PLAYBOY: “Princess of the United Kingdom” is how Kate Middleton listed her occupation on her son Prince George’s birth certificate. What would you write down as your occupation, considering your numerous jobs, including playing a constable on Justified, delivering an epic Star Wars rant on Parks and Recreation, getting dramatic in Young Adult, writing books and voicing animated characters in Ratatouille and two Grand Theft Auto video games? Plus, there’s your longtime career in stand-up comedy.
OSWALT: Kate Middleton should write down “princess,” and I would write “princess” too, except what I do can’t compare with all that boring stuff the royals are obligated to do. Honestly, I always say I’m a stand-up comedian who, through sheer luck, has been allowed to write books and be in some pretty great movies and some pretty amazing TV. Stand-up comedy is what brought me to the dance, and I will leave with the one who brung me.
PLAYBOY: In the new movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, you play an online-dating counselor to Ben Stiller’s sad, meek title character, a guy who finds reality so unfulfilling that he fantasizes alternate identities and big adventures. When have you been at your Mitty-est?
OSWALT: When I was a little kid movies bled into my life, a lot like with Walter Mitty. I would create fake drama. I always had to be the wronged hero, the aggrieved party. I had affection for monsters and still do. Indulging my fantasies now, I would probably become a mystery man and get myself a weird non sequitur nickname like Patton “Busted Flush” Oswalt.
PLAYBOY: Busted Flush is the name of the houseboat owned by Travis McGee, John D. MacDonald’s beach bum and righter-of-wrongs character. What fantasy world would Patton “Busted Flush” Oswalt inhabit?
OSWALT: It would be something from a book, and I’ll stick with John D. MacDonald. I wouldn’t want to be Travis McGee, but I’d want to be friends and hang around with him, living in the Fort Lauderdale of the early 1960s as described in those books, like The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink, Darker Than Amber. They’re elegiac. They’re tragic. They’re about paradise, but a paradise blown.
PLAYBOY: You grew up with a father who was a colonel in the Marines, and your parents also named you after one of the most famous and controversial U.S. Army generals in history.
OSWALT: My dad was in the service for 20 years and did three pretty awful tours in Vietnam, where he got shot in the leg and watched a lot of people die. But when he was a little tipsy, he’d tell me and my brother, who’s more of a jock, “You will never join the military or go to war. Over my dead body.”
PLAYBOY: Did you deal with military-type strictness at home?
OSWALT: The only thing that annoyed my parents was when I got into my early OCD completist nerd shit and got upset and demanding about it. For example, I had to have every freaking Dungeons & Dragons thing, and I had to have all the books in the series. But they weren’t like, “Don’t be into this stuff.” They said, “Be fascinated by it, but don’t be into it like a schmuck. You don’t have to own the complete set of everything.” I was crazy.
PLAYBOY: Was that the worst of it? You were just an OCD type who collected too much stuff?
OSWALT: There was more. I got into the kind of trouble gotten into by kids who wanted to be rebels but were pussies. Freshman year of high school, I had the most days absent and the most days of detention that you could have before getting expelled. I’d skip school to watch a movie on TV or go see Rashomon or Wings of Desire.
PLAYBOY: That sounds like a nerd gone mildly wild. No drugs? No fights?
OSWALT: Sure. I would instigate fights, then get beat down. Once, I saw a bunch of big kids beat the shit out of my friend Steve. So I walked up to one of the biggest guys and slugged him in the stomach, and all the other boys just fell on me. I mean, how did I think that was going to end—that I would be like Steve Austin and floor him with a superpunch? It was a good thing I was really good at making people laugh.
PLAYBOY: What jobs did you have before you broke into stand-up comedy?
OSWALT: I was a sportswriter, and when I was that, I thought, Hey, do I really want to be a sportswriter? When I was a paralegal, I thought, Maybe I should be a lawyer. Then, in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, when I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, I started doing stand-up—just walked right in. Right away, it fit me. I thought, I want to be onstage; I want to be in this world where stuff is happening, not in an office somewhere getting jokes secondhand. I want to hang out with comedians.
PLAYBOY: You maintain a high, often hilarious, social-media profile. You posted a moving Facebook comment about the Boston Marathon bombing that went viral, but you were slammed when you defended Daniel Tosh for making a rape joke during a comedy-club set.
OSWALT: Daniel Tosh was trying to see if he could make rape funny. He was failing. You’re allowed to do that at an open mike. This woman got angry and interrupted him before he could get to the point he was making. She was wrong for doing that. But he was wrong because he had been trying to kick upward at this terrible thing—rape—but then he kicked downward by saying about this drunk woman, “Wouldn’t it be funny if she got raped by five guys?” You always have to consider who is the victim and what is the context. Sarah Silverman joked, “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl,” and she’s come onstage to music saying, “Oh, I was raped to that song.” Is she a misogynist? If you listened to only part of a Lenny Bruce bit, you’d say, “He’s a racist.” But if you had waited three more minutes, you would have seen he was horrified by racism and was finding new ways to make a run at the subject.
PLAYBOY: You tweeted your support of Tosh but then followed up with a lengthy essay on heckling, joke stealing and rape. Were you walking back your position?
OSWALT: I’ve always tried to maintain that when you see a comedian making a run at a subject, if they’re failing, at least let him get to the end. During the lead-up to the Iraq war, I got booed off the stage when I was talking about George Bush and his motivations. People came at me, wanting to fight me. I’m like, “I’ll talk with you about it, but you can’t just yell things away that you don’t like.” That’s what Fox News does.