Patton Oswalt once mused in his stand-up that cities like Austin, Texas are "this weird magical fairy bubble of sanity in the middle of f—ing shit. ... You either have to move away from here when you're really young or stay here for life."
Oswalt puts New Orleans among those cities — even if those cities, he joked, elect a hacky sack mayor.
"New Orleans is one of those places where even though it's in its own bubble, it's a very, very realistic bubble," he says. "I think you do need to learn some kind of harsh coping techniques to survive and thrive. At least in those terms, people in New Orleans especially are a much more realistic strain of the whole artistic class."
Oswalt performs at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts Jan. 23, bringing to New Orleans his inspired stand-up, weaving precise storytelling and social and political criticism into often elegantly phrased, sharp-edged barbs. Following Oswalt's acclaimed albums and specials, charting a pop-culture-filled comedy geek's transition to a softer-edged family man, Oswalt hopes to release a forthcoming special — filmed in late 2015 — later this year.
"It's covering whatever's happening in my life right now — me getting older, stuff like that. It's always about whatever I'm going through at the moment," he says. "I'm lucky that a lot of my writing I get to do onstage night after night when I'm kind of messing around. That really works for me. ... You always have stuff to talk about if you're honest with how your life is at the moment. ... I'm always doing live shows so I can go back and explore things and refine them. ... I just go onstage night after night and keep messing around with stuff. I never know which direction it will go, and that's kind of the fun."
Oswalt's 2015 book Silver Screen Fiend is both a love letter to celluloid — in all its film major-tediousness and shlock, gore and sometimes painfully obscure glory — and a memoir of cinema addiction, one that informed his often-dense pop culture-studded stand-up, which he admits masked an awkward, still-developing comic voice.
Today, Oswalt is watching Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. Last week he caught a restored Chimes of Midnight, the 1966 Shakespearean epic starring, directed and written by Orson Welles. Electric Boogaloo chronicles the low-budget studio that seemingly out of nowhere caught Oscar attention for its Jon Voight-starring Runaway Train.
Oswalt is a kind of ambassador from an often-impenetrable geek universe, whether in obscure film, comics (he stars as triplets Eric, Billy and Sam Koenig on ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) or Star Wars. He completely improvised an eight-minute "Star Wars filibuster" on Parks and Recreation, in which his Pawnee simpleton outlines a pitch for an implausibly dumb trilogy. ("That was the silliest thing I've ever gone off on," he says. "It was a total pop culture trivia dump.") His virtual thumbs up on Twitter following the saga's latest installment was a sigh of relief to fans.
"Star Wars is just fun. It means, everything, all your favorite parts of something, stripped down and made fun," he says. "It's the best hot rod ever put up on a screen, in terms of moviemaking. That's what's so great about this new one — [director J.J. Abrams] brought that velocity and fun. There's nothing wrong with movies that deal with minute emotions, minute events, recreating life. Some movies are total thrills. And that's what Star Wars was. Pauline Kael called the (original Star Wars) a box of Cracker Jack that's only prizes. That's what J.J. brought back."
Oswalt took a break from social media in 2014, and again in 2015, "unlinking" from a barrage of mentions, updates and, as he wrote in a TIME column, "the tiny gravity of connection constantly yanking us out of existence." He frequently is targeted by Twitter's conservative — and sometimes extreme left — establishment, neither of which seems able to take a joke.
"They're coming at things from a perspective of inclusion and power, and that ultimately is never funny," he says. "Comedy is a coping mechanism for people who are feeling awkward or out of place. If you're coming at it from, 'I'm someone who so far is benefitting from the status quo, and here's my viewpoint,' well, your viewpoint is very comfortable.
"The ultimate good news is that I've learned that people who comment on things online don't ultimately affect the real world the way they'd like to," he says. "If I can treat them that way — it sounds kind of harsh, it's just, if I took every negative '@' mention as a thing that had to be addressed I'd never be able to create anything new and I wouldn't be able to live a life. I ultimately just ignore most of it. That's the good thing about having all the Twitter battles I've had — 'Oh, wait a minute, they don't mean anything.'"