The star of «I Love My Dad» and «The Sandman» talked to IndieWire about his relationship to movies, comics, and the changing state of comedy.
Patton Oswalt has several modes: There’s the affable, warts-and-all comedian who has been performing onstage for decades, the comedic performer with dramatic chops known for everything from “Ratatouille” to “Young Adult,” and a comic book junkie who reads as much as he writes for the form.
These days, all those instincts are on display. This week, Oswalt stars in “I Love My Dad,” the sophomore effort of writer-director James Morosini, which won SXSW earlier this year. Morosini co-stars as a teenager whose estranged dad (Oswalt) impersonates a woman online to get closer to his son. At the same time, Oswalt can be seen as the Raven in Netflix’s “The Sandman,” and has a new comedy special coming out on the service called “We All Scream” on September 20. In between gigs, he spoke to IndieWire over Zoom about his relationship to movies, fan culture, and the evolving state of comedy.
James Morosini made a very low-budget movie a few years back, and this one’s pretty risqué. What compelled you take it on?
I have a film buff’s point of view of acting: I want to see stuff that I would want to see as a film buff. I watch a lot of movies and emerging talents. The fact that he was taking the risk with something like this that could easily fall apart at any time during the narrative, that’s the kind of filmmaking I like.
Where do you watch films?
I’m definitely a Criterion Channel guy. I love Shudder, I love Arrow, I love TCM. I like going spelunking on places like Paramount+ and HBO Max to find the more obscure, weirder stuff. I’m also a big Kanopy fan. They’ve got all the A24 films, a lot of obscure indie stuff, and I just go into the depths with that. And all you need is a library card. Good movies can come from everywhere.
As someone who watches a lot of older movies, do you ever wish you were working in a different era of Hollywood filmmaking?
I don’t subscribe to that whole notion that they don’t make ’em like they used to. I never want to be stuck in some era as a fan or creator saying, “This was the last time it was good.” The best time for movies is right now. That kind of thinking stymies creativity. The Daniels have made one of the most fascinating movies I’ve seen in 10 years with “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Now you have years and years of movies to pull from. People making movies in the ‘40s like Michael Curtiz weren’t able to draw from people like Scorsese or late-period Hitchcock.
But does it feel harder to get subversive work made now? “I Love My Dad” isn’t the most commercial undertaking.
I think it was always equally as hard to get stuff like this made. People are always finding ways to get it done if you’re clever, sneaky, and resourceful. There have always been these same obstructions for people of color or LGBTQ filmmakers. They’ve always had obstructions for them and then they found ways through.
When I was hosting the Independent Spirit Awards back in 2014, it was the 50th anniversary of John Waters’ first film when he was an openly gay teenager in 1960s Baltimore. “Roman Candles” was about an interracial wedding that he filmed on the roof of his parents’ house with a Klansman as the officiant. He came out of the gate doing that 50 years ago! Guys, the lines have been crossed. You can find ways to do what you want to do.
What kind of opportunities do you pass on?
A lot of times these days I say no because my schedule is so insane, but I’ll also say no to stuff if it feels like there isn’t any imagination for the script, or if I can tell it’s going to be boring. I’m in this for the money and the anecdotes. If something isn’t going to be a good anecdote, I kind of forget about it.
You deal with cancel culture in your upcoming special. How much would you say that this impacts your decisions as a comedian and actor?
I don’t think about it. I’m not saying that out of any kind of bravery or defiance. I just think I’ll let it fly, and if I say something shitty and someone wins the argument with me, I’m fucking sorry. You can apologize and you grow. I don’t understand this thinking that you’ve got to worry about cancel culture, but I also don’t understand this idea that you never apologize. Both of those viewpoints are ridiculous.
What do you think it means that Louis C.K. won a Grammy and Dave Chappelle is nominated for an Emmy?
I don’t think cancel culture is real for content. It is weird how they’re lumping in people who are committing actual crimes. They’re getting arrested and when no one wants to work with them people are like, “Oh, that’s cancel culture.” No, that dude did something horrible. That wasn’t their material. They did something horrible.
Are there lines that you won’t cross in your comedy?
If you’re just doing performative cruelty for a cheap laugh, then yeah, anything can be offensive. But if you can find a way into it that connects to something cosmic or empathetic, then you can joke about anything. I talked about this in one of my specials, but there was a time right when I started out where I had this really horrible stomach flu but I was determined to do the show. The crowd basically said “You suck,” and I agreed with them and walked off the stage. But those kind of moments just go toward making you more confident and present onstage. It doesn’t really stick with you but you remember it fondly and laugh at it.
Chapelle is the one who always says comics don’t have to be funny as long as they’re interesting.
And interested. I’ve seen hilarious comedians and you can see they’re not really into it anymore. You can sense that energy; the audience can sense it. When I go to the clubs, I’m looking for something that amuses me, that’s fun to do. Not necessarily the biggest laughs. That’s actually kind of easy. It’s getting the laughter of disbelief that I want to get.
What did you make of the moment Chappelle got jumped onstage? What does it portend for comedians working today?
I don’t think someone at my level is going to get jumped at the club. At his level, sure, there is a kind of madness in society out there now where people are becoming more and more unhinged because they’re being told that this thing you’re looking directly at actually isn’t happening. That leads to a lot of insanity. We texted that night. He says, “Yeah, it was crazy, I’m fine.” He’s got people around him.
You have made some efforts to engage with haters online, even donating to support a Trump supporter’s medical bills after he trolled you. What compels you to do that?
When you see people who have been pushed to such a place of hopelessness and unfeeling, just being uncared for their whole lives, they just want any kind of human contact even if it’s negative. It can lead to moments where they wonder if they’re even alive. A guy like that who had been so sick and was just feeling like, “Look at this privileged guy whining about this stuff” — well, I’d be equally angry. You always have to look at what the person’s situation is and whether the anger is coming from ignorance and actual cruelty or desperation, confusion, and fear.
As a comic book guy, what do you make of the way this kind of toxicity pervades fan culture?
This happens with everything, including sports and music. There are fans out there who unfortunately look at everything they love as showing the person how much they love them by hating other things. If I express hatred toward the thing that’s not them, that shows them how much I love them. It’s a sad and ugly way to show how you love things, but unfortunately that’s how a lot of people are being taught and how people are being modeled by our leaders now, which sucks.
“Sandman” is a sacred property for comic book people. I adore those books and I know you do, too. But I’m practically terrified to check it out. How did you make peace with the stakes here?
Courtesy of Netflix
It’s an adaptation. If you want to see what it’s like to slavishly put a comic book on the screen, go watch Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen.” Now, Zack is a really talented filmmaker but he literally recreated it frame by frame and it didn’t work. There are certain things that work in one medium and won’t work that same way in another medium. If they had shot the best-selling novel “Jaws” the way the novel was, it would be an unwatchable fucking movie.
There’s some weird sex stuff in that book.
Fucking Hooper has an affair with the wife. There’s a whole subplot about the mafia. It’s just fucking nuts. And then at the end, the shark dies because it just gets tired and stops. That’s it. You just have to adapt things. “Sandman” still exists in comic book form, but look, I’ve seen all 10 episodes, and they’re fucking amazing. They did a great job. So now you have two great versions of this amazing work and then there’s the incredible Audible version. And by the way, the books are still there.
How do you respond to purists who think it shouldn’t have been adapted in the first place?
If you can look out your window and this is what you’re mad about, then you have way bigger pathologies to deal with than I can handle. If you are looking at the headlines and going, “I am planting my flag on the hill of Don’t Fuck with ‘The Sandman,’” well, then, you’ve got some really serious problems. You’ll love this show, especially Episode 6, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which is so goddamn beautiful.
Are you in it for the long haul?
If they give us another season, hell yeah. Are you kidding? I want to see “A Game of You” adapted and especially want to see “Season of Mists” adapted. I wrote the intro for the 30th anniversary trade paperback. It’s one of my favorite stories of all time. I want to see “The Tempest,” I want to see all of the “Brief Lives” ones.
In terms of other long-term commitments, you recently made a surprise appearance in the post-credits of “Eternals” as Pip the Troll…
That was a nice surprise for me. I was like, “Fuck yeah, Jim Starlin, I’m in!”
How much of the MCU will you appear in?
I don’t know yet. I can’t say yet.
You don’t know or you can’t say?
Hmm. Let’s leave it at both.
What do you make of these vast plans for the next few phases of the MCU?
I can’t speak to something that hasn’t come out yet. A lot of the pre-criticism of things is really bad. If you see it and it’s bad, absolutely criticize it, but don’t look at a title and go, “Oh no!” You have no idea if it’ll work or not. You don’t know! Stop it!
What about the prospects of two “Secret Wars” movies?
Well, I know there are two iterations of it. Are they going to do the original one or the one that [Brian Michael] Bendis just did? It’ll be really interesting to see.
What’s your preference?
I’m not going to say. This is armchair quarterbacking before the coin’s been tossed!
These are massive projects with a ton of marketing behind them, a world apart from “I Love My Dad.” Do you feel like it’s harder to get original work seen these days?
That challenge has always been there. When “Eraserhead” came out, they literally put a piece of paper in the box office of the Waverly that said, “‘Eraserhead’ at midnight.” That’s all they had. If something is good, the word will get out there about it. But also, there are seven billion people in the world and I can’t entertain all of them. If I can get to a fraction of them, that’s a great career. I’m good.
What do you learn from going on the road to different parts of America?
It reinforces to me that the whole red-blue divide is such nonsense. Everywhere you go, there are pockets of progressiveness. The so-called Civil War that is coming is the news wanting to show the craziest, loudest people so you watch it. People are not as divided as you think. I was just in Lincoln, Nebraska and Boise, Idaho. I go all through the South. Look, the internet and Twitter are not the world. They’re just not. They are a mutated, amputated slice of the world. If you think that’s the world outside your door, you’re wrong.
I hear you, but I want all these people in different parts of America to vote for things that I believe in, and a lot of them don’t. So how does one reconcile that desire with this sense that we’re not that divided?
Show them that your way is saner and smarter. Quite frankly, there was a lot of ennui on the liberal side after Obama got elected. There was a lot of patting ourselves on the back and saying, “Well, everything’s fixed,” and we fell asleep, and let all this happen. If there’s stuff you believe in, you’ve got to stay a little bit active.
What do you think about the state of political comedy on TV?
Before Jon Stewart, it was a different culture, more “SNL,” and before that it was “Laugh In.” The medium will always adjust to address whatever the reality is. Unfortunately, we just lost the great Samantha Bee’s show, which I thought was fantastic. But we still have John Oliver’s show every week and it’s pretty essential. There are always new voices coming up that will open our eyes to stuff. I hope.
“I Love My Dad” is now in theaters and comes out on VOD August 12 from Magnolia Pictures.