21 June 2011

Patton Oswalt, in short form

I requested this book at the library after hearing Oswalt on fellow comedian Julie Klausner's podcast "How Was Your Week?" (His interview is episode 6, "Polar Bears on Moonbeams.") Klausner herself wrote a great memoir about men and New York City called I DON'T CARE ABOUT YOUR BAND, and over the course of two stressful weeks at work I listened to every episode of "How Was Your Week?" except the Joan Rivers one which I'm saving for a desperate occasion. 

Oswalt wasn't unknown to me before -- I even saw him open for Aimee Mann once -- and I'm not sure why I didn't catch up with ZOMBIE SPACESHIP WASTELAND when it came out earlier this year. I am pro-comedians writing books and I don't mind when, as with ZSW (yeah, that abbreviation just happened), memoiristic material is mixed up with other pieces of writing. The first time Oswalt's narrative was interrupted by a nondiegetic piece -- of punch-up notes on what sounds like a terrible comedy script (that we don't get to read) -- I was surprised, but enjoyed it. I wonder if he'd wanted to organize the collection differently, with genres separated, but was prevented because there wasn't enough of a through line. 

Biographically, there still isn't much of a through line, but the best pieces show Oswalt's comic consciousness developing out of a sort of suburban ooze. In "Ticket Booth," a summer job at a suburban multiplex causes Oswalt to both vow that he'll get out of the suburbs, and a sort of sickly nostalgia for the noxious combination of boredom and superiority he was breathing in those days. The saddest/ most terrific piece, "A History Of America from 1988 to 1996," recreates the paths of three different archetypal comedians Oswalt claims to have opened for in his time on the comedy circuit, which he describes both as soul-destroying and attractive in such a way that it displaces his old dream of being a famous author.

The titular chapter of ZSW posits that nerds and other non-popular adolescents gravitate toward and take the form of one of those three scifi tropes -- Zombie, Spaceship or Wasteland. This is the kind of theory about which people could argue for hours and there's a lot of truth to it, although not how I would have organized the teenage misfit world. (To begin with I would have retermed them zombie, astronaut and vigilante so they are all figures, not figure/object/world. Type A much?) Oswalt places himself and many other comedians in the Wasteland category in that they want to tear down what's horrible about the world, while leaving hope open that a better world can be built over the smoking ruins. An observational comedian, by this logic, would be a Zombie; one who posited a lot of what-ifs and hypotheticals, a Spaceship. (I'm probably Spaceship. Tell me what that says about me.) I wish Oswalt had done more with this theory, which could have provided the through line ZSW doesn't have; but I still enjoyed the break it provided from longer, denser reads.

No comments: