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March 19, 2019

The Pursuit of Patton Oswalt

“Do you want to play this part, and can you get in your car right now?” So asked one series creator who is crazy for Patton Oswalt. These days, the ultra-busy actor-comedian could use a day off.

Craig Tomashoff
  • NBCU Photobank via Getty Images
  • Patton Oswalt as high-school principal Ralph Durbin in NBC's A.P. Bio

    Colleen Hayes/NBC
  • In Syfy’s Happy! Oswalt voices the title character, a winged unicorn.


Patton Oswalt has every right to be tired.

As he kicks off his shoes and reclines all the way back in a chair in his home screening room, he ticks off the work he's done in the past week alone.

"Let's see, I did a little for A.P. Bio, plus the Veronica Mars reboot," he says between sips of the morning coffee that's supposed to revive him. "I had to do some voiceover for Happy!, and there might be more this weekend. I have to go later today to do my voiceover for The Goldbergs.

"There's probably more Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. coming. And Saturday I fly to North Carolina for a stand-up show, then back the next morning." He closes his eyes, pauses for a long moment and then says with a soft laugh, "I'm pretty much a broken vessel right now."

Oswalt seems far more ready for a nap than an interview, but then the conversation shifts to the rock band the Pixies. Suddenly, he leaps up to move around the room while flashing a hint of air guitar, gushing about the first time he saw the group.

Two minutes after that, when the talk turns to favorite television shows, he literally bounces up in his seat to rave about why the series Newhart was far more surreal than Twin Peaks ever was.

And then, somehow, he's on to comic books, eagerly recommending Grant Morrison's "fucking brilliant" version of the Justice League of America series. He may be one of the most overworked performers in television these days, but Oswalt may also be the most enthusiastic when it comes to everyone else's work.

"He's kind of a cheerleader for life," explains Oswalt's Happy! costar Christopher Meloni. "Whatever he takes in, especially entertainment-wise, he experiences on a different level than most of us. He's got a deeper, almost religious, insight into certain things."

Adds his brother, comedy writer Matt Oswalt: "He's just a genuinely curious person when it comes to human nature. Some celebrities are pretty self-absorbed, where it's all about them-them-them. Patton sees himself as just a guy… a very friendly, open guy who loves to talk about any subject at any time with anyone."

And he's done a lot of talking. Throughout his career, he's taken on so many film and television roles that Matt figures, "Patton has the CVS receipt of IMDb pages, it's so friggin' long." Near the top of that list are NBC's A.P. Bio and Syfy's Happy!, which are both in their sophomore seasons.

Stylistically, they seem about as different as two shows could be.

The former, a single-camera comedy, stars Glenn Howerton as a failed Harvard professor who moves back to his Ohio home to teach high school biology. Oswalt plays his friend, the school's principal. The latter, an edgy series based on a graphic novel co-created by Grant Morrison, tells the story of a disgraced cop (Meloni) and his highly unlikely partner — an animated unicorn voiced by Oswalt.

While the shows have very divergent tones, they share one quality, something Oswalt seeks in all his projects: they look and sound unlike anything else on the air.

Season one of Happy!, for instance, had its fair share of murder, mayhem and child kidnappings, but it also showcased a surprisingly sentimental outlook on life. "I like to do stuff where I don't have sure footing, and Happy! doesn't belong in any category," Oswalt explains, getting comfy again as he slides his recliner all the way back.

"It's one of the most violent shows, but then it's also one of the goofiest. Some of the humor is almost purposefully stupid. Meanwhile, the violence is actually at the Monty Python level, where you think, 'I don't even know if I can be offended by this.' At the same time, there's so much heart to it. All the way along, I just kept wondering, 'How do I get to be on a show that's this brilliant and weird?'"

At first, Meloni wondered the same thing. "It wasn't like they had to sell me on Patton being the voice of Happy," he says. "They just had to open my eyes to the idea. Then, once we got rolling, it was like, 'Yeah, okay, I get it.' Patton has this whimsy and childlike enthusiasm and openness, but beyond all that, there's also wisdom. Which is perfect for Happy!"

As for A.P. Bio, while the premise might make it sound like a fairly standard situation comedy, Oswalt insists the show's initial appearance is deliberately deceiving.

"The show does this thing I love — it hides in plain sight," he says. "Everything about it, even the color palette and lighting choices, seems so aggressively institutional and normal. But then they use the normalcy of it all to sneak in some really dark stuff about teens growing up, dissatisfied adults and small-town madness."

As much as he enjoys working on the show, he was a late addition to the cast. A.P. Bio creator Mike O'Brien says Oswalt is perfect to play Ralph, someone who actually seems to enjoy being a high school principal.

"He can pull off that earnestness without ever seeming weak or pathetic," O'Brien says. "I pursued Patton for this. It was very exciting, because we signed him the morning of the first table read for the pilot episode. It was like, 'Do you want to play this part, and can you get in your car right now?'"

A full season in (the show returns March 7), O'Brien says Oswalt brings his own work to the set. "He lights up and adds some great jokes, or suggests how he could set someone else up for theirs even better."

Sharing the spotlight hasn't always come easy for Oswalt. He still remembers life as a six-year-old, when he was happy to be the center of attention at his family's suburban Virginia home.

"I'd say or do something that would cause adults to stop talking, look over at me and laugh. and suddenly, it was that thing where you realize, 'Oh, this whole room is focused on me!' Then i'd have to reverse-engineer what i did or said to get that reaction."

That was also when he discovered stand-up comedy, courtesy of his dad's album collection, which included stars of the era like Jonathan Winters. Seeing his father laugh at someone else's jokes was important, he recalls, because that meant "there's this whole invisible bridge of stuff that you have to fill in so you can get the laugh, and that seemed almost like a magic trick to me."

Despite this discovery, he was never the class clown in high school. Instead, one of his greatest joys was finding a small, empty hallway near the cafeteria "where I could get 45 minutes to read by myself and not have to sit there and jabber at other people."

"He could easily have gotten laughs out of people, but he had an odd sense of humor, so not everyone got it," Matt remembers. "Patton was more than just always very funny, but like all kids, he could be very quiet and serious. He was into things like Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings.

"I always thought one day he'd be in some creative field, because he was always in his room typing. He never did share what he was working on, though. For all I know, he could have been like Jack Nicholson in The Shining."

It wasn't till college that Oswalt started sharing his humor beyond a small clique of friends who were also into acts like Monty Python and Robin Williams.

He spent the summer between his freshman and sophomore years trying out a lot of potential occupations: paralegal, sportswriter, wedding DJ. Nothing clicked, so he decided to get up at some open-mic nights in the Washington, D.C., area. It was clear from the start that this move was… a big mistake.

"Audiences hated me. I got no laughs," he admits, laughing. "But I kept showing up because I loved the life. I loved the hanging out with other comedians and commenting on life. I knew this was what I wanted to do, because it was fun."

The jokes didn't get better ("I took on subjects I knew would be easy for a laugh — tampon ads on TV, terrible impressions — it all sucked") but by his junior year, stand-up was paying the rent. And a year after graduating from school, he felt confident enough with his now "sure-fire material" that he moved to San Francisco to work full-time as a comic.

After watching other young up-and-comers like Greg Proops and Margaret Cho, however, he felt so outclassed, he says, that, "I tore out all the pages from my notebook, wrote down that day's date and started from zero" to build a new act.

"I realized I had to be more immediate onstage, and maybe that's the reason I started clicking more with audiences," Oswalt explains. "There was no longer the feeling of 'I'm going to tell you stuff and you're going to laugh at it.' It was more like, 'I'm going to go to some places that I know you'll be cool with and you'll get where I'm going.'"

One of the places he ended up going was Los Angeles, where he got hired in 1995 to write for the Fox sketch-comedy series Mad TV. That eventually led to his first regular acting role, as Kevin James's buddy Spence on the CBS sitcom The King of Queens.

The job was "a huge step forward for me in terms of making me feel like a professional," he recalls, and it led to work in critically acclaimed films like Ratatouille (2007) and Big Fan (2009).

Suddenly, he was a man in search of a day off. Whether it was animated series (Kim Possible, Futurama), sitcoms (Neighbors from Hell, Community) or even the occasional hour-long drama (Burn Notice, Caprica), his résumé began expanding exponentially. That's when he realized he'd become more than just a funny guy. Now, he was a funny actor .

"I do remember thinking at the time, 'I seem to be working steadily, and I have fun, and when I do a guest spot, they want me back,'" Oswalt says. "It felt good. I was always excited to get to do that stuff. And maybe when you bring that enthusiasm to a project, people notice it and appreciate it and you'll keep getting hired."

Things were looking up for him personally, too. In 2005, he married journalist Michelle McNamara and in 2009, they had a daughter, Alice. Then, in April 2016, Michelle unexpectedly died in her sleep due to complications from an undiagnosed heart condition and prescription drugs.

For months after that, Oswalt says, "It was like, I'm done with comedy. I'll maybe act in things if someone hires me, but I just couldn't see my way back into doing comedy." Even winning an Emmy in 2016 — for writing his Netflix stand-up special, Patton Oswalt: Talking for Clapping — did nothing to push him back out on stage.

Instead, the force that got him going again was the same force that could just as easily have kept him away for good: Alice.

"Being a dad was the most direct thing that saved me," he says quietly, moving his chair up again and leaning forward.

"I had this little person whose world I had to destroy by telling her that her mom had died. That was the worst day I ever lived, and every day after that has been spent rebuilding her world. I have to get up for her. I have to be there for her. If I didn't have Alice, I'm sure I'd be an alcoholic shut-in right now."

To help with his recovery, and to honor his late wife's legacy, Oswalt threw himself into finishing the nonfiction book she'd been writing about the Golden State Killer, a serial murderer and rapist whose crimes made headlines in California during the '70s and '80s. McNamara had spent years on the project but died before she could complete it, so he took it upon himself to get it done and published.

"Working on the book helped me," he explains. "Having something to build and create was such amazing therapy. Making sure her work was finished and out there and praised for the amazing piece of work it is became a huge step forward for me."

His plan succeeded on several levels. First, the book, I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, became a New York Times bestseller. Second, in spring 2018, a suspect in the case was arrested and charged. Third, Oswalt is performing stand-up again; his 2017 Netflix special, Annihilation, dealt with McNamara's death and earned him an Emmy nomination. And fourth, he's as busy acting as ever.

This year, he not only has A.P. Bio and Happy!, there's also his narrator work on The Goldbergs, regular roles on Hulu's Veronica Mars reboot and Netflix's Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, guest shots on series like HBO's Veep and truTV's Those Who Can't, stand-up performances and the animated film The Secret Life of Pets 2.

And on the personal front, he's found love again: he and actress Meredith Salenger married in late 2017.

There's not much of a respite from work in the near future, so Oswalt takes little breaks wherever he can find them: the breakfast of leftover brisket and cold latkes waiting in the kitchen, for instance.

Suddenly, though, the power of pop culture gets him bouncing up and out of his comfy chair again. He and Salenger hope to squeeze in some time to finish watching season two of Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

"For show-biz historians like me, it's incredible," he gushes. "It shows how a comedian develops a joke from something that doesn't work into something that does, in a way hardly anyone else has done. You have to watch it!" Leave it to TV's busiest, and perhaps most exhausted, actor to get this energized thinking about the rare show he's not in.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2019

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