If comedy is tragedy plus time, then New Yorkers might be ready to joke about Hurricane Sandy. Even if they’re not, chances are that the storm will be a hot topic at the New York Comedy Festival — a star-studded event that kicks off tonight with shows featuring Ricky Gervais and Key & Peele — concludes Sunday with a conversation between Robin Williams and David Steinberg. The Oscar winner and the prolific TV director will reportedly discuss “nothing that important.”
The fest’s headliners read like a who’s who of standup — the list includes Artie Lang, Aziz Ansari, Rob Delaney, Bill Maher, Kevin Hart, and Patton Oswalt, who might just be the hardest working man in showbusiness. Perhaps best known for voicing Remy the rat in Pixar’s Ratatouille, the prolific Oswalt has produced three comedy albums, a variety of EPs, a smattering of comic books, and a memoir called Zombie Spaceship Wasteland over the past five years. He’s also appeared onscreen in everything from broad, popular sitcoms like Two and a Half Men to awards bait chamber pieces like 2011’s Young Adult. But the comedian’s true love is standup comedy — Oswalt has said before that his work in TV and movies is just “extra-curricular” stuff done to support his career onstage.
Before the festival’s first show, we spoke with Oswalt about his comedy, Sandy’s aftermath, and the right way to find humor in a natural disaster — but only briefly, since he had at least eight more things to accomplish that day.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I heard that you’re donating half the proceeds from your show on Friday to the Red Cross.
PATTON OSWALT: Yeah. Actually, I figured if I waited until next Friday to make the donation, it’s probably not going to do as much good as if I did it today. [This interview was conducted Nov. 2.] So today, the check went out to the Red Cross in New York. I’ll just collect my fee next Friday, but I’ve already paid out half of it. I was asking some friends about what to do, and they’re like, “The thing they most need is just money. Don’t ship them food and stuff, give them the money so they can get it right to the people that need it.” A lot of my friends — their phones weren’t working. It was hard to get in touch and talk to them, but just from checking it out online, it seems pretty bad.
Are you worried at all that it’s too soon to joke about the hurricane?
No, not for New York. Especially if you find the right angle for it, the right way to approach it — there’s no such thing as too soon. There’s only too clumsy, or too unfunny. If anything, I think people will want a little relief from this.
So what’s the right way to approach hurricane humor?
I don’t know — I’ll figure it out when I’m onstage, I hope. It just depends on the people that you’re talking to, and just being in the moment about it.
The New York Comedy Festival features performances from some of the biggest names in standup, including Ricky Gervais, Rob Delaney, and Robin Williams. When you’re doing an event like this, do you feel like there’s any extra pressure to really kill it?
No; each show is its own thing. They’re not giving out a prize at the end of the festival as to who gave the best set, so why would you put that on yourself?
You must at least be excited about checking out the rest of the fest while you’re in town.
Unfortunately, my schedule is such that I get in the day before my show, and then I leave the next morning. I’m working up until I leave, so I don’t get to see anything this year. I just do my shows and I go home.
Are the audiences at events like this different than those in smaller venues, or at independent shows?
Every audience is different, even within the same venue. You have to just make every audience your audience; you can’t pre-judge an audience based on the size of the room or the type of room. You’ve just got to be in the moment and go with it. I’m always trying out new stuff onstage. That’s where I do all my writing.
Yeah, your schedule seems crazy. You’ve also got a guest spot on Justified coming up. Graham Yost invited you on after hearing that you’re a fan. Are there any other shows you’re a fan of that you’d like to guest on?
Key and Peele. I’d be on that in a second. I’d be on Breaking Bad, Homeland, The Good Wife, Parks and Recreation—there’s so many great shows. TV is so much better than movies these days.
The New York Comedy Festival runs today through Sunday; check their website for a full list of shows and events.