The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Heads up that today’s episode has just a little bit of swearing in it.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: This is Episode 589 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show, we welcome a guest who’s been mentioned 10 separate times on Scriptnotes-
John: … which means he’s now legally required to attend. It’s a podcast summons.
Craig: Like when you look in the mirror and you say Bloody Mary 10 times. Patton Oswalt. Patton Oswalt.
Patton Oswalt: Thanks. Thanks for Beetlejuice-ing me, guys.
John: You are a comedian, actor, writer, Jeopardy champion. Your work includes everything ever made for a screen, but we’ll highlight some of the amazing comedy specials you’ve done, which have gotten you an Emmy and a Grammy. Welcome Patton Oswalt.
Patton: Guys, thank you for having me.
Craig: This is so exciting. I’ve said on the show before that you’re my favorite comedian. I listen to a lot of stand-up. I do. You know what? There was the time in the ‘80s and ‘90s where stand-up went insane and everybody was constantly watching stand-up. Now there’s this new thing where I’m just in my car and I feel sad all the time about everything, and so I go on Sirius XM or Spotify or something and just go, “Give me the comedy channel.” What I’ve found over time is there are people that I’m like, “Skip. Skip.” Then there are people that I’m like, “Stay. Stay.”
Patton: Am I a stay?
Craig: You’re the ultimate keeper. I think at this point I have now listened to every fucking thing you’ve ever said.
Patton: Jeepers creepers.
Craig: It’s wonderful. I’m a huge fan. This is very exciting.
Patton: I just can’t imagine you, Craig Mazin, being sad. How does someone sad come up with something like Chernobyl? Oh, wait.
Craig: Wait a second.
Patton: Wait a minute.
Craig: Hold on.
John: I’m seeing the two of you face to face. I really wonder who plays who in the biopic, because you guys could play each other, I think.
Craig: Patton should play me. He’s a good actor, and I am not.
Patton: Do we Charlie Kaufman it and have a scene where we meet each other but we just switch roles, we each play each other?
John: Or twins, brothers.
Craig: Actually, just brothers.
John: Or just brothers.
Craig: I think we’d do well. I think we would do well.
Patton: Yeah, we would totally pull off brothers.
John: He’s got an overall deal at HBO.
Craig: You have a brother who’s also a very smart and funny guy, so I would have to unfortunately replace him.
Patton: Exactly. We have to move my younger and way funnier brother out of the way in order to make that happen.
Craig: I think we could do that, right?
John: Craig, this is an episode that you manifested, because you said that we should have Patton Oswalt on the show. Boots Riley listened to the episode. He texted Kelly Marcel. Kelly Marcel texted me. That is how we connect.
Craig: My god.
Craig: My god.
John: That’s how things connect.
Patton: Who knew Boots Riley was a queen bee connector?
Craig: Wow, that actually sounds fake.
John: I could show you the text messages. That’s how we did it.
Craig: If you are going to stick with that story-
Patton: Did you write the sentence using magnetic refrigerator poetry?
Patton: Slapped a bunch of names together.
Craig: That was the ChatGP whatever the fuck it was. Give me a story involving Boots Riley. This is going to be great. I’m thrilled. I’m so excited.
John: We’re thrilled. We’re also under-outlined. We’re under-prepared. I know that we do want to talk about construction of jokes, and so I also want to get through how that works, and really the difference between writing jokes and writing scripted comedy, because you’ve done both. You’ve also worked on a lot of scripted comedy.
Craig: Yes, you have. One of the things that would be great to talk with you about is Wackity Schmackity Doo, which is this great bit Patton does about being a punch-up writer. I’ve been that guy. I’ve literally said in the room, “You’re asking us to do Wackity Schmackity Doo,” and then explained it to them, which is this problem where a movie is finished. Sometimes it’s not an animated movie, although oftentimes it is.
Patton: By the way, I’ve been in the room in live-action films, and they’re like, “What can we have being yelled off screen that’s funny?”
Craig: It’s just we’re looking for ADR, looking for off-camera lines.
Patton: By the way, I can’t believe you and I were never in one of those rooms, because I did those all the time.
Craig: I’m going to tell you that we were.
Craig: We were.
Patton: Which one?
Craig: It’s just that I literally don’t remember what it was.
Patton: We were in a room together?
Craig: We were, but it was many years ago. It was in the early 2000s.
Patton: I’ve been in rooms before Mindy Kaling was Mindy Kaling, she wasn’t just a joke machine gun, Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant.
Craig: All those guys.
Patton: All those guys. We must’ve been in a room together.
Craig: We were.
Patton: We had to have been.
Craig: I left you alone.
John: He was shy.
Patton: Stole a lock of my hair for your ball that you were making.
Craig: At least one or two.
Patton: You’ve been in those rooms where you’re like, “Oh, hey.”
Craig: Yes. We’re going to talk about that process as well, because Patton has done all of it.
Patton: You’re right.
Craig: I think what I’m fascinated by, because we always concentrate on writing, is just how that process is, how much writing writing there is, how much physical writing or non-physical, memorized recitation writing, how these things are structured, the beginnings and middles and ends, because you really are very structured. It’s not jokes. It’s stories. It’s these moments.
Patton: That I try to pack with as many punchlines along the way. I just have never been able to sell the whole duh-dum, bah-dum, bah-dum. Some people can do that brilliantly. That’s just as hard to do, but I’ve never been able to pull it off.
Craig: Yes, like Demetri Martin, a guy like that who’s just so good at that sort of thing.
Patton: And Anthony Jeselnik, whose jokes are like-
Craig: The king of it.
Patton: They are little, miniature works. Oh my god, it’s like stained glass. It’s so perfect.
Craig: It’s shocking. Have you ever listened to Anthony Jeselnik?
John: Oh, yeah.
Craig: I think of myself as a smart guy. I’m a writer. I’m supposed to know what’s coming next. He gets me I would say 99 times out of a hundred. I don’t know where he’s going.
Patton: I’m a comedian who should see all the different angles. You know what he reminds me of? I’m saying this as a compliment. He does dark joke versions of Roadrunner cartoons.
Patton: They show you the setup. Here’s the catapult. You think of three ways it can go wrong, and then it goes wrong in the way you didn’t think of. It’s like, oh my god. It’s a great way to learn how to write jokes is to watch old Roadrunner cartoons.
Craig: He’s a magician. You really do write these scenes that in and of themselves, if you perform them out, you could easily get 25-minute-long shows. You could do an episode that’s here’s a story, and you could expand it out. I’d love to dig into that structure. Before we do that, John is going to hit me over the head if we don’t follow the rules.
John: We’re going to jump into the jokes right away. I did want to say that in our Bonus Segment for Premium members, I want to discuss a pet peeve of mine, which is when characters keep secrets for no reason.
Craig: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
John: Just marinate on that. We’ll think of some examples of that.
Patton: Good, because I have a shining example of that, but it’s also a rebuke of that, in one of my favorite films. We’ll get to that later.
John: Oh, so exciting.
Patton: I love this so much. Good, good, good, good, good.
John: Let’s get into jokes and joke structure, because Craig, when we found out Patton was going to be on the show, you listed, “These are my favorite bits.”
Craig: Those are not my favorite bits.
John: Top of mind.
Craig: Those were just the ones that I felt like typing there. They’re all my favorite bits. As we were saying, you do have this wonderful ability to make a story of everything. If people want to see a great example that is fun to watch on YouTube, Patton did… I’m going to call it a bit, but it’s so diminishing for what it is. A piece. He did a piece on a-
Patton: A piece, although, by the way, listeners, I would never call one of my jokes a piece.
Craig: No, I will.
Patton: You will. Please.
Craig: I will call it a work of art. A work of art centered around the horrible song, Christmas Shoes.
Patton: Oh, boy.
Craig: It’s this beautiful work of art about Christmas Shoes-
Patton: Thank you.
Craig: … that someone has lovingly animated.
Patton: It’s never been released on an album or in a special. I did it, and someone recorded it, or maybe I recorded it for a special and then just never used it. Some fan animated it on YouTube, and it was amazing.
Craig: It’s incredible.
Patton: It’s just this thing. I still do it at Christmastime.
Craig: Thank god.
Patton: You’ve got to see me live to see me actually do it live.
Craig: One of the things that struck me about that piece is that it is, in its own way, a work of adaptation, because you take this preexisting work of art-
Patton: Work of art.
Craig: … which is a song.
Patton: Massive air quotes.
Craig: The song has structure. It has structure.
Patton: The song tells a story. There’s a twist.
Craig: You know exactly what to keep and what to not keep.
Patton: There’s that moment when I’m like, “I can’t recite any more of these lyrics. I can’t.” That’s part of it is me giving up. That song is that bad.
Craig: It’s giving up, but it’s also you understood there was nothing to mine there. If there were, you would’ve kept going.
Craig: There’s adaptation to this, but also your original, meaning not based on anything. It’s all original, of course. When you’re just talking about your own life, things that have happened to you, your own observations or thoughts, everything is incredibly well structured. I guess to start off with, how does it begin? Do you actually write things on your laptop, or are you just walking around and talking to yourself?
Patton: I’m walking around talking to myself, talking to friends, talking to my wife, and really paying attention to people in my life that are amazing storytellers and know how to tell a story. There are people in my life that I still love, that are very, very intelligent, that don’t know how to tell a story. They don’t know the parts to leave out, that have nothing to do with what will actually hold the listener’s attention.
John: My mom.
Patton: It’s funny that you mention adaptation. If you slavishly adapted every book to its exact word, it would be a lot of unwatchable movies. You need to take what’s there and adapt it and make it work. There are elements of that song that I’m like, “There’s nothing comedic here.” All it is, in a weird way, the bad elements of that song are just repetitive. It’s just reinforcing a point that I’ve already made and gotten the laugh with, so I can’t do it again. I think it also helped that I came from that time in the mid-‘90s. I don’t know if you ever went to the old Largo on Fairfax.
Craig: Of course. John Bryan and all those amazing people.
Patton: Oh my god, yeah. Brilliant comedians going on Monday night, but there was very much a vogue at the time for people just talking about their lives. There were a lot of comedians that were like, “Then I’ve gotta talk about everything.” It’s like, no, you still need to jettison things and keep it comedy-focused-
Patton: … or it becomes un-listenable. I learned that very, very quickly because also, when that first started happening, I indulged in that. I could see the glazed over looks and went, “Oh, that’s right, I gotta structure this a little bit.”
John: I thought we would talk about the structure of a joke by just actually looking at a joke. This is the ham incident. We’ll spoil nothing, but Craig wants to say the line.
Craig: I just want to say all the ham.
John: Let’s play it.
Craig: Oh, shit.
Patton (clip): Here’s another sweatpants story for everybody. Little sweatpants adventure for you guys.
Patton: That’s getting applause.
Patton (clip): I was out shopping, grocery shopping. I’m in my sweatpants. I’m in my matching color T-shirt-
Craig: “And flip-flops, ladies.”
Patton (clip): … and flip-flops, ladies. Got my crumbled up shopping list, and I’m staggering around, “What the hell I gotta buy?” Our supermarket has a deli counter where you can walk up and they’ll cut you up a pound of ham, turkey, cheese, anything you want, cut it up fresh. Boom, off you go. Then to save everybody time, they will precut one-pound things of ham, turkey, cheese, so you can walk up and go, “I’ll get two cheeses. I’ll get a ham,” and you’re on your way.
Craig: Can we pause for a second. Act 1, exposition, world building.
John: Setting up crucial details, details we don’t know are important but become important later on in the joke.
Craig: Also, just from the Joseph Campbell of it all, ordinary world. It’s an ordinary world.
Patton: Not to get all pedantic, but in comedy, nothing gets a bigger laugh than when you have set up seemingly mundane things that no one can imagine these being jokes in any way, because everyone is like, “I’ve seen that. You go to the deli counter, and it’s ready to go.” That’s why if you notice, I almost get a little singsongy, because I’m like, “I know we all already know this. I’m just reminding everyone, so now we’re in the setting.” It’s that kind of inflection.
Craig: The magic trick there, and we do this in television and movies all the time, the burying of exposition. You’re actually being like, “Sorry, I’m actually over-indulging in details that are unimportant.” That’s what that singsongy thing does, but that’s the magic trick. We are in a wonderful first act structure where you’re actually doing all the things we do in a movie.
Patton: Here we go.
Craig: We resume.
Patton (clip): Staggering up to the counter with my list, and I vaguely see that the next guy in line is this morbidly obese guy. Huge. He’s the next guy in line at the counter. He’s blocking part of the counter. What I can’t see is there’s only one one-pound thing of precut ham in the ham bin. There’s only one left. I can’t see that. All I hear as I approach him is him say, “I want all the ham.”
Craig: This is the best part.
Patton (clip): Meaning he just wants the one thing. I immediately ran away around the corner into the next aisle and started laughing my ass off. I wasn’t even laughing at him. I was thinking of the guy at the deli counter going, “Here we go.” Eye of the Tiger starts up. He’s doing it! It’s happening!
Craig: Hold on.
John: That’s the inciting incident, basically.
Craig: Also, the development of it. There was something that I thought was really smart structurally, that I suspect you had to think about quite a bit, which was, “I need them to know something I didn’t know.”
When we’re writing, we get to shift perspective all the time. It’s part of the fun of what we do. When you’re making comedies in particular, this kind of math gets discussed down to the tiniest little bit, like when do we show it, when do they know what he sees and what I don’t see. It’s essential. The way you put it in there, you don’t often hear that actually in comedy that there’s a perspective shift. It was brilliant the way it just slotted right in.
John: You were visually setting up that you were in the store and that he’s blocking part of the counter, which didn’t seem important at the time when you said it, but it becomes important as you explain the context of what he was actually really saying, what he was actually asking for.
Patton: Did you also notice how I was storyboarding? I’m giving the audience the omnipotent view, the omnipresent view that I don’t see. The joke is on me. The guy’s just casually like, “Give me all the ham. I’m going to go.” I’m making links in my head that don’t need to be there. Again, I’m always keeping the joke on myself here.
Craig: The perspective shift to allow the audience to have insight that you did not have in that moment is also about to platform to an even bigger one. That’s step one of things Patton didn’t see.
John: We’re going to get to a place where the audience wasn’t expecting to go, which is crucial. That’s the key.
Patton (clip): Then I thought, what if a third party witnessed that? What if a third person was 20 yards away, and all they see is a guy dressed like me with a crumbled piece of paper, and he’s approaching this morbidly obese guy at a deli counter. Just as he gets there, the morbidly obese guy goes, “I want all the ham,” and the guy with the paper goes, “Oh, shit,” and then runs away.
Craig: Now pause again for a second. What I love is these are all these movements.
Patton: That visual is really fucked up.
Craig: It’s amazing. It’s so good. “Oh, shit.” You have this moment where you can step outside yourself and imagine how absurd that would be. A comedy bit would’ve stopped at, “I want all the ham,” and the guy going like this. You’re now like, “Wait, what if I go meta one step further?”
What I love is that now the audience is like, “Okay, that was the bonus.” The normal meal you get is, “I want all the ham,” then, “Oh, here we go. Eye of the Tiger.” Now there’s this bonus. What I love about you is that you’re like, “No, you don’t even know what the bonus is.”
John: I’ll just also point out repetition. This is the second time you’ve mentioned the crumpled note, which is going to become important in the next little section here.
Patton: Yeah, it is.
John: “I want all the ham,” repeating that just anchors it back to that moment. This is the guy we’re focused on.
Patton: Again, I’m also doing a little bit of a cheat where each time I say the crumbled note dismissively, because that’s how people think of their crumpled shopping list is, “It’s just here, whatever.” I’m reinforcing that who cares, and then it becomes important.
John: Without the word crumpled, we might not even catch the [crosstalk 00:17:24].
Patton: Crumpled is a good comedy word.
Patton (clip): He might honestly believe that he just saw the future get doomed.
Craig: Pause one more time. Here’s what I love about that. Now you’re doing what Rian Johnson does, which is, “I’m going to show you who killed the person. You still don’t know why this is going to be fun.” You’re giving away the ending, and they’re laughing. You can almost hear them laughing because they’re on the wheel of laughter. While they’re laughing, they’re like, “Wait, what?”
Patton: It’s funny you bring up Rian Johnson, because my wife and I are doing a big deep dive into Poker Face, which-
Craig: So much fun.
Patton: … does the Columbo mechanics one better, where they show you the murder and then they show you the motives, and then sometimes the motives have wrinkles to them that you didn’t realize. God, it’s such a brilliant show. That’s a classic example of showing you the most mundane stuff and knowing that you’re starting to get in on the game. Then they will show you mundane stuff that we’ll go, “Okay,” and then it means nothing. Then you’re totally off balance. Anyway, go ahead.
Patton (clip): The morbidly obese guy is destined to begin working out and become this cut, muscular warrior of the wasteland and save humanity from the robot lizards that are taking over in 40 years. The few remaining humans have sent me, this emissary, back to read him the message and tell him of his destiny. We have historical records. We know we have to get to him before he decides to commit ham suicide at the Pavilions in Burbank, California. I’m clearly woozy from the time tunnel. I’m trying to get to him. I’m almost there when he says, “I want all the ham.” Oh, god, we’re doomed! We need to find another warrior!
Craig: Well earned applause.
Patton: Oh, man.
Craig: Well earned applause.
Patton: Thank you.
Craig: The other thing that you do quite a bit, which I love, is you will engage in very almost cavalier storytelling that any studio might actually go, “That’s a pretty good idea. We could probably make a movie of that.”
Patton: Also, I’m getting the laughs out of the making wild assumptions, as if the audience already knows that. Of course I’m woozy from the time tunnel. We’ve all been through time tunnels. That’s always a great laugh to get is the crazy, unearned assumption from your listener.
Craig: And the specificity, because it’s not like, oh, because he’s a warrior of the wasteland. There’s also robot lizards.
Patton: A very specific thing happened, and it all happens at a very specific-
Patton and Craig and John: Pavilions in Burbank.
Patton: Which makes it.
Patton: I remember growing up watching old Bugs Bunny cartoons and stuff. They would make references, very specific, timely topical references to things that I didn’t know, but in context I always got. There’s one where a turkey is trying to slim down before Thanksgiving so he doesn’t get eaten. Daffy Duck’s making him work out. He goes, “Slide, DiMaggio, slide!” I was like, “I guess DiMaggio must’ve been some kind of baseball player.” You can get things. I always buckle at the studio note of this has gotta be universal, that anyone can understand. Sometimes if you go super specific, it makes it even more captivating.
Craig: People will want to know and learn.
Patton: “What is that? What’s going on?”
Craig: “What is that?” They’ll look it up. If they’re happy, they’re happy to look it up.
Patton: They’ll check it out.
Craig: I think how specific all of that storytelling is… There’s also this joy of riffing that you take a concept and then go, “How far do I go? How absurd do I get?”
Patton: There’s a big element of that. The thing that really attracted me to comedy when I started was just hanging out with other comedians and bullshitting all night and adding to each other’s bits. Sometimes we would get laughs out of, “What’s the most absurd or offensive thing I can say?” Some of my bits do have that, “What is the most absurd level I can take this to and still have it work?” It’s like, “I’m entertaining myself now. How well can I do this?”
Craig: It works.
John: Patton, can you talk us through the development of that joke? Do you know when you started that joke, what the early versions of that joke were? Did the ham sandwich guy ever exist?
Patton: Oh, yes, that absolutely happened. Again, the reality of the situation was I was shopping, I was living in Burbank, I was at that Pavilions. I went up, and that guy did say that. I didn’t run away and start laughing. He did say it with that. I do another bit about B-word fat with the B-word.
Craig: (nonsensical babbling)
Patton: “I’ve gotten so heavy that I (nonsensical babbling).”
Craig: “I’ve gotta lose some weight.”
Patton: “I want all the ham.” There’s that Frank Thring, Alfred Hitchcock way of speaking, where even without seeing him, you’re like, “That dude’s fat.” William Conrad. Then I just kept shopping.
A lot of my best writing comes when I’m doing dishes or shopping, because they are such mundane, task-oriented things that now your brain is free. In other words, if you’re sitting there trying to write, and your only task is the writing, a lot of times your brain will cinch up. If you give it a mundane task to do, then it’ll free your brain to actually do writing.
Craig: For instance, you’re standing in front of a bunch of Lean Cuisines, and your depression sneaks up and gets you. We don’t have to play it, but he’s just talking about how depression will get you when you least expect it. It got crafty. He has a daughter. His daughter is making him feel good. He’s a dad. He’s thrilled. Then it gets him in the supermarket. He’s just looking at the package.
Patton: [Crosstalk 00:23:16].
Craig: Then Toto’s Africa comes on. He just said, “I just [inaudible 00:23:22] I’ve never been so wonderfully ready to die.” Boom.
Patton: It developed from the thing I was talking about earlier of, “What if? What if? How crazy can I make this?” I did remember internally laughing at hearing the phrase. “I want all the ham,” said in that voice is hilarious.
Craig: It’s great. It’s incredible.
Patton: Then I started thinking of, “What would be the worst reaction from me?” You don’t want to be mean. “Oh my god, what if I ran away and started laughing?” I just kept what iffing, what iffing, what iffing. There are weird things that will resonate.
The longer you go in your career, the more you learn to trust the weird thing that clearly doesn’t have anything apparently attached to it that is something you can use. If it doesn’t go away, that’s usually a good indication of like, “I should run with this,” because it’s not going away.
John: In order to maintain ideas, your brain has to keep dedicating cycles to it, like, “Oh, it still has to be in there.” It’s fighting for attention. There must be a reason why it’s fighting for attention. There’s something it wants to do.
Craig: That’s voice too, the thing that you snag on, that your brain snags on. There may be a hundred screenwriting books telling you to just get rid of that, because that doesn’t fit in, but no, your brain snagged on it. Then your brain develops it. That’s you. I know a you thing. Even if I read it, I think I would know it was you, as opposed to hearing it or seeing you, because there is a specificity to the way your brain works. You trust your brain. All of us are copying early on. We’re all just desperate.
Patton: You have to.
Craig: You have to. You don’t know how else to do it. Then as you go, there’s that scary moment where you have to leave the nest or you’re Indiana Jones in the Third Raiders and you’ve got to step on the bridge that you can’t see.
Patton: By the way, the copying will never fully go away. Get over that anxiety. When I walk away from seeing a Cohen Brothers film, my writing will get very Cohen-y for a couple days. I was doing a show Friday night, and John Mulaney went on before me.
Craig: Oh god, so good.
Patton: First 30 to 45 seconds, I was talking in his cadence. I caught myself. His cadence is so wonderful. He’s such a wonderful storyteller that you fall into that. Then if you just embrace it and wink at it rather than try to, “Oh my god.” Let your ego get out of the way. You’re always going to be influenced by things.
Craig: It’s the finest compliment you could give anybody.
Patton: Exactly. Stephen King, when he wrote the intro to Harlan Ellison’s Stalking the Nightmare, halfway through the intro he goes, “Oh my god, I’m writing like Harlan.” He goes, “Milk tastes like whatever it’s sitting next to on the shelf. I’ve just been reading some Harlan.” Someone then goes, “Oh, you just read Harlan Ellison.” He’s like, “Yeah, I did. Sorry.” That’s happened with me a lot.
John: This incident happened. You decided to write the joke. What does writing actually mean? Are you typing it up?
Patton: No. This is why I panicked a little bit-
Craig: Don’t panic.
Patton: … during the quarantine is I have the general idea, but I’ve gotta work it out on stage. The audience will partially guide me. I think maybe that’s why some of my bits land really hard with people, because it’s the end result of a conversation with other people rather than me hermitting away, writing it out perfectly, and then presenting it.
Craig: At which point it’s not plastic enough to adjust.
Patton: However, keep in mind, if you are a writer like an Anthony Jeselnik or an Emo Philips, who can write the most perfect frigging bits, and when you lay them in front of people, they just go, “Oh my god,” absolutely do that. I’m someone that needs that back and forth. It just makes the writing better.
Craig: For me or for John, the nice thing is our first draft, we write a scene, we go home, we come back the next day. I’m different. I like to mulch over what I wrote yesterday. John is very much like a move ahead guy, and then he goes back and does the whole thing. Either way, we’re evaluating what we just did. Then the shame is private. No one sees the crap.
Patton: The shame is private.
Craig: They just see what we want them to see. It’s even more so.
Patton: That’s cool.
John: We never bomb on stage.
Craig: We bomb privately. We bomb in front of ourselves, which is horrible. How does that feel when you go in there with your first draft, and you, “This is the first time I’m going to roll this out.”
Patton: A lot of times when I’m doing those first drafts, it is… After this podcast, I am driving down to Irvine to do the Irvine Improv. I will have bits prepared that will work. I’ll also work on a few new things. A lot of times when I’m doing the really raw stuff, it is in a room where it’s free. No one’s paid to see me. There is an audience that actually I think likes going to see comedians and being able to watch when it’s…
There was a bit I was working on for my latest special that I finally all got to come together about getting hemorrhoid surgery and then having a horrible accident afterward. It’s this whole long story. I just did not have an ending. In early days, like a year and a half ago when I was working on it on the road, I was like, “I will put this on a Netflix special in a year or so, and you’ll be able to go, ‘I watched that when it was just a mess.’ That’ll be your bragging rights.”
Although it’s actually opposite with comedians and bands. I think I’ve said this before, but I’m going to repeat it because it’s so brilliant, because Chris Rock said it, not me. He goes, “If you’re a comedian, you put out a special and an album, then you go out on the road, you better do a whole new hour, because they already saw that.”
Craig: Exactly. They want you to play the song exactly the way it was on the album.
Patton: If you’re a band and you put out an album and you tour, you better play that fucking album. They do not want to hear your new shit.
Craig: David Spade, he did a bit about that. He’s like, “You hear them come on, and it’s like, don’t play the new stuff. Play the songs I know, and no tricks.”
Patton: No tricks. Exactly, no tricks.
Craig: No tricks.
Patton: Don’t add some new arrangement. You know why I’m here.
Craig: Do the thing. Do the thing I like.
Patton: When I was on King of Queens, Huey Lewis did a guest spot as himself. We were talking about that. He had this memory, where he goes, “Oh my god, I remember as a teenager in San Francisco.” He started laughing. He goes, “I went and saw Led Zeppelin at The Fillmore. They were touring on Zeppelin 3, so we want to hear Immigrant Song, we want to hear Going to California, and we want to hear everything from 1 and 2. Play Black Dog. Great. Then they did a rough version of Stairway to Heaven, and half the auditorium walked out to go get a beer.”
Craig: That’s right.
Patton: “I remember specifically getting up and going, ‘Who wants a drink? I’ll go get… ‘” He left and then came back, like, “I don’t want to hear your new shit.”
Craig: Which makes total sense, because it’s a long… If you don’t know where it goes, if you don’t know the ending of that-
Craig: … you’re like, “What is this crap?” Completely. There are things that you need to absorb in before you see them. Comedy is tricky like that, because John Cleese talked about this at some point, that they would do these live tours. Monty Python would go do these shows, and they would do the Dead Parrot sketch, and no one was laughing. They were just mouthing along with the words. It became this very creepy, almost religious catechism thing of like, “We will now recite the Dead Parrot sketch together.”
Patton: Or even worse yet, this happened to Dave Chappelle and it’s happened to other people. I think it’s one of the reasons Steve Martin stopped doing stand-up was that people will pre-scream out punchlines that they like.
Craig: Oh god, no.
Patton: Or they’ll scream out catchphrases from other things that you’re doing. I remember I think Dave Chappelle walked off stage, this is years ago in Sacramento, because people were screaming, “I’m Rick James, bitch.” You’re about to get several hours of new material from this genius, and you’re yelling out something he already put on TV for you. That’ll be there when you go home. Let him do his… They wouldn’t let him do it.
I also remember I heard that when, and this is generational, when The Firesign Theater, when that album, I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus, they had that great bit about… It’s the high school commencement speech where this guy’s going, “Eat it raw,” yelling. They were trying to start doing that on stage, and the whole crowd was just going, “Eat it raw! Eat it raw!” They couldn’t start the bit.
Craig: What’s the point? It’s over.
Patton: Like, what are we doing?
Craig: You have a great story about going to a casino and just having your credits screamed at you for 30 minutes by drunk people.
Patton: Literally my IMDb yelled at me.
Craig: “King of Queens!”
Patton: “King of Queens! Ah!” It was rough. It was rough.
John: We’ve talked about a joke, but let’s talk about a whole special or putting together a bunch of stuff into one thing. Mike Birbiglia’s been on the show many times.
Craig: Oh, god.
John: He’s so good.
Patton: Fucking went and saw it right before the shutdown. I went and saw his one-man shop, not Sleepwalk with Me, the one about being a father.
John: The New One. The New One.
Patton: Literally called The New One. Oh my god, we almost went into a Who’s on First. “The New One. No, the one about… Yeah, The New One. No, I know. I just can’t remember the title. Yeah, The New One. Yes, I just said that! God, he’s such a fucking [inaudible 00:32:38].”
John: I saw The Old Man in the Pool in a tiny, little club when he was still working on it. It was clear that there’s raw edits on things that aren’t working, but then eventually it all comes together and you get that feedback. With your specials, when you’re aware that you have things that fit together, that can build up to a full hour, that feel like it’s a journey, what are you aiming for?
Patton: It’s different. Sometimes you know a couple of months beforehand. You go, “Hey, let’s give them a date. Let’s pick a venue. Let’s do this.” Other times you’ll have… On this last one, I had the date and venue, and not until a month did I realize the structure that it actually needed to be, that the hemorrhoids story was normally in the middle. It took me a while to realize that’s the end.
There was another bit that in the special was in the middle, but on the road I would have it at the end, but then I realized, actually if I switch my… Then a much weirder note that you’re not expecting it to land on, and that’ll make me seem more engaged on stage. When that structure happens, you don’t…
A month before my second to last special, there was a bit that I did in the middle about going to Denny’s. My road opener, this guy Orlando Leyba, brilliant comedian, we’re on the road, he was like, “That should be your closer.” It changed the whole set.
Craig: This is an interesting question, because when we’re writing things for one purpose or another, there are different needs. Live performance, you want to just basically drop your biggest bomb, I would assume, at the end. You want to go out on the biggest possible laugh, maybe in a small room, but in a special, you want to go out on something that is meaningful.
Patton: Or maybe not necessarily meaningful, but you want to end on whatever is the most interesting thing that people will think about. It doesn’t necessarily need to be meaningful, but it does have to be… Yes, it is always good to end on a massive laugh if you can get it. Sometimes I like the massive laugh in the middle, so you’ve earned their trust. You’ve earned their trust enough to go, “Now I’m going to go off in maybe not the biggest laugh areas, but because I’ve earned your trust, you’ll follow me into something interesting.”
Patton: That’s a different way to structure it. On my last two specials, that’s how I’ve gone, because the bit about Denny’s and then the bit about the surgery are way more wandery, philosophical, with a ton of laughs in them, but it doesn’t end on a big ba-ga-da-boom, “Thank you!” Maybe that’s a function of getting older as well.
Craig: There’s a confidence to it. It’s sort of like, “I don’t actually need you to freak out every three seconds, because I’ve earned this. You know I’m funny. You came here. I’m not new.”
Patton: Has this happened in your writing sometimes when you’re early on, you’re like, “The third act’s going to be frigging crazy,” and then you get to the confidence and go, “Let’s actually make the third act weird and something that stays, has just as much of an impact, but isn’t as loud and bright.”
John: It’s still in the same scale and still following the same character’s journey, rather than just a whole new big step because it has to be bigger for the sake of being bigger. The original World War Z was this huge, massive thing. They realized, oh, this is not what the audience wants to see. They actually want to see our characters survive and grow and change.
Patton: What a ballsy thing in the third act to have the main piece of action be, “I can’t make any noise. I have to be very quiet.” That’s a really startling way to end a movie like that.
Craig: If you have done what that movie did in the middle. That’s something that we were thinking a lot about for our season of television now, because we had an opportunity to do some big set pieces. Where do they go? Should we end on the biggest set piece? I don’t think that that makes more sense, but at some point you want to do it. Timing that stuff out, in television I think it’s a lot easier. I have to say. Movies, the problem is, that’s it. It’s 90 minutes to 2 and a half hours.
Patton: That’s it.
Craig: The ending, a lot of times, it’s like a fireworks show. You save all the fireworks for the end.
Patton: A lot of times, and I think a perfect example of this is, it’s still a great movie, but the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale. An amazing opening, genuinely amazing opening. The middle part’s great. Then you end on that great… Don’t even end on it. There’s that great poker game, tense. Then there’s that excruciating torture scene.
Craig: Which is the best.
Patton: Also incredible. Then there’s this huge special effects-heavy piece of the building going in the water. It doesn’t give you any feelings because it’s too big.
Craig: It’s too big.
Patton: You’re like, “This was all done on a computer somewhere,” whereas the other ones are him and Mads Mikkelsen just looking for micro-expressions on each other, and you’re actually tense watching it.
John: I want to circle back to when you plan your biggest jokes. You’ve earned the audience’s laughter and trust, and therefore you can afford not to be as hilariously funny for certain things.
That’s a thing we encounter a lot, both in comedy and in action and scary things too, where it’s like, is this moment right now the funniest thing you’ve ever seen, is it the biggest action? Maybe not, but we can afford to do it because the audience is with us. The audience has invested the time. The audience is with you. We talk a lot about the first 3 pages, the first 10 pages, like, “Are we on the ride together? Are we on the ride together?” When we come off of one of those really big sequences, we can actually afford to send some pages, some minutes setting up crucial things for later on down the road.
Patton: They have confidence that a meandering scene will not be a meandering movie. It’s meandering for a reason. You’re being set up for something.
Craig: That’s the hardest thing to convince people of that don’t do what we do, because they’ll say, “They’re getting antsy right now.” You’re like, “Exactly. Exactly. It’s okay for them to get scared.” That thing where someone’s telling a story and someone will say, “Where’s this all going?” meaning does this have a fucking point? What we’re supposed to do, and I think when we’re at our best it’s what we do, is make them really scared that none of this is going to add up. Then oh my god, it all adds up. It was all intentional and it was all thought through.
Patton: You mess around with the idea of, “Where is this going? This might not work. Oh god, he pulled it off.”
Patton: That’s really fun.
Craig: So much more interesting than a limerick joke where it’s like, okay, I got it, the first two lines, the second two lines, and then the fifth line. The fifth line will tell me what happens. I never get nervous when I listen to limericks, ever. The more you start to wonder how the hell is all this going to add up, how is all of it going to make sense. I think you in particular are very good at that. You think these things through beautifully. It’s very thoughtful.
Patton: I’ve become good at that. That’s again through years and years. I’m sure when you guys were first starting out screenwriting, TV writing, it was very much, “What’s the structure?” Again, the structure of something like Chernobyl, it’s almost an existential version of Jaws. You see this threat emerging in the background.
Craig: That’s awesome. I’ve never heard that.
Patton: I remember watching that first episode when that explosion blew up in the distance. I’m like, “She’s dead. She just doesn’t know it yet.” Then as we go deeper and deeper and deeper, we realize the depth of this threat. It’s brilliant history, but it’s a brilliant horror movie. It uses those tropes in such an amazing way, to the point where you walk away going, “What other parts of the world are that unsafe?”
Craig: Turns out almost all of them.
Patton: Apparently, all of them.
Craig: Ohio is.
Patton: That must be so surreal for you to watch what’s going on in East… You’re like, “People.”
Craig: This is something’s that’s happened to me is that any time anything explodes anywhere, people start emailing me.
Patton: The parallels here are so profound that it almost looks comical.
Craig: That’s what’s so upsetting. This will always be the case. When Chernobyl was going to explode, and just only people found out when it did, but it was always going to explode. It was just a matter of time. A train was going to derail there. It was only a matter of time.
Patton: Always. Everyone that worked on the railroad was like, “You need to do… “ They were all saying it.
Craig: “Screw you, unions.” The thing is, right now we don’t know we’re sitting on a powder keg that the fuse is already lit. We just don’t know which is it.
Craig: We’ll find out when it goes.
Patton: When the next bridge collapses, when the next skyscraper falls.
Craig: This has been happy fun time with Patton, John, and Craig.
Patton: Hey folks, you’re all doomed. Anyway, life’s a crapshoot, and you’re probably going to lose because that’s how it’s always went. Here’s a word from Mailchimp.
Craig: I forgot about Mailchimp.
John: Oh yeah, Mailchimp.
Craig: Oh, Mailchimp.
Patton: Oh, man.
Craig: Dumbest name for a fucking product, Mailchimp.
Patton: Who called it Mailchimp?
Craig: This is what’s so nice about not doing ads. We can just say Mailchimp is a stupid name.
Patton: It’s a dumb name.
Craig: It’s dumb.
Patton: Holy shit.
Craig: It’s just dumb.
John: We’ve been talking a lot about comedy specials, writing comedy, but you’ve always written scripted stuff. Let’s talk about scripted stuff, like M.O.D.O.K, your Amazon series [inaudible 00:41:47] character, hilariously really good. You’re focusing on that character. What did you learn trying to figure out not just an episode, but multiple episodes, seasons, put that together? How was that process for you?
Patton: That process was because I was co-running a room with my writing partner, Jordan Blum, who’s an amazing writer, comes from Family Guy, comes from Community, and [inaudible 00:42:10] knows all the lore but is really good at how do we adapt it to a thing that humans can watch and enjoy, but we still have all the fun little Easter eggs.
That was a really eye-opening experience in that you have a room full of people. Some are comics fans. Some aren’t. They’re all good writers though. They are bringing different sensibilities to this thing. It makes you, when you go and write by yourself, go, “Can I evoke these other voices and viewpoints that were in that room, that could bring these different dimensions and angles?” I went into it from, this is the idea of a supervillain. My whole idea for this was-
John: Let’s explain for people who may not know.
Patton: Oh yeah, sorry.
John: M.O.D.O.K. is almost a family sitcom, except that M.O.D.O.K., this Mechanized Organism Designed Only for Killing is at the centerpiece of it. He’s like a terrible dad figure, which is a trope of animated sitcoms, obviously.
Craig: Bad dads.
John: The absurd version of that.
Patton: The two tropes you wanted to toy with here is A, the world conqueror that is like, “I sacrificed everything.” M.O.D.O.K. is like, “Because I am supreme, M.O.D.O.K. sacrifices nothing. I will rule the world. I will also have a loving family. There will be no sacrifice or compromise. I get to have everything.”
We also wanted to play with the trope of the terrible dad who at the end of every episode the wife’s like, “Oh, honey.” He goes through an ugly divorce in this first season because they should not be married. This isn’t working. Now what does he do that he has to face that? We wanted to really play with that and then also have a lot of fun with super villain fights and technology and stuff like that. It was all in service of upsetting tropes that I think people accept without even really thinking about them all that much.
John: Going from joke writing, and we were also talking about punch-up rooms, we should get back to that, but going back to now you have to have development over the course of a half hour and have multiple characters’ voices, what was that like for you? Did you enjoy it? Do you want to do more of it?
Patton: Yes, I would love to be in another room like that, either on a staff or writing it. At this point, I’d like to be running it or I have a central vision that you bring in. There is something ultimately I feel confident and courageous about going, “Here’s the vision I have, but I am open enough and confident enough in it to have other people come in and upset it and show me things that I missed, that we can now add to the vision to make it better.” That to me is true confidence, so I’d love to do that again.
John: You’re talking about the room that builds from the ground up versus what we have more experience with is basically coming in to save a thing, because we’ve all done that. We’ve all done the rescue missions.
Craig: Yes, coming in to save a thing.
John: Sometimes it’s before production, last looks on a thing, but more often it’s something’s been shot, it doesn’t work, and here we are trying to fix the thing.
Craig: The dream of it, the platonic ideal of one of these things is, here’s a movie, and generally when you’re coming in to punch it up, it’s a comedy, and it’s a A-minus. It’s really good. We’re just looking. There’s a couple of moments here. Actually, what wonderful things can you brilliant people come up with that we can make this even better with? What it really turns out to be usually is, here’s a man that, he swallowed a grenade, it blew up. Put the pieces back together, please, but make him better looking. You’re like, “What?”
Patton: Exactly. It’s like when I would do punch-up on these animated films. We talked about this. They’re a hundred-million-dollar animated film. The thing is 75% finished. Then you would come in, “If you move the… “ “No, we can’t. We’ve already made the movie. Just think of things for characters to yell off screen.” I remember saying to different producers, “If you would do these same rooms but have us work on the script rather than the completed movie, you’ll end up with a better movie and you’re spending your money better.”
Craig: Yeah, wouldn’t it be better? They can’t imagine that they’re not getting it right the first time.
Patton: No, they can’t. I’ve also been in a lot of rooms where clearly, I’m not going to name names, but there was a movie that I worked on where it was a terrible comedy. It was a live-action comedy. A bunch of us did a room on it. Then when it was done, the original writer, who farted out the worst script you’ve ever read, and probably bought a pool with it, came back and was like, “I want only my name on this script.” All of us were like, “Absolutely, dude. It’s all yours.”
Craig: No fights.
Patton: Then he got angry, like, “Why is nobody fighting me for this?” It was like, because even with all our work, we didn’t make this thing good. This thing still sucked. Happy to have my name as far away from this as possible.
Craig: I don’t know why executives think this thing of saying stuff off camera is magic. If you had a really good joke in the script to begin with, would you not want to see it?
Patton: Yeah, see someone say it.
Craig: Also, these things are being yelled off screen. No one’s reacting to them because they weren’t there.
Craig: How could this possibly be good? I have another bone to pick about these rooms. That is when I started out, so we’re talking the ‘90s, they would give you $5,000 to sit there for a couple hours, a sandwich, and then another couple hours.
Patton: I remember that.
Craig: Now it’s like, “How about you come in for a thousand dollars all day?” A, fuck, and B, you. How dare you? What the fuck is that? I’ve been going on about this forever. It’s sick how much they… The new thing now is they’ll do these rooms, not for comedies, they’ll do them for any movie. They’ll do them early on, before anyone’s written anything.
John: [Crosstalk 00:47:47].
Craig: I got a call like, “Oh, we’re going to remake this movie. Come and join these other eight people. We’re going to give you a thousand dollars, and you’re going to basically figure out what the movie should be. Then you’ll fuck off, and somebody will write it.” No.
John: I will say, on live-action features when you’re trying to do loop lines or ADR where basically over somebody’s back we’re going to throw a line there, that’s absurd.
Patton: Oh my god, I’ve written so many things for people’s backs.
Craig: Backs, yes.
John: With some of these animated movies, there is still time. You can change the mouth movement. We can get a line in that character’s mouth, and so they can actually say it on camera, which is a slight difference from before. Brainy Smurf can say that thing that Patton thought of.
Patton: A lot of times they’re at a point where, “We can’t pay for new animation,” or they don’t want to. Again, you are writing dialog for the back of an animated character’s head.
Craig: Which you generally don’t see much.
Patton: Holy shit. One of the weirdest things I ever heard, I did a panel one time with Thomas Haden Church, and he said that they… He was in that movie, the live-action George of the Jungle. He said that they did a very early screening with audience notes. “One of the notes I got was the first big laugh 10 minutes in the movie, some animal farts, and it got a huge laugh.” When the movie came out, and I went to watch this, I went and watched it just to confirm what he said, the first 10 minutes of the movie, you just hear animals farting.
Patton: The studio just went in with a fart machine just trying to make it funnier. By the way, it shows you they don’t even need writers. They’re just like, “Oh, that sound was funny. Great, put it in there 50 times.”
Craig: They honestly believe that comedy is improved by quantity. They really do believe that.
Patton: Oh my god.
Craig: Like, “Oh my god, this was funny. Do it more.” No, it’s funny because we didn’t do it more. A well-placed fart can get a great laugh if it’s well placed. If it’s just farting, now it’s just annoying.
Patton: The original Ghostbusters, there’s a lot of problems with the original Ghostbusters, but it would be looked at as too slow and they gotta do way more jokes.
Craig: Of course.
Patton: Half the laughs come from Bill Murray just not reacting, taking in what some other weirdo just said. It’s why the Pythoners would fight to be the straight man in the sketch, because that’s the person that gets the laughs.
Craig: Of course. The reaction is what’s funny.
Patton: “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Craig: Always. Solved the problems of the world again.
Patton: We did it.
John: We have a listener question, which actually feels relevant to Patton Oswalt answering it.
Patton: Oh, boy.
Craig: Here we go.
John: This is Becca from Australia, who writes, “I’m writing a film that has many scenes at a comedy club with multiple characters performing snippets of stand-up routines. Ideally, these characters would be cast with real comedians who had their own sets and we could use pieces of it. Is it okay for me to indicate that? Basically, instead of writing a joke for them, I would like the actor comedian to use their own material. If so, how would I do this?”
Patton: A couple things there. Write a joke for them each, but let them know before they do it, “Hey, if you want to riff something here or if you’re okay… “ You have to let them know that this bit will now be part of this movie, whatever you’re doing.
Craig: What if, let’s say it’s not even a comedy. Let’s say it’s a drama or two people are meeting each other and they’re at a comedy club, and funny things are happening on stage, and that’s leading into an argument that they have later. Let’s say that’s not her strong suit. At that point, should she just pick some stuff that she’s heard and then just notate?
Patton: No. Let the comedians know, “Hey, there’s this thing you do. Yuod be so perfect for this scene.” Be very, very up front with them about that, because again, I’ve seen a lot of… I’m not going to name names. I’ve seen a lot of comedians’ bits suddenly find their way into movie scripts, where clearly someone went to a comedy club and went, “That’s a great line. I’m going to put that in there.”
Craig: You’re talking about my 2012 movie Ham Suicide. Guilty.
Patton: My attorneys have said I can’t talk about it here. They really advised me against doing this podcast, but whatever.
Patton: Just be very, very open about, “Hey, this… “ Make sure they are compensated and they are the ones getting the credit for it. Be very, very careful with that.
Craig: When it comes to showing the script to all the people that are going to come before that moment, the producers or anybody else, maybe you just in action say, “So-and-so is up there doing a great bit about so-and-so.” If that’s what’s essential is, okay, I just need the reader to know that the story’s going to be about divorce on stage, and that’s going to impact the discussion I have with my boyfriend after the show, that would be enough. You don’t want to just write bad comedy.
Patton: No. Also, writing stand-up comedy, as people find out when you watch movies, and the same with them when you see movies or TV shows about a band or music, really hard to write good stuff. Nothing is more cringey than when you watch a movie and they’re like, “This song is going to… “ You’re like, “No, it won’t. In the world of this movie, this song’s going to be a massive hit. This song is horrible. What the fuck are you doing?”
Craig: That’s why That Thing You Do is one of the greatest songs that has ever been written ever.
Patton: They actually wrote a good song.
Craig: They actually wrote a good song.
Patton: It was catchy. I can see how that would be a fun regional hit in the ‘60s.
Patton: I get it. Makes sense. They actually wrote a good song.
Craig: That’s a great song.
Patton: As an example, I just did an episode of a TV show where I played myself at a roast, and they wrote roast bits for me.
Craig: That’s a good example.
Patton: Then I said, “Hey, can I tweak these a little bit?” because I’m like, “This is very situational. Anything I write, I won’t use anywhere else, because it’s about roasting this character. Fine, I’ll totally do that.” That was fine.
Craig: Because otherwise, you’d get that weird Uncanny Valley of it’s Patton and it’s sort of Patton but it’s not Patton.
Patton: Also, you can see in my face I didn’t write this and this isn’t in my voice, and I can’t really land this right now.
John: Let’s talk a little bit about voice, because you’re an actor. 287 credits on IMDb. So many actor credits. When you’re cast in a funny role, are there lines that are just like, “If I could say this in my own voice, if I could say this in my own way, it would make more sense.” How do you navigate that as an actor? I’m sure we have many actors listening here.
Patton: You have to be very, very open with the director and pray that you don’t get one of those directors that’s like, “My words are scripture.” A, first and foremost, your job as an actor is to make the lines work. By the way, that goes the other way too. There’s too much of a cult now of improvisation, of an actor gets a script, throws it out the window.
Craig: Don’t do that.
Patton: First, sit down and read the script, because sometimes the lines are really good, and you’ll look good if you say them. Then pick your spots where like, “Oh, I could actually improve this if we tweak this.” Don’t have that, “Every single line I’ve got to change and put my peanut butter fingerprints all over,” because then you’re not playing the character anymore. You have wedged yourself into this movie or TV show, and then it doesn’t work, or it might work for that one thing, but then you’ll be expected to do that every time, and then you won’t get to play other characters, and it will cut your career short.
Craig: There’s a thing that happens where just like you are carefully crafting setups and payoffs, threading in things in a certain way with a certain tone, there are actors who don’t maybe see some of the invisible threads and begin stumbling through stuff to make this moment better or this moment funnier, but they don’t understand that they just broke something. It’s down the line. To me, the smart actors are the ones who actually can see all that. Then it’s about trust. You trust me. I trust you. I’ll come and tell you if I think you’re breaking something. Otherwise, let’s have fun.
Patton: You can tell when someone is insecure, especially as a comedic actor, when they start yammering away too in a sketch, or a scene where someone is starting to get on a role and they’ll, “I’ll jump on that too.” Second City Training was all about if everyone in the scene is trying to make each other person better, then the whole scene explodes and everyone’s great in it. A great example, this is why Amy Poehler is such a frigging genius is when I was doing that filibuster on Parks and Rec-
Patton: … a lesser person would’ve tried to jump in and say a million things. She just held back.
Craig: There’s one moment, right?
Patton: There’s two moments. One of them got quoted. The female part is not very well developed actually. He knew exactly, it will make it funnier and make me seem funnier if I’m slowly listening to this and going, “Oh, my. Oh, no, no, no, no, no,” and then acting like I don’t want to hear this, and then get invested in it and yell something. She knew exactly where to pick her spot.
Craig: Zach Galifianakis was great at that. When we were making the Hangover movies, he would get very excited if he had one line in a scene.
Patton: You have to wait.
Craig: He loved that. That was his favorite thing, because he knew, by the way, that that was going to be the moment. He had no problem. “Let everything else around me be funny, and I’ll just do my one little thing.” Sometimes less is more.
Patton: “I didn’t know they gave out rings at the Holocaust.”
Craig: Oh my god. Oh my god.
Craig: Zachy, the greatest.
John: It’s come time for our One Cool Things. Craig, did you remember a One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: I did. I did. I have an interesting One Cool Thing this week. The American Academy of Pediatrics I think has a new recommendation now regarding childhood obesity. There are these new medications that they’re using now, like Wegovy. I had to look it up. It’s semaglutide or something like that. I’m somebody that I have weight management issues. Weight management issues I think for the longest time, because we’re Americans and Calvinists at heart, was like, “Oh, you’re heavy because Satan will take you soon.”
Patton: Because you’re a sinner.
Craig: Because you’re a sinner. Literally, gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. It was always a function of willpower. What’s fascinating to me is that we’ve just ignored the things right in front of us. For instance, when you’re out with people with other kids, so we’re all dads, we’ve raised our children. There are children whose parents have to tell them, “You have to eat.” They’re begging their kids to eat. “You will eat. Sit down and eat.” Those kids don’t want to eat, because they’re not hungry.
Patton: Their body would tell them to eat.
Craig: Those kids are not not eating because they have enormous self-control. They have no self-control. They can’t even stay in their seat. What it comes down to is some people biologically have higher hunger cues and reduced satiety cues than other people. We know this because there’s chemicals that can make us want to eat more or eat less.
What’s really interesting now is that they’re basically saying, “Hey look, there’s all these drugs that will help.” We’re not saying that we shouldn’t accept people at any size they are, but we are saying that the whole, “Hey, just get on the treadmill, kid,” or, “Just eat less, kid,” that shit doesn’t work. We have now decades of it not… In fact, not only is it not working, it makes it work. I think this is a really interesting thing now where finally, medicine is pulling away from the whole model of, “You don’t have enough willpower,” and moving much towards the model of-
Patton: It’s a character flaw in you.
Craig: Exactly. This has nothing to do with character at all. We know that this is genetic. We know that it’s passed on from parent to child. We know all of this. Let’s start treating it as it is. Let’s also let people off the fucking hook about it, at least to remove the psychological component of it and to have doctors be less judgey. Doctors with kids, if your kid has a weight problem, doctors are awful about it, or have been. I think this is a very good development. I’m not shilling for Big Pharma. I have no stock in these companies. I just think more just as a shift in how we approach these things is a cool thing.
Patton: Maybe there’s a shift happening. That’s good.
Craig: I would hope so.
Patton: I like that.
John: Patton, do you have anything to share with our listeners?
Patton: Yeah. This is not as life-changing, but there is a company called Beehive Books. They are, like a lot of smaller publishing companies, Hingston and Olsen and Centipede Press, these are people that are just bit with the book bug, and they love making beautiful books. There ain’t any money in it for them, but they do these gorgeous, large, illuminated editions of stuff like Crime and Punishment and The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Blazing World. They are doing a thing. It keeps getting delayed. I already have my pre-order in. This is a One Cool Thing that’s a little bit expensive [crosstalk 01:00:25].
Craig: I do it all the time.
Patton: It cost $400. I’m sorry. I couldn’t not get this. As you know, the novel Dracula, much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, much like Stephen King’s Carrie are epistological novels, it’s a collections of letters and articles and stuff.
Patton: Epistolary, thank you.
Patton: Epistological, Jesus.
Craig: You idiot. Get off the show.
Patton: Dracula is a collection of diaries, letters, newspaper articles, a recorded diary by a psychiatrist that tells this whole story. They are putting out a thing called Dracula: The Evidence. What it is is a Victorian era suitcase.
Craig: Oh, wow.
Patton: In it is Jonathan Harker’s diary, Lucy’s letters.
Craig: Oh, cool.
Patton: Seward’s phonograph record, newspaper. It is the story of Dracula, but done as if you’re going through the evidence of a case.
Craig: Physical objects.
Patton: It is so goddamn gorgeous. There are apparently supply line problems. They are still hammering away at this.
Craig: Was it a Kickstarter thing?
Craig: I know whenever I back something on Kickstarter-
Patton: Oh yeah, you gotta wait.
Craig: Multiply your promised timeline by seven. That’s when I’ll get it.
Patton: Just the idea that this company is putting this much work for what… They know there’s no profit in this. I love people that are like, “I want to see this in the world.” That motivation is becoming more and more endangered every single day. It’s why they’re going to make you pay if you want to use texting authentication on Twitter, because there are people, and right now they are in control of everything, that are like, “How can this be monetized? How can every part of this be monetized?” They don’t understand that you’re making more than enough money to live on. They have never understood that, because they don’t enjoy anything.
Craig: They actually don’t understand passion at all.
Patton: Exactly. Beehive Books, all it is is people that just enjoy cool stuff. If you can support them in any way, go to their website, because the illuminated books that they put out are frigging gorgeous. Their Great Gatsby is insane.
Craig: Beehive Books.
Patton: Beehive Books.
Craig: I’m in the market for some. By the way, Beehive Books is a great phrase for the guy who has B fat.
Patton: There you go. Beehive Books.
Craig: Beehive Books.
Patton: I forgot who said the phrase, but books decorate a room. If you’re one of those people that does the, “I have this shelf, and these are all red books, and these are all yellow books, and these are all green [inaudible 01:02:56] with the colors,” if you’re going to do that, then do that and put money toward a good company, because my god, these will make your shelves look amazing.
John: Awesome. My One Cool Thing was going to be Poker Face, which I agree is fantastic, but I’m going to do a follow-up act, which is Melanie Lynskey was filling in on Dear Prudence. Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column.
Patton: That’s right. She was.
John: She did an amazing job, not surprisingly. She’s very smart and very thoughtful and very kind. Her advice answering questions about marriage, grandchildren, driving, your spouse’s friends-
Craig: Plus all with that amazing accent, an accent that makes me the happiest of them all.
John: It’s all a text thing, and yet you-
Craig: You can hear her accent through it?
John: You can hear her accent through a text thing.
Craig: I love her. Did I tell you about the vendetta thing? We were talking about her character. I was explaining, “Okay, here’s what your character is. Here’s what she does. Here’s what motivates her.” She goes, “Right, so she’s got a bit of a vendetta.” I have been saying, “Bit of a vendetta,” to her now for months.
Patton: A, it sounds like an Australian brand of cheese.
Craig: Bit of vendetta.
Patton: B, there’s a guy. Oh my god, can I do two Cool Things?
John: Please, go for it.
Patton: On rogerebert.com, one of their film critics is this kid named Scout Tafoya. Scout Tafoya every month does a column, but it’s a video essay called The Unloved. He will take a movie that did not get massive critical appraise, or even it got trashed, and make a beautiful video essay argument using images from other films as well, to put it in its proper context. “Actually, this is a brilliant film, and here’s why.” That series was so popular that it spawned all these offshoots.
There’s one called Danger Mouse, which is about the years of Disney after Disney died but before The Little Mermaid, when they made these weirdly brilliant movies like Dragon Slayer and The Black Cauldron and The Journey of Natty Gann, where it’s like, wow, Disney got dark and brilliant. There’s one called Other West, which are Westerns that are almost not Westerns. They are on the outskirts of Westerns.
There’s one called Murderers’ Row. Murderers Row is a video essay on a specific actor or actress. He did one on Keith Carradine, did one on Jared Harris, and did one on Melanie Lynskey. The one on Melanie Lynskey is so beautiful. So beautiful. It’s one of those things where he’s like, “She’s been in front of us all along. How is she not struggling to claw her way out of a mountain of awards that have been dumped on her? It’s ridiculous.”
Craig: The mountain is about to start piling up, for sure.
John: It’s [crosstalk 01:05:27].
Craig: I’ve just been saying forever that I think she’s the best actor walking on the face of the planet.
Patton: There’s a moment at the end of his little essay, it’s called Murderers’ Row, where they show a scene from this. There’s no words in the scene either. It’s just her looking and having… I can’t even describe it to you. My god. She’s amazing.
Craig: She’s amazing.
Patton: Truly amazing.
Craig: To make it even more improbable, she’s also impossibly the nicest person walking on this planet.
Patton: I would imagine she is insanely nice.
Craig: Even for a New Zealander, she’s nice.
Patton: I did a movie with her, and she was so nice.
Craig: She’s incredible.
Patton: She’s the coolest person.
Craig: Just so beautiful. She’s got a bit of a vendetta though.
John: That was our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Drew Marquardt.
Craig: What what.
John: It’s edited this week by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Timothy Lenko. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts and sign up for our weekly newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing.
Patton: Thanks for the sponsorship from DoorToDoorDildos.org. If you need a dildo, 24 hours a day, go to Door To Door Dildos, download our app. All kinds of sizes, colors brought to your door. Thank you, Door To Door Dildos, for supporting the arts.
Craig: It’s a better name that what they used to be, which is Dildochimp. That was a good change on their part. I assume that that’s improved sales.
Patton: I argued for DildoDash, but they couldn’t-
John: They couldn’t clear it.
Patton: They couldn’t get trademarks.
John: You can sign up to become a Premium member at scriptnotes.net where you get all the back-episodes and Bonus Segments. Patton Oswalt, an absolute delight having you on the show.
Craig: So much fun.
Patton: I would love to come back down the road.
Craig: Oh my gosh.
Patton: This was amazing.
Craig: Come back.
Patton: Thank you.
Patton: Let’s just make it a three-person show.
Patton: Hell yeah.
John: This is a pet peeve. I can’t think of a lot of examples. Maybe you could think of more examples. Characters who keep secrets for no reason. My frustration is, this is a recent movie I watched where a major character says, “Oh, I didn’t tell you about this thing that happened to me, but now it’s basically a crisis, and there’s no time for me to explain it to you now.” She could’ve told the secret any time in the last 10 years, and she’s not doing it, but only because of plot reasons, we’re now doing it.
Patton: I’m going to give you an example of, without this misunderstanding, there’s no movie. There is a great movie. Didn’t get the attention I thought it should. It came out in 2005 by director/producer/writer Richard Shepard. It is a movie called The Matador with Pierce Brosnan and Hope Davis and Greg Kinnear.
Here’s the basic plot. Greg Kinnear is a bored Ohio businessman, salesman, whatever, has to go down to Mexico on some trip. In Mexico, meets an about-to-retire assassin who’s having a nervous breakdown, played by Pierce Brosnan. Basically, Pierce Brosnan plays James Bond if James Bond had a massive PTSD attack. Then they become friends. He shows him how to go through a hit. They don’t actually kill anybody, but he shows here’s how it would actually be done. It’s very exciting, this crazy adventure.
Then after the first half an hour, 45 minutes, he goes back to Ohio. Then Pierce Brosnan’s character then shows up in Greg Kinnear’s life in Ohio, because people are trying to kill him and he needs a place to hide. He walks in and he introduces himself in the house. He goes, “Hi. I met your husband in Mexico.” Then the wife, Hope Davis, goes, “Is this the hitman you met that showed you how to do… “ Now, a lesser movie would have him go, “Yes, he’s a carpet salesman,” and they would be doing this ha bah bah bah bah. No. Of course he went home and said-
John: He told his wife.
Patton: “I was in Mexico. I met this hitman, and he showed me this stuff. We didn’t kill anybody. It was really weird.” “Oh my god, that’s great.” Pierce Brosnan is shocked for a second. Then you see him go, “This guy’s a schlub. I’m the most exciting thing that’s-“
Craig: Of course.
Patton: Of course he’s going to go tell his wife about this. Then the movie proceeds from there. The shock of that, the shock that they’re not going to do this fucking bullshit stuff makes the movie so much more fun to watch. Have people reveal shit early, and then see where the story goes. That’s my example of the anti-version of that.
Craig: Gross Point Blank does that with the same thing of hitman the whole time. He’s a hitman. He goes back for his high school reunion. Everyone’s like, “What are you up to?” He goes, “I’m a hitman.” Then people’s reaction was correct.
We love comedies of errors. We like farces. Farces are based on misunderstandings and lies and all the rest of it, which is fine, but they have to be justified. I’m not going to say what it is, because I don’t want to get legions of fans screaming at me.
There is something where I really enjoy it, but my frustration is there are characters who continually keep things from each other and will continually say things like, “Can you just trust me?” “What’s going on with you?” “I can’t tell you right now, but can you just trust me?” I’m like, “You can tell the person right now.” There is no reason for them to trust you, because telling them won’t impact anything at all other than the fact that you don’t want them to. It’s an artificial relationship separator.
Patton: It gets very frustrating when you see that. You’re like, “This could all be solved. Just tell him right now! What the fuck?”
Craig: Exactly. This is another one. One of my favorites is someone will come up to somebody. It’s a minor version of a pointless secret keeper. “I need you to see something.” “Okay, what?” “Just follow me.” No, you can tell me what I’m going to see, and then I’ll go see it. I’m not a child.
Patton: By the way, it still doesn’t ruin the movie for me, because the movie’s still so much goddamn fun. If you pay attention when you watch the original Die Hard, really fun film, but when they’re breaking into the vault, the guy, that African American actor who was on Walker Texas Ranger is like, “You know I can’t do the electromagnetic field. I can only do the coding.” He goes, “You let me worry about that.” Then later on, when the FBI cuts the power, he’s like, “You asked for a miracle.” It’s like, let’s back up for a second. He recruited this team of the top thieves. These are professionals.
John: They knew each other before that night. It wasn’t like they just met.
Patton: Clearly, they had walked the building. They have that great thing where they’re counting the… They know where everything is. They must’ve brought up, “There’s an electromagnetic lock.” He’s like, “I got that.”
Craig: That’s the even worse part.
Patton: That means they all went, “Let’s roll the dice. Let’s do it and see what happens!”
Craig: He only brings it up really there as if he’s, “By the way, I should’ve mentioned this earlier, but I forgot. Actually, we can’t do this. The whole thing won’t work.” You get the sense that he never mentioned it even before.
Craig: If he had said, “Listen,” early on, “Just so you know, the thing that I told you I can’t do, I can’t do.” Also, what’s the point of keeping that secret? Like, “Oh, and then here’s what’ll happen. Then we’ll get there. I know you can’t do the thing. Don’t worry about it. The FBI’s standard procedure is to… “ Now, obviously we know why they did it. It’s because they want to surprise the audience.
Patton: It’s a fun turn. There were ways they could’ve done that though writing-wise that you realize they all knew that going in, but we don’t get that reveal.
Craig: Sometimes when it’s just a pure plot thing, I think everybody just lets it go because they’re having fun. Alan Rickman did such a great job of selling the line.
Patton: So fucking good.
Craig: When it comes to relationships, that’s where I struggle, when people are not just saying something they would say. That is a sign that the relationship is not well crafted, in my opinion.
Patton: Also because everyone’s instinct in life is to solve, solve, solve. Is there a problem right now? Solve it. What can I say to solve this? The idea of someone keeping something quiet for a decade and letting this problem hang between them, human beings don’t do that.
Craig: No, we’re constantly telling each other everything.
John: I asked this question on Twitter. I was describing this situation basically where you have a character who could reveal something at any point but it’s not revealed and it’s frustrating as an audience, but without naming the movie. A bunch of people in the comments were like, “Are you talking about this movie [inaudible 01:14:17]?” Clearly, it was a big enough factor for a lot of people, they were all noticing [inaudible 01:14:21].
Craig: I don’t know which one it is, because I haven’t seen anything written lately.
John: [Crosstalk 01:14:26] movies. I will say, Patton, you’re new to the show, Episode 527 is our Die Hard deep dive, where we spend a full hour just going through-
Craig: I wonder if we mentioned this when we did-
John: I think we may have.
Craig: We may have.
John: We’ll check the transcripts on that.
Craig: It is funny.
Patton: I, again, just discovered this podcast. Going to go back. I’ll go right back to 527. I love a good Die Hard deep dive. What a crazy movie.
Craig: We do a deep dive on Die Hard, Raiders.
John: Little Mermaid.
Craig: Ghost, Little Mermaid.
Patton: We all know the line on Raiders, again, [crosstalk 01:14:57].
Craig: Of course.
Patton: Indiana Jones [inaudible 01:14:59].
Craig: If he just does nothing, everything’s fine.
Patton: World War II would’ve ended early, Hitler would’ve died if he had kept his nose out of that shit.
Craig: Just don’t do anything. That is true.
Patton: Even deeper, they’re digging in the wrong place. He brings the [inaudible 01:15:14]. If he just left them, they never would’ve fucking found it!
Craig: They would’ve never found it. They would’ve been like, “You know what? Tanis is bullshit. Let’s go home.”
John: I want to see a Spielberg Q and A where you stand up and just really let him have it on this point.
Patton: That’d be great for my career. “Sir, excuse me. Patton Oswalt from Basic Cable. Listen.”
John: The Fabelmans aside, I [inaudible 01:15:36].
Craig: That’s awesome.
John: Patton Oswalt, thank you for being on the show.
Craig: Thank you, Patton.
Patton: Thanks for having me, guys. Thank you.
- Patton Oswalt on IMDb, Twitter and Instagram
- “Wackity Schmackity Doo!” from Patton Oswalt’s Werewolves and Lollipops
- Animation of Patton’s “Christmas Shoes” joke
- “The Ham Incident” from Patton Oswalt’s Finest Hour
- M.O.D.O.K. on Hulu
- Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt
- Clinical Practice Guideline for the Evaluation and Treatment of Children and Adolescents With Obesity by the American Academy of Pediatrics
- Dracula: The Evidence by Beehive Books
- Melanie Lynskey answers questions for Dear Prudence
- Murderers’ Row – Melanie Lynskey by Scout Tafoya
- The Unloved by Scout Tafoya for RogerEbert.com
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
- Check out the Inneresting Newsletter
- Gift a Scriptnotes Subscription or treat yourself to a premium subscription!
- Craig Mazin on Instagram
- John August on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- John on Mastodon
- Outro by Timothy Lenko (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Drew Marquardt and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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You can download the episode here.