Patton Oswalt is OK with making you squirm. After all, the actor and comic once performed a number called “The Cringe” on an episode of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” a title that could describe his approach to cracking people up.
“Real comedy comes from those moments,” Oswalt says. “I fully ascribe to Tracy Morgan’s maxim that ‘Cool is the enemy of funny.’ Cringe and awkwardness are real humanity, and that’s where the real funny stuff comes from.”
A comic’s comic adored by peers and audiences for wry, observational humor that often comes at his own expense, he’s also proven to be a skilled dramatic actor, recently playing Nixon’s hatchet man Charles Colson in the limited series “Gaslit.”
But his new film, “I Love My Dad,” ups the ante in discomfort while offering Oswalt a showcase role that is alternately hilarious and tragic. The film was written and directed by James Morosini, and loosely based on his own true story. Morosini also stars as Franklin, a young man who cuts his father, Chuck (Oswalt), out of his life. Desperate to reconnect, Chuck creates a fake Facebook profile based on a young woman he knows — and ends up catfishing his son.
The film, which won the audience and grand jury awards at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, defies simple explanation, which was a positive in Oswalt’s book. “It’s a genuinely rich, complicated story,” he says. “And any movie that defies easy categorization, I’m rooting for.”
Morosini has nothing but praise for his leading man. “He has a natural ability to balance the light and the dark,” says the filmmaker. “He can bring levity to impossibly dark subjects. He’s also just a lovable and sympathetic presence, and I knew I would need help making the audience care about Chuck.”
Though the character is an absentee father who employs deception, Oswalt sympathizes with Chuck. “He’s that guy — and I’m guilty of this at times — who thinks, ‘But I want to be good. Isn’t that enough?’” Oswalt says. “But you don’t get credit for wanting to do the right thing; you get it for the fucking follow-through.” Likability wasn’t that important to the actor: “I don’t have a problem with difficult or repellent characters. I just have a problem with stories badly told, and this one wasn’t.”
Even though he’s shown his range in darker films such as “Big Fan” and Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult,” audiences are still likely to be surprised by the depth of the actor’s performance in “I Love My Dad.” It’s even more impressive considering acting wasn’t part of his plan. When Oswalt was doing stand-up, people would ask him to come in for auditions. But he was a natural. He had an early role as a video store clerk on “Seinfeld” dealing with George and was later told by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld they cast him because of an unconscious bit he did where he was looking around for another employee to pass the customer off to. “I didn’t even realize I did it, but it came from my retail days,” Oswalt says.
His first HBO special led to him being cast on “King of Queens,” which is when he realized he needed to take things more seriously. “Being around genuinely brilliant actors like Kevin James, Leah Remini and Jerry Stiller, you see what makes them geniuses,” he says. “And you see them put in the work. They would spend so much time working on those scenes and I realized I needed to start doing that.” Oswalt began working with acting coach Nancy Banks for “Young Adult,” who he still sees for certain projects.
In addition to “I Love My Dad,” which hits theaters Aug. 5 and VOD Aug. 12, Oswalt has a busy year ahead. He will lend his recognizable voice to Matthew the Raven in the upcoming Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” and is teaming up with “MODOK” co-creator Jordan Blum on “Minor Threats,” a Dark Horse comic about lesser supervillains. The first issue appears Aug. 24.
Oswalt’s latest special, “We All Scream,” which he also directed, arrives on Netflix Sept. 20. He says he will touch on recent topics such as the pandemic or “cancel culture,” “but one thing that’s different about it is that I’m being defiantly goofy and silly about it.”
Oswalt has apologized for remarks he made in the past, and has publicly reversed his prior defense of comedians who make rape jokes. “I’ve never understood the false alpha male view of like, ‘Men never apologize!’” he says. “Yes, you fucking do. Because everybody fucks up. I’ve done jokes where I use the R-word. Or I used the N-word ironically to make fun of racism. But I didn’t realize I was laying out a blueprint for a lot of actual fucking racists, so it’s OK to go: I fucked that up. I didn’t know what I was doing. Or I didn’t know any better. And now I know.”
He adds that some people use the term “canceled” to make themselves “seem more dangerous than they are.” He adds, “It’s like they way people used to say, ‘Strap in folks, this is gonna get dark.’ No. If you have to tell people you’re edgy and dangerous, you’re not. You should just go up there and do fucking jokes.”