Burr, who auditioned initially six years before getting on the show, and Brill said that originally he was mainly aggressive and outward-looking, angry and pointing out external things that pissed him off, etc. Funny, but lacking vulnerability that came later, Brill said, and which I'm sure we all see... Burr has great insights into so many social issues, but he also has equal (if not greater) insight into himself and where he comes into the picture.

It makes sense, it would seem to add greater depth, to add awareness of one's own internal workings to that which one views in the world outside oneself. (More why than just what.)

Or not. Feel free to just be angry at all this. Be angry that I wrote so much.

But then look within and ask WHY you're so angry. Is it because we only have such a limited amount of time on this earthly plane, and now I have mandated a significant portion of it be spent on either learning what it is that I wrote or constantly wondering what it was, if you decide to give it a pass? Or is it that you just hate reading? Or me?

So many options.
(But if you think it sucks, obviously don't point it out, because as Patton said, that's not edgy anymore. Everyone knows.)

Matt Ruby said...

Interesting thing about Burr/vulnerability.

I guess this all goes back to what's funny: surprise. So if every one sees where you're going (hate, love, whatever), it prob won't be funny. If everyone's hating/ranting, then going the love route would be more surprising/compelling. When they zig, you zag. Etc. I can see where PO's coming from on that.

Matteson said...

Matt - I think you were right to feel like something was "off" about this interview. First off, it's a bit ironic that Patton is talking about coming from a place of love and acceptance, but is actually being very contrarian towards the interviewer. Second, it seemed a little defensive. Maybe he's tired of being labeled a "negative" comic? (I could see it would feel limiting) Maybe he's bored with what he used to do? (we can all identify with that) Maybe he's trying to reconcile what it means to be a good comic with what it means to be a happy/good person? (the part about rethinking his hometown hints at this).

I don't know, but it does seem odd for him in particular to come out against anger in comedy when a lot of his best stuff seems to be rooted in it.

I do agree with some of his points however. Anger for anger's sake rarily leads to funniness. I likew what he says about "everyone knows it sucks" and holding up something you love being more interesting than pointing out something you hate. Someone doing a joke about how "Flavor of Love" is shitty is boring - we all know that. Doing a thoughtful joke about how great it is - that's something I might be interested in.

Kara said...

I think Patton's having a child now is a big part of his attempt at loving kindness in comedy. He even says on his new album he has to change his ways bc of his daughter. It's hard to think of a little creature you are responsible for molding looking up at you and watching you as you spew venom about the world. Just having a ten year old niece has made me more cautious about what I put out there in the world that she may see.
It's really kind of a scary thing. When we rant are we making the world better or worse? I guess if it's really funny then it's fine??

Abbi Crutchfield said...

@ Myq: "I believe the key to good comedy is being thoughtful. Whether you're being positive OR negative." I would add that being passionate is imperative. Have conviction with whatever you're talking about to establish validity and enhance the funny.

@ Kara: "When we rant are we making the world better or worse?" At the risk of turning this post and subsequent string of comments into a philosophy discussion, I would say it's all about intention.

Michael Richards' calling the audience the n-word was viewed as hateful and racist because it came from him bombing and then lashing out. Chris Rock classifying some of the black community as n-words was viewed as insightful because it came from wanting to improve self-awareness of a culture.

@ Matteson: "but it does seem odd..." Patton is growing, MAN! We can't all be the same kind of edgy forever. Remember Krusty the Clown with the cigarette and the ponytail? That only lasted one episode.

Harrison said...

I agree with Patton. A while ago, I actually used to have a routine that started, "Most comedians talk about what they hate. Let me tell you about a few things that I LOVE..." (I cut that sentence out because I wanted to be more subtle about it, but every joke in my act communicates something positive, even if there's some negativity in it.)

I think there are a couple points to be made in regards to what Patton is taling about:

(1) Part of being "positive" is making sure you suggest SOLUTIONS and not just point out PROBLEMS. It's easy to rip on things; it's much harder to show an audience what's wrong and then tell them how to fix it. You don't have to do explicitly, but there should be at least an implication of how you're suggesting we change.

I'd like to think that, as comics, we have the opportunity to make the world better. We can't do that by only showing what's shitty with the world; we need to at least point the way a bit towards making it less shitty.

(2) One of the barometers I use in measuring how good a joke is is whether or not it pops in my head every time I encounter the subject of the joke. Everytime I use an escalator, I think of Mitch Hedberg's joke. Everytime it's really cold and I can think of nothign else, I think of Lewis Black's joke. If that's your goal - to make your interpretation of something the thing people think of first when they encounter that something - I hope it's at least somewhat positive. Would you rather people geta little extra joy out of their day when they think of your joke or get frustrated that things are still shitty?

Bottom line: be true to your character and your voice on stage above all, but think about the effect you have on your audience and the world. We are so lucky to be comics and to actually have the chance to change how people think - let's make sure the changes we make are always for the better.

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