I could not have been more thrilled to see Patton Oswalt win his first Emmy this past Sunday. And I couldn’t help but think back to a scene from his memoir, Silver Screen Fiend. It’s Patton’s second day in San Francisco, and he’s ready to take the comedy world by storm. I’ll let him take it from here.
From Silver Screen Fiend, by Patton Oswalt
By the summer of 1992 I’d been doing comedy four years and was jock-confident about my skills and progress. That first night at Garvin’s? One laugh? Well, those days were long behind me. I was starting to feature—and in some cases, headline—at some of the finest comedy clubs on the East Coast and in the eastern Midwest. Sir Laffsa-Lot; the Shaft in Norton, Virginia; and Slapstix (the “x” meant “brace yourself for ‘x’-citement!”). I had surefire bits about tampon commercials, movie theater popcorn, farts, superheroes farting and shooting things out of their ass, and masturbating. And farting. Four years into my career and I was pulling in a hefty $7,000 a year—and these were 1992 dollars! Yeah, I’d moved back in with my parents after a year in Baltimore, but that’s only because I wanted to save money for my big move to the West Coast. Once I made it to the shores of the Pacific, my surefire brand of chuckle-making would rocket me straight onto an HBO special. A sitcom would follow. How could it not? Patton Pending? Generally Patton? Oswalt My Gum?
That’s the attitude I had on Wednesday, May 6, 1992, when I first entered the Holy City Zoo in San Francisco. I’d moved there the day before. My wheezing Volkswagen Jetta had dropped its water pump onto a mountain road outside Truckee, California. All of the money I’d saved by moving back in with my parents went toward getting it fixed. I was moths-in-pockets broke, sharing an apartment with two other comedians. My room was the living room. My bed was a futon on the floor. One of my roommates, Carlos Alazraqui, was destined to be the voice of the Taco Bell Chihuahua. I was destined to go onstage at the legendary Holy City Zoo, my second night in San Francisco, and announce myself as the new gunslinger in town. Hadn’t I done my time in the countryside, training like a duelist, quickening my draw and honing my aim until all enemies fell when I slapped leather and fanned the hammer?
Oh, the cheap, cinematic victory I replayed over and over in my head as I walked down Clement Street that night, notebook under my arm.
I was dressed for battle, too. I learned, from my four years walking the giggle-shack latitudes, how to dress. Sport coat, ripped jeans and sneakers. Years ago, in Philadelphia, a comedy club owner told me, when I dared to go onstage wearing a Flaming Carrot Comics T-shirt, not to “ever wear anything that can distract from your jokes.” Sage advice from a man who always slayed with the exact same twelve minutes the entire four years I knew him. I streamlined my act along the same lines, as well as my wardrobe. Now, tonight, for my crushing debut, I had a blue polka-dot shirt from Eddie Bauer; a bolo tie with a muted, abstract, brick-red scorpion as a clasp; and silver aglets. My jeans only had a few tears in them, and I wore black Chuck Taylors. I mean, how could anyone who even glanced at me not recognize this avatar of awesomeness they shared the planet with?
When you walked into the Holy City Zoo, you passed through two swinging doors into a room that had “vertical” and “narrow” to spare. “Wide” and “spacious”—not so much. A tiny bar to your left, a postage-stamp stage immediately beyond it. Seating for an audience of fifty, if it was packed. And, as if put there as a prank, an opera-style pair of elevated box seats to stage left. They held two people. Anyone who sat there drew more focus than anyone who was onstage.
The Holy City Zoo did comedy every single night of the week. Not just the Tuesday-maybe-Wednesday open mikes, with booked, professional Friday and Saturday shows like the clubs I worked, first in DC and then up and down the East Coast. Every single night, there was something at the Zoo. Open mikes Mondays and Tuesdays and, like tonight, sometimes Wednesdays. Other times Wednesdays were taken up by sketch or improv groups or . . . something. Friday and Saturday, sometimes Sunday—the pros, making money, drawing crowds of fifty. I was sure I’d be headlining those nights before 1992 was over.
Hey—it was looking pretty crowded. Lot of people there. They looked like civilians, too. Not comedians. Jeans, T-shirts. Maybe a button-up shirt over the T-shirt. They were probably waiting to get drinks before they sat down. I couldn’t wait to rock their worlds. Hadn’t I done that already, to sold-out crowds at Charlie Goodnight’s in Raleigh, North Carolina? I mean, the show was sold out because I was opening for Bill Hicks, sure, but I proved I belonged up there, killing it with my no-fail closing bit about the Cookie Monster if he were gay. Hadn’t Bill been gracious and polite to me, even speaking to me once between shows? He recognized a future great when he saw one, sure. No way was he trying to fill the awkward silence as I stared at him over my free-for-comedians soda, wondering how he slaughtered using a third of the energy I was so desperately putting out.
None of the crowd at the Holy City Zoo was taking their seats. Oh, wait. Well, those three people did. A young couple and a strange-looking older man with a bag of peanut M&M’s that he ate, robotically, while staring off into space. Hopefully, more people would sit down before the show started. I found the sign-up sheet so I could add my name— Oh, hold on. There were already seventeen names before mine. Where were all the comedians? Were you supposed to come in early? Did they sign up hours ago and then go to get dinner or something? Why didn’t anyone tell me?
I added my name to the list and found a place at the bar where I could lean and check my notes and watch the show. The bar was crowded and most of the audience still hadn’t taken a seat.
It took me a moment to realize that almost all of them were taking out notebooks, jotting down jokes, getting ready.
These were the comedians.