Patton Oswalt on Wokeness, Cancel Culture and His New Netflix Special

Patton Oswalt is, admittedly, hard to pin down. He’s an actor for hire, a writer for comics, a narrator of sitcoms. But at his core, Oswalt is a stand-up comic.

On Sept. 20, he’ll release his fourth hour for Netflix, which he’s titled We All Scream. He serves as both an executive producer, along with David Rath, Neal Marshall and Marcus Raboy, as well as the special’s director, a role he’s new to and particularly proud of. In fact, Oswalt now puts directing other Hollywood projects at the top of his professional bucket list.

The hour, which he filmed at the Paramount Theatre in Denver, Co., touches on everything from aging to the pandemic. The setting, per Oswalt, was less about geography than it was about where his Denver stop fell during the tour. He’s also keen on switching up his locales from special to special, and he’d already shot hours in Seattle and San Francisco.

Earlier this month, Oswalt fielded The Hollywood Reporter’s call from his car on the 405, where the Emmy-winning comic spoke candidly about making content for a fractured America and contending with both wokeness and cancel culture.  

You have a lot going on. How did you decide it was time to tour?

It’s funny, everything that I do in other areas, writing, acting, producing, is so that I can increase my visibility and keep doing stand-up. The stand-up is always something that I’m doing. I’m either in the process of working on the next set or thinking about what that next hour is going to look like. So, it’s not that I find the time, it’s that everything else is fit around me doing stand-up.

Got it. When it came to putting this set together, what did you want to say with it?

I never really approach a special in terms of what do I want my thesis statement to be. I want it to be as accurate a reflection of how I’m doing at that time. So, my last special, I felt like I was coming out of grief [Oswalt’s first wife died in 2016] and I was embracing love again [he remarried in 2017] and things felt kind of hopeful. This one is not as hopeful, but it does feel like, OK, we’re kind of coming out of a lot of, not necessarily darkness, but loneliness. And so it’s me acknowledging that, oh, we’re programming a lot of our own loneliness these days and trying to fight against that and, in a funny way, show that there’s danger in that. I say at one point [in the special,] we all remember before the pandemic, going, “If I could just get a month to myself to get my life together.” And then the universe said, “Well, how about four? And how about 12?” So, it’s really embracing the absurdity of that, the whole monkey’s paw aspect of the reality that we’re living in.

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You titled your tour, Who’s Ready to Laugh? Is that a question you found yourself asking: are people ready to laugh again, and, to that end, has what they’re laughing at changed?

I meant that more as an ironic me, asking, “Hey, who’s ready to laugh?” Like, after all of the hell we’ve been through, the absurdity of what a comedian does at this point, I really feel like an emcee in Cabaret a lot of the time. Like, what am I really doing against this seeming tide of darkness that we’re facing? So, the title was meant to be funny in a desperate kind of way. My interpretation was more, like, “Hey, I’m the entertainment on the Titanic right now,” because that’s how it feels these days.

We’re living in this very fractured time, and you don’t shy away from topics like vaccine resistance in your comedy. Do you find your material being received differently as you travel, and do you have any concerns about alienating audiences with it?

I think I’ve always been very trusting of my audiences to just kind of rise to the occasion and get whatever the joke is going to be, rather than trying to pre-anticipate, like, “Okay, so what’s the mood of the country? What should I be saying?” It’s like I know that at least my audience, and I hope this doesn’t sound like a brag, but they’ll get that I’m joking and that I’m trying to embrace the absurdity of everything we’re living in. I mean, if anyone had told us, within our lifetime, that there’d be a deadly pandemic and people would be reacting to it like people during the Salem witch trials, like “This ain’t real,” we’d [think they were crazy]. But that’s the insanity we’re living with, and there’s no avoiding it.

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But while the rest of us operate in our respective bubbles, you’re traveling from state to state, seeing how things land differently, or not.

Yeah. But, you know, that ended up being really, really hopeful for me. I’m going to quote my friend Bobcat Goldthwait here, but once you go out in the world, especially as a touring comedian, what you find out is that Twitter and the internet is not the world. Twitter and the internet amplifies a mutant version of the world for entertainment clicks. But in the actual world, people, for the most part, are struggling to help each other and live lives and try to just be human beings. Unfortunately, it’s like we have bad parents who are modeling awful behavior for us, and we’re the kids. That’s what we’re seeing right now.

Who do you find you bounce material off of these days?

A few months before the special, I will book two nights in a row, once a month, down at like The Irvine Improv, a road comedy club where you really have to edit and hone your stuff down. There’s nothing more humbling than a weeknight audience that doesn’t have time for you. They’ll let you know [how you did] in no uncertain terms.

There are plenty of people who will tell you that going out onstage right now is scary, both because you don’t know what might happen and because you don’t know how your material might land out of context. Are these concerns that you share?

I think that comedians deserve context in what they say. You shouldn’t just “cancel” out of context, but I also think comedians have a responsibility to evolve and to try to push things forward. And pushing the envelope doesn’t mean digging your feet in while the envelope moves forward — you should be ahead of that envelope, that’s how you should be pushing it. And again, the whole battle over wokeness, it’s nothing new. This happened in the ’80s, it happened in the ’90s and it’ll happen again in another form. That’s what I was talking about [in the special]. I do a joke about in the future, what am I going to be canceled for? And you don’t know, but you want to at least try to keep progressing.

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Sure.

The other thing I’d say is that comedy has always worked better with restrictions. Think of the restrictions that Richard Pryor and George Carlin had, and before them, Lenny Bruce, and they found clever, brilliant ways around whatever the restrictions were, that’s what made it so fun and thrilling.

What does it feel like those are today? What are the restrictions that you’re operating under?

I don’t know, it’s not something that I think about. It’s just that there should always be taboo subjects and then there should always be clever ways to talk about them. You want both of those things. But like, if everything’s allowed, then there’s no thrill to the comedy.

Nothing feels dangerous, and thus nothing feels exciting.

Yes, exactly.