SF Sketchfest Review: A Tribute to Patton Oswalt: In Conversation with Boots Riley at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 1/16/16

by Jonathan Pirro on January 22, 2016

Boots Riley and Patton Oswalt (photo by Steve Agee)

Boots Riley and Patton Oswalt (photo by Steve Agee)

Patton Oswalt, comedian and actor extraordinaire, isn’t sure why he’s getting a “tribute” from SF Sketchfest. Sure, he’s been touring the comedy circuit since ’88, has amassed millions of fans, exudes a remarkably conscious presence on social media, and generally is utterly recognizable in voice, manner, and his own creative palate — but is that really the sort of thing to have a “tribute” for? This, more or less, was the way he asked the question that kicked off the afternoon show, which saw Oswalt discussing his history, perception of comedy in decades gone by and in the modern age, and the vastly-deepening social awareness that exists to meld the worlds of comedy and reality together in (hopefully) wonderful ways. Despite the fact that the tribute was for him, and Boots Riley — the frontman of Oakland’s own hip-hop masterminds The Coup — was the one he was “in conversation” with, Oswalt was the first onstage, and introduced both the show and his guest, and remained the driving force for the conversation for the rest of the afternoon.

Though definitely being lighter of step and calmer of manner than Oswalt, Riley was nonetheless a well-spoken interviewer, who prompted Oswalt with intriguing questions about his personality, comedic methods, and onstage presence; these ranged from the use of self-deprecation in comedy “when you know you’re the shit”, to ways to trust your crowd and fans, and even touched on Oswalt’s passionate stance on the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Oswalt noted that a sense of awareness and a connection to the mundane — keeping grounded, in other words — is important, and keeps one’s pursuits, or worse, self-perception, from getting too lofty and unwieldy, hence the common use of self-deprecation in his performances; he also noted that art, in general, is best if a sense of risk and danger is applied, and compartmentalizing of people, stories, and artistic endeavors in general can stagnate the waters of creativity. This tied into his views on The Force Awakens, which he hailed as a return to form (or, as he put it, “your buddies from the 70s who bought a lot of hookers and cocaine” suddenly rediscovering themselves with the help of “some crazy Jewish dude with incredible pot”), and a great example of how the movies of decades past weren’t afraid to stuff sociopolitical agendas into their stories. Oswalt lamented that such things are much harder to get past the censors in today’s media, though he was impressed by the iPhone-shot indie film Tangerine and praised it for being willing to be risky in a world where cinema’s consciousness has dwindled over many years’ time.

Unlike a lot of interview-type shows that happen at Sketchfest, the majority of this afternoon was spent in the Q&A portion, with audience members providing questions to both Oswalt and Riley on all manner of topics. Both were eager to respond to their inquirers, in some cases engaging them in conversation rather than just accepting their questions and taking off in a long-winded response. Oswalt was mostly addressed with questions about where to look for new standup acts, and what really can drive a positive response to a comedian, as well as opinions about social media’s influence on comedy and connectivity between stars and their audiences. He replied at length about the constantly-burgeoning scene that has always existed in free (rather than paid) comedy clubs, and the new virtuosos that will always be coming from there; the sign of an excellent comedian, he continued, will be a comedian that trusts their crowd enough to be able to tell a joke and get away with it — a joke that would get other comics booed offstage.

Social media, a topic which both Riley and Oswalt addressed, was definitely the largest topic of discussion apart from comedy. Oswalt admitted to having a remarkable dearth of knowledge on certain topics — #BlackLivesMatter and other protests among them — and how in such situations he would always defer to someone like Riley, who was much more wise and involved on the subjects in question, to be the best source of information there, although he recognized his influence for what it should be used for: a platform to repeat, verbatim, the voices that may not be heard as clearly as his own. Riley noted how Oswalt’s work in being socially conscious and politically aware has gotten him in hot water from fans, and Oswalt acknowledged this, noting that to be a double-edged sword of the newfound connectivity offered by social media, though in the end, it was still worth it to be more aware of goings-on in the world. Oswalt also reminisced on a few truly great moments in his career that were either obscure or lost to the void of executive decisions, the former including a screen test of Remy (the lead rat of Pixar’s Ratatouille) set to his infamous rant about the Black Angus Steakhouse, and the latter highlighted by a joke about a eulogy, wherein the speaker was consistently bemoaning the deceased owing him $15 — a joke which was killed when the studio executive didn’t understand why the amount of money was so low.

Hearing Patton Oswalt and Boots Riley discuss their artistic lives and their own growing understanding of the creative world around them was a delightful experience. While Oswalt doesn’t truly play a character onstage during his comic performances, this show truly helped to remove the fourth wall between the comedic icon and his audience’s understanding of the inner workings within his mind, and Riley’s candid conversations about art, experience and the messages therein definitely added to his own appeal, particularly with Oswalt’s fans who were previously unaware of Riley’s work (in The Coup or otherwise). We’ll be waiting in great anticipation of work from both artists — a new album from Riley, and a movie directed by Oswalt — and, thanks to their suggestions, will be keeping our ears to the ground to find new, dazzling talent, hopefully in the most unlikely of places.

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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