Silver Screen Fiend is the story of Patton Oswalt’s addiction. Not to hard drugs but to moviegoing. From May 20, 1995, to May 20, 1999, Oswalt kept meticulous record of the hundreds of movies he saw, and in his second memoir he reflects on how those films and that time in his life changed him.
These days things have slowed down for the 46-year-old stand-up. Instead of watching eight movies in a day, he’ll see maybe two a year. He spends less time than he did in the 90s palling around with fellow comedians such as Sarah Silverman and Marc Maron, and more time around his young daughter. But middle age has perhaps made him only more insightful and hilarious. Over the phone before his appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival on November 7, Oswalt chatted about his evolving work ethic, his Twitter philosophy, and being a father.
Brianna Wellen: How did you decide to write about the four-year period of your life that you cover in Silver Screen Fiend?
Patton Oswalt: I was trying to think of what would be the most alien version of myself from what I am now and be really honest about who I was at a certain age. I was looking at all these little calendars and it was like, “Wow!” I was really at the depths of serious obsessive compulsiveness and list making and ambition and competitiveness and all kinds of craziness. It’s really not the kind of person I am now.
How did that time shape you as a comedian?
The two main things it did for me as a comedian was it forced a stronger work ethic on me just because I was surrounded by so many funny people. It was do or die, you didn’t have a choice. You have to become amazing or you’re dead because everyone around you is so amazing. And I learned to work really, really hard so you don’t have to work at things you don’t want to do. Work really hard on your own things so that you’re independent enough to just do stuff that interests you.
So now that you are somewhat successful, how has your attitude towards work changed?
Well, I hope I’ve kept the same work ethic, but I’ve learned to take time off to go, OK, you’ve got to live a life, you’ve got to cook a meal, go for a walk, interact with people, because that will feed way better into your work. Let life be a function of your art.
You mentioned in your last special, Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time, about how having kids has changed a lot of how you live your life. How has fatherhood impacted your career?
Anything that you do, whether you have kids or don’t have kids, as you grow older it’s going to change, especially if you’re trying to be as honest as you can in your stand-up or what you’re writing or whatever you’re doing as a person. For me, it’s mostly the hours that have changed. I tend to get up earlier in the morning—I’m not going till 4 AM like I used to because that’s just not my life anymore. I’m in kind of wonderment at the changes, but I’m fortunate to have a mellow acceptance of it. I just kind of sit back and go, Well, things change, it’s not the same anymore, that’s just the way it is.
Since beating your film addiction, how have your moviegoing habits changed?
I don’t see as many movies. I don’t have time. If I have a night off from stand-up I like to be home, hang out with the daughter, hang out with the wife. I’m not gulping down eight movies a day. That’s just not my schedule anymore.
So how did it feel when you were reflecting on the eight-movies-a-day time in your life?
It made me realize how different people live very intensely different lives within their lives. There are very few lives that when you look at someone’s schedule and interests when they’re 18, it’s very, very rare that you meet someone at 50 who goes, “I’ve done the same thing every day since I was 18.” You’re supposed to go through radical changes. That’s part of life—you’re sampling different personas and different interests and different values. It’s healthy. I actually felt a real sense of, Oh, that’s a totally different person. The person I was at 22 wouldn’t get along with the person I am now. We don’t keep the same schedule.
Are there any movies you’ve seen this past year that brought out a little of your former self?
Honestly, I’ve only seen maybe two movies in theaters this year. I reflect more now on face-to-face events with my daughter or my friends or things I’ve done in my career rather than a movie that’s affected me. It’s strange. I still love movies, I still love the people who make them, but I just don’t have time to go to a movie during the day. I honestly couldn’t tell you the last one I saw.
You’re really active on Twitter. Is that an outlet for your comedy when you can’t be on the road as much?
I’m fortunate enough to have that platform, but Twitter to me has always just been really fun. If I start treating it like this crucial lifeline or promotional platform, I think it’s going to get boring. I think if anything it’s because I’m trying to have fun and be playful is probably why I have so many followers.
What are some of your favorite things to do when you are on the road?
When I have time in Chicago I try to go to a restaurant like Schwa or hit the Museum of Contemporary Art. But now all my travel is: come in day of show, do show, come home. So I don’t even think of it in terms of what should I do in this city, I just want to get home.
I’m sure your family appreciates that.
My daughter soon enough will not want me around. She’ll become a cynical teen, but right now while she’s not I’m going to take advantage of that.
You’re on the road less, you’re watching few movies—what are you up to in your parental downtime?
I’m reading a lot. This is going to sound kind of morbid, but I just discovered that there’s a British writer called Jenny Diski, and according to her writing—she does very personal writings in the London Review of Books and things like that—she has months to live. She’s very open and funny about it, but she’s basically dying. It’s like, “Oh, I just discovered this writer who’s dying. This sucks.” I’m also rereading all of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels. I’m into a lot of essayists right now, too. Oh god, I’m sorry, that was such a boring answer.
Not at all! Do you watch movies with your daughter?
She likes little short animated things. She’s not really into movies. They’re too long. She’d rather be running around and playing. I don’t want to stop her from doing that to make her sit down and watch a whole movie.
How old is your daughter?
Six. Do you have any kids?
No, but I’m around kids. Kids are fun.
Listen, I’m not like one of those guys who’s going to sit here and be like, “You’ve gotta have kids.” That’s like saying, “You’ve gotta become a basketball fan.” No you don’t. It’s not for everybody. v
Patton Oswalt, Sat 11/7, 8-9 PM, UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt, chicagohumanities.org, $15, $12 CHF members, $10 students and teachers.