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Book Festival: Patton Oswalt on Satire, Movies, and Southern literature
‘You’re either all in or all out when it comes to freedom of speech. It’s not a buffet.’

Savannah Book Festival: Patton Oswalt

Sat., 4:10 p.m., Lutheran Church, Wright Square

Free and open to the public

PATTON OSWALT might be the most all-encompassing celebrity who's not a household name.

He still performs dozens of standup dates a year, most recently selling out Carnegie hall. He’s had lead roles in two movies, one live action (Big Fan) and as the voice of Remy in Ratatouille.

He’s made a plethora of prime time TV appearances, most notably The King of Queens. He’s in web videos. He’s written political commentary. He’s one of the best Twitter follows out there.

And now he’s a best-selling author, coming to the Savannah Book Festival this weekend.

Oswalt’s second book, Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From An Addiction To Film, is his bitingly funny memoir of the time in the late ‘90s when he was both honing his standup and also obsessively devouring every movie he could, from cult to classic, horror to sci-fi, mostly within the New Beverly Theatre in L.A., which became his home away from home.

Most books by comedians are lame collections of one-liners. But you needn’t have caught a single Oswalt bit to appreciate Silver Screen Fiend, a masterfully written book blending sophisticated historical allusion, painstaking cinematic analysis, and painful introspection with the comedian’s trademark whimsically misanthropic humor, drenched with pop culture.

I read your book in one sitting, couldn’t put it down. It reads like it was written the same way, in one long burst of energy, like On The Road or something.

Patton Oswalt: No, I didn't get hammered and bang it out in a long uncut scroll, like Kerouac. That would make a great story, but it didn't happen that way. I went through probably about three or four drafts. I guess it probably took about a year to write.

You just sold out Carnegie Hall. So you crowdsourced the encore and they demanded your "I Want All the Ham" bit?

Patton Oswalt: It wasn't an encore at all. That's what was so great about it. I don't do the encore thing. I hate encores. I hate the idea of keeping people cheering and milking it way too long, just to get that weird ego rub.

“OK, I got the standing O, now let’s make ‘em wait ten more minutes.”

The Ham bit is what they wanted to hear, so I was like, OK. I ended up getting them to help me out with it. We sort of did it together. It ended up being really amazing that way.

Reminds me of your bit about the obscenely lucrative Vegas casino gig where the audience was so wasted that the whole thing turned into them just yelling out things they’d seen you in.

Patton Oswalt: Yeah, but this wasn't like the casino gig at all. At the casino they were literally just screaming titles of movies and shows I'd been in. That was it.

At Carnegie Hall this was the crowd helping me with a specific bit. It was actually very gratifying and very awesome. This was a very flattering way for them to acknowledge my work and what it meant to them.

I can think of nothing more gratifying than someone recognizing your work, and enjoying it so much that they would help you recreate a piece of work you’ve done that’s important to them. It should really always be about the work that you do, that you create. It should never be about you.

You posted a visceral response to the Boston bombing, that begins,“Boston. Fucking horrible.” It’s the most striking thing I’ve read about that tragedy. I was curious about your take on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Some say what they do is satire, others say it can’t be satire if it’s directed toward a marginalized group.

Patton Oswalt: Those arguments only hold up if Charlie Hebdo are just targeting Muslims. But they were targeting fucking everybody. Every religion, everyone in power. Everyone.

It’s easy to pick out a few covers they did about Mohammed, sort of as a Monday morning quarterback. But they went after all the sacred cows, and the ethos of people in power. Look what they did on Marine Le Pen, the leader of what is basically the French neo-Nazi party. They were fucking merciless about her!

They were never writing that Islam is stupid. They were writing that other assholes were taking beautiful things, beautiful ideas, and screwing them up. Just like the Westboro Baptist Church does, or certain groups of violent Orthodox Jews, for example.

Charlie Hebdo makes fun of everyone who takes something beautiful and messes it up and redirects that beauty for their own selfish and evil ways. ISIS and Al Qaeda are just cynics who manipulate idealists and optimists into acts of violence.

That’s what’s disgusting. Not the cartoons that are drawn about them. Charlie Hebdo is not mocking Islam, they’re mocking the one group that went crazy and hurt people.

Look at all the covers they’ve done. They’ve been absolutely brutal about Sarkozy, the former president of France.

And Sarkozy was just like, oh hey, I guess they got me.

It was like Obama’s State of the Union the other night. Remember when he did the line about his final campaign? And the Republicans at first gave it that ha–ha, that sort of bullying laugh?

And then Obama laid the fucking smackdown on them? Go back and watch the wide shot of the Republicans after his punchline about winning both campaigns. They were like, ah, he got us. That’s a good one.

More people need to be like that—ah, shit you got me. And not be so insecure. And not take good honest people and manipulate them for your own devices.

Assholes always, always need to be mocked. There is no exception. Feminism, for example, isn’t exempt either.

We need satirists to mock the assholes of the world. Satire is a safety valve for the assholes policing our thoughts.

People on our side, the progressives, the left, we often lose sight of that. Satire is our most powerful weapon! And we’ve largely just sat back and let the right wing have that, with people like Ann Coulter.

But that stuff isn’t so much funny as it is just bullying.

Patton Oswalt: Yes. The right doesn't understand the difference between satire and mean. But the left does.

Of course there’s always that tiny part of the progressive left that doesn’t get that. But you can’t just do a scorched earth policy against the speech that you disapprove of. You’re either all in or all out when it comes to freedom of speech. It’s not a buffet.

I want to hear the racists and homophobes loud and clear so I know who they are. I want to keep the assholes where I can mock them.

You yourself were called a racist when you Tweeted jokes about a TV station that was caught using made-up, stereotypical Asian names.

Patton Oswalt: By that logic Mel Brooks was a white supremacist because in Blazing Saddles someone says "nigger" every five minutes. But that's the whole point—Mel Brooks was mocking racism. The point of the movie was to mock racists.

People say, ‘Patton, watch out man, you can be really misunderstood on Twitter.’ Who gives a fuck? You’re saying I have to consider the needs of the dumbest people on the planet whenever I do a bit?

I love it when people misunderstand—then you can pull the rug out from under them. I love it when I say something people might think is all right-wing. Then I can zing them.

Is political correctness the problem?

Patton Oswalt: No. It's that things are willfully taken out of context to see what kind of hits and clicks and what kind of outrage it can generate. Like the politicians who are like, "I know climate change is real and it's happening, but I'm going to say it's not because that will get me votes."

Though I do give Michele Bachmann credit, I think she doesn’t realize climate change is happening and actually believes the bullshit she says.

But someone like Newt Gingrich, who says there’s no such thing as climate change? Oh he knows.

The ones who say, “Well, the jury is still out on climate change. “ No it’s fucking not. The jury is not out. And you know it.

I saw your web short ‘The Lemonade War.’ How awesome was it to have Werner Herzog call you “vile and debased?” That must have been a career moment for a hardcore film buff like you.

Patton Oswalt: Wow, I don't think I've ever been that happy since.... Well, I haven't been that happy since my daughter was born.

To be in the presence of Werner Herzog and have him yell at you about being a vile toad, and stuff like that. It was a real moment where I was like, I never imagined I would ever in my life be in a position to be this cool.

You grew up in Virginia, yet you never do bits about growing up in the South or being a Southerner.

Patton Oswalt: That's because I don't feel like it's something I can play up. I grew up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia where there was absolutely no discernible hint of the South. Friends I grew up with from places like Roanoke or Richmond, they actually got the taste of the deep swampy Southern culture.

But I never felt right in talking about it or claiming it. It’s like claiming really Punk roots when you grew up listening to Top 40.

But Southern writing? Hah. No question, the Southern literary tradition absolutely stands up to the best of the Irish or Russian literary tradition in terms of darkness and functional alcoholism and total weirdness.

All the great American novels come directly from the South. All of them. People will talk about that brief explosion of writing from the northeast in the 1960s, but Americans really should be way more proud about the literature of the American South.

I didn’t even discover writers like Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor until college. I was into Poe earlier than that, but he’s not really what we think of as a Southern writer. He mimicked European writers of the time in most of his work.

But yeah, the Southern literary tradition just fucking buries the Irish and Russian literary traditions in terms of darkness. There’s no argument about it.

As you write in the book, you’ve done pretty much everything you’ve wanted to do except, ironically, write and direct your own film. Ready to take the plunge?

Patton Oswalt: I lead a very day to day life. I'm very motivated to make sure that whatever I do next feeds into the process of my work as a whole.

You have to factor in how your own perceptions change over time. At one point you might look at something and say, oh, that just didn’t hold up to the importance of great art. Then at another point you’ll go back and watch it and learn something new.

I’m trying to make the next step, whatever it is, be a part of that whole learning process. That’s my plan at least.