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John Lamb, Published January 10 2011

Patton pending: Comic, actor, author has a ball doing a variety of roles

Depending on your interests, you probably know Patton Oswalt as the “Star Trek”-loving nerd friend in “King of Queens,” the voice of Remy, the gastro-gifted rat in “Ratatouille,” one of the snarky commentators on VH1’s “Best Week Ever,” or the comic star of stand-up specials like 2009’s “My Weakness is Strong.”

The comic chameleon comes to Fargo on Wednesday wearing a couple of hats. At noon that day, he’ll sign copies of his brand-new book, “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland,” at Barnes & Noble Booksellers. Later that night, he’ll bring his stand-up comedy to the Fargo Theatre.

“I’m trying to visit with a blank slate and visit and get any Coen brothers preconceptions out of my head before I show up,” he said.

He talked about his different avenues of performing late last month from his home in Los Angeles.

“They all have their advantages and disadvantages,” the 41-year-old funnyman said. “I don’t like any of them any more or less than others. I’m glad I’m allowed to do different things.”

Actor

After years of doing stand-up and writing for “MADtv” in the mid-’90s, Oswalt landed a role on “King of Queens” as Doug’s (Kevin James) geeky friend, Spence Olchin, in ’98.

Oswalt lasted the duration of the show, and his association with James carried over to the big screen when Oswalt was considered for the role of the likable yet clumsy sidekick in “Hitch,” a role James won.

“If I was, no one told me,” Oswalt says of the supposedly nearly had part. “I don’t really know what I’m ever up for or not.”

Though he’s performed with James and Zach Galifianakis, the bearded comedian who starred in “The Hangover,” Oswalt doesn’t feel like he’s been typecast as the funny, tubby friend.

With a cherubic face, natural comic presence and animated, pinched voice, he’s made the most of small roles he did get, including those in “Magnolia,” “Man on the Moon,” and as the monkey photographer in “Zoolander.”

But he nailed his biggest role to date without ever batting an eye on screen. Oswalt breathed life into the cartoon rat with serious culinary chops, Remy, in Pixar’s animated hit “Ratatouille.”

While Oswalt’s kept a visible on-screen presence, most notably on cable shows with recurring roles in “Nurse Jackie,” “Bored to Death,” “Caprica” and “United States of Tara,” he’s found as much work as a voice man behind cartoons. His credits include “Robotmy,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Kim Possible.”

Stand-up

Those who associate Oswalt only with kid-friendly cartoons may want to check out his stand-up clips to see his humor isn’t always family-oriented.

“If they’re surprised, it’s not something I hear about because it’s something I’ve been doing long before cartoons,” he says when asked if audiences are ever shocked by his mature humor. “I hope people are adult enough. I mean, they’re in a night club seeing me, so hopefully they’ll make the adjustment.”

What he does hear about his comedy is acclaim, not just from fans, but also among his peers. His new book is blurbed by a who’s who of contemporary comedy from Conan O’Brien to Sarah Silverman. His ’09 album, “My Weakness is Strong,” was nominated for a Grammy award for Best Comedy Album.

“It was just something I always wanted to do, and it never felt like a decision,” he says. “I never scorned the 9-to-5 world. I just knew it would never be a place where I could flourish. I never thought about it either way. It’s like the decision was made for me … I knew I was going to figure out how to make this pay.”

Commentator

Aside from the screen and speakers, Oswalt’s voice is just as sharp in print.

He calls “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland” an “autobiography disguised as comedic essays.” The tone is different from his stand-up, a natural growth from his blog postings.

A former talking head on VH1’s “Best Week Ever,” one of Oswalt’s favorite targets is pop culture. He tees off on the rampant obsession with it in a recent essay in Wired magazine called “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die.”

“It almost seems a bit like what Oswalt is really arguing is that people talk too much about pop culture now – an interesting notion which sounds a bit hypocritical coming from someone who has made a career out of brilliantly talking too much about pop culture,” Darren Franich wrote in Entertainment Weekly.

And while pop culture helped make him a star, Oswalt says he’s happy not to be seen as just an actor or a comedian or a writer.

“Luckily it’s for a lot of different things, which I’m happy for,” Oswalt says when asked if he’s ever recognized on the street. “I never know what they’ll recognize me for, which is good. I think a moving target is more interesting maybe.”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533