Review: Patton Oswalt's 'Zombie Spaceship Wasteland' is poignant, hilarious
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is the title of the new book by Patton Oswalt. Part memoir, part essay collection, the book is alternately revealing, hilarious and, and livid, a description that would seem to apply equally to his work as a stand-up comedian. That anger is one of the things that I find serves as a dividing point for many audiences. Some people don't want to be infuriated by a stand-up, and other people think that's one of the primary purposes of stand-up comedy. If you're not provoking or poking at the soft spots in things, then what are you really doing? Oswalt is fully capable of a shotgun blast approach to things he finds infuriating or stupid or disappointing, but he is equally capable of turning that same excoriating insight on himself.
In the interest of full disclosure, I've known Patton for a while now. I met him while I was at Ain't It Cool News. One night, I went to see Aimee Mann and Michael Penn perform, and Patton was part of the evening, coming out to speak between songs as the two artists played separately and together. It was a great show, and I was already familiar with him as a stand-up. That night, though, he made reference to Ain't It Cool while he was onstage, which sort of blew my mind. I wasn't used to hearing us referenced anywhere, and when I mentioned it in an article later that week, Patton dropped me an e-mail to introduce himself. Over time, he either may or may not have contributed occasional articles to Ain't It Cool under various names. I am not willing to divulge that information, even if someone like Peter Travers is eager to do so. All I know is I stayed in touch with him because I recognized in him a very similar type of film fandom. He grew up in the same sort of suburban hellscape that I did, although I think I grew up in more of them by virtue of moving so often. And he worked the same sorts of jobs I did in high school, taking roughly the same path to the decision to move to Los Angeles. I'm sure that's a big part of why I have always enjoyed Patton's work as a comedian… we have a common cultural vocabulary.
I like that everything about the book is part of the joke of the book, right down to the description of the typeface used at the end of the book. I love the "Also By" section at the beginning of the book, and I wish I could read all of those today. I like that his bibliography touches on pretty much every nerd archetype, and his science fiction series, his fantasy series, and his children's books all sound absolutely insane. The closest comparison to this would either be Woody Allen's books like Without Feathers or Steve Martin's Cruel Shoes.
The "Preface Foreward Intro" outlines the way Patton fell in love with books and with reading, and one of the things he talks about is how books were his real gateway into a larger world, more than anything else. I agree completely. My parents were fairly strict when it came to movies, and I had to campaign for months to get to see an R-rated film. With books, though, as soon as I had a library card, I was let off the leash, and I can't remember my parents ever looking at a book and saying, "Oh, no, you can't read that." Before I ever saw anything explicit on film, whether violence or sex, I am sure I had already read about it many times over. Books were so much wilder, so much grander.
The second piece in the book, "Ticket Booth," is probably my favorite, which isn't to say the others are weak. It's just that he wrote this really personal, confessional piece about working at a movie theater while in high school, and the dynamics of that place and the feeling of boredom and anxiety and rage and terror that is just cloaked around you at that age, and reading it is sort of like having an acid flashback. It brings back a flood of tactile memories for me, nights spent standing in the box-office of the Regency 8, late nights in a closed movie theater, things we'd do to stave off inertia. Moral failures, large and small, mixed in with moments of joy and moments of sorrow. My life revolved around movie theaters for years, and even though I never met the specific people Patton's writing about, I knew them. I knew my own versions of them. And his writing about all of just feels true. Dead on and true.
Just as true is "Punch-Up Notes," a piece that is structured as Patton's notes to a friend regarding the fourth draft of his screenplay "You May Miss The Bride," which sounds like every single disturbingly stupid Hollywood comedy in which people don't behave like real human beings and everyone lies to everyone else about the most ridiculous things and there's lots of boners and vomit and maybe even some talking animals. It is a furious piece of comedy, and he speaks from experience here. Patton's done punch-up work on more films than you would believe, and he's seen the evolution of studio comedy scripts over the past decade close-up. The film he describes in this piece doesn't exist, but I guarantee I could pick ten films released last year that fit its description perfectly. Savage.
There's Dungeons & Dragons material, a story told in comic form, fake greeting cards, and more. The other best piece in the book, at least as lacerating as "Ticket Booth," is a look at an eleven-day gig Patton booked in Surrey in 1993. As told, "The Victory Tour" is a nightmare, and it encapsulates everything that is bizarre about the entire notion that people would pay other people to stand in a room and tell them jokes. I believe in stand-up as an art, but that's certainly not the way it's booked or presented in most places, and Patton's seen the business go through several cycles now. He's a survivor, and when people say that a job like his is "easy," they should read this piece and ask themselves if they think there's anything easy about the lifestyle it describes. The greatest comics I've ever seen do what they do for the same reason as most of the great artists I've ever met: they have to. That's what they're wired to do. That's all that they're wired to do. It's not a life I think people choose for glamour or for non-stop reward.
Patton Oswalt has earned his voice with his time on the road, and with his time in the trenches of Hollywood, and I sincerely hope Zombie Spaceship Wasteland turns out to be the first of many books for him, and that one day, that "Also By" page is too crowded for any fake titles to be included.
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland arrives in bookstores today.