By any objective measure, Patton Oswalt is among the most successful and respected comedians of his era.
During a career that has produced multiple full-length specials, various film and television appearances, and a best-selling book, he has managed to strike a balance between mainstream acceptance and comedy-snob credibility.
How has he pulled this off? Simple: He stopped thinking about it.
"Analysis is for the young and the confused," says Oswalt, who will make his first appearance in Tucson on Friday night at the Rialto Theatre. "I used to think about that sort of stuff constantly when I was starting out. But as I've grown older, I've come to realize that you can't think about comedy in those terms."
While some comics tend to lose their edge as they become successful, Oswalt has gone in the other direction: He's reached a stage in his career where his point of view is so clearly defined that he is willing to take more risks onstage. As a result, the high-concept approach that informed his earlier work has evolved into more-personal, long-form material, with plenty of absurdist imagery to keep an audience on its toes.
On his 2004 debut recording, Feelin' Kinda Patton, Oswalt's most memorable routines—his hatred of hippies, the soul-sucking sadness inherent in liquor ads, the unique (and, at times, breathtakingly poetic) language contained in spam e-mails for porn sites—got huge laughs, but kept the audience at arm's length.
That changed in the shows leading up to his 2007 breakthrough, Werewolves and Lollipops. On this album, Oswalt melded his biting critiques of consumer culture (KFC's "failure pile in a sadness bowl") with personal experiences filtered through his distinct comic voice (his "Physics for Poets" class at William and Mary; a trip to Planned Parenthood that ended at a Costco).
His material got even more intimate on 2009's My Weakness Is Strong, an album that earned Oswalt a Grammy nomination. It's a set that showcases the performer at the top of his game, as he effortlessly shifts gears between serious subjects, such as depression and fatherhood, and imaginative tangents involving the world's angriest magician and the adventures of a forgotten Sumerian prankster god.
Oswalt continued on this path in his first book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, which alternated between surreal comedy bits and confessional (and sometimes heartbreaking) essays. Writing it was among the most difficult tasks of his professional career, he says, but he believes it helped him become an even stronger comic.
"I never allow myself to sit back, rub my hands together and look back at everything I've done," Oswalt says. "I'm going to keep writing material, keep challenging myself and keep making sure each show is its own individual event."
For his Rialto show, he'll be sharpening the material that will appear on his fourth album. The currently unnamed album and special will be recorded on May 14 at the Moore Theatre in Seattle and will air on Showtime.
For many comics, such a special would serve as a victory lap. Oswalt has parlayed his stand-up success into an impressive list of acting credits; most famously, he's the voice of Remy the rat in Pixar's Ratatouille and the star of the dark indie drama Big Fan. But Oswalt still performs as if he had something to prove.
"Patton never forgets where he came from in comedy," says Kyle Kinane, a terrific young comic who gained a loyal following while touring as Oswalt's opening act. "He still vividly remembers all the shit shows, terrible crowds, depressing condos and every other deplorable detail that (goes into) becoming a comic. But he's a decent guy. Any decent person doesn't forget the hardship he or she faced early on. You retain those experiences and hopefully process them as learned lessons later on."
A Virginia native, Oswalt first began telling jokes to strangers in 1988 in a now-defunct Washington, D.C., comedy club called Garvin's. He grew up admiring the honest humanity of Bill Cosby, the impeccable timing of Jonathan Winters and the raw vulnerability of Richard Pryor. For Oswalt, stand-up comedy provided an outlet to frame his obsessions (comic books, film, literature) and his neuroses (self-doubt, anxiety) into a wholly unique persona.
After a short stint writing sketches for MADtv, Oswalt auditioned for the CBS sitcom The King of Queens. He got the gig and played Spence Olchin for nine seasons.
The role provided Oswalt with the financial stability and national exposure every comic dreams of, but it also brought its own set of challenges. The audiences who got to know Spence weren't necessarily aware of Oswalt's provocative and, at times, profane stand-up material.
"It came down to me making the public very aware of the tone of my act and being responsible for my own promotion," Oswalt says. "I took a much-more-active role in how I presented myself, which gave the audience less of an excuse (to get offended)."
In 2004, Oswalt embarked on a nationwide rock-club tour called "The Comedians of Comedy." He hoped to use his clout in the comedy world to give a few deserving comic friends a larger audience, while creating opportunities for younger (and less-affluent) fans to enjoy stand-up without the added comedy-club costs of two-drink minimums and chicken fingers. It's an approach that has inspired the current generation of up-and-coming comics.
"I think there's a tremendous DIY effort in comedy, and it's proving itself to be a worthy approach," Kinane says. "If you want something done the way you want, you do it yourself. Don't like comedy clubs? Book a show in a different venue. Playing to a Patton audience spoiled me."