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Me Talk Pretty 

In conversation with comedian Patton Oswalt and the original pianist for John Kerry's Electras

Wednesday, Sep 22 2004
It's been a rough couple of weeks, hasn't it? Hurricanes have ravaged Florida, Johnny Ramone has gone to that big CBGB's in the sky, and John Kerry can't seem to capitalize on Dubya's piss-poor record. Personally, I'm in need of some cheering up. And when I need cheering up, in addition to alcohol and Internet porn, I like to turn to the truly wise, truly insightful figures of our society: stand-up comics. Specifically, Patton Oswalt.

Oswalt may be the funniest man alive right now, although I was blissfully unaware of this fact when he opened for David Cross last January at Cobb's Comedy Club. Oswalt stole the show that night from an uninspired Cross -- who is, with his Sub Pop-released albums and Mr. Show tenure, the hippest hipster comedian around at the moment -- and his wildly acerbic, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants set made the case that he's the best jester working in the business today (because, let's face it, Dave Chappelle's star is sinking). While you may recognize him from his recurring roles on The King of Queens and Late Night With Conan O'Brien, Oswalt is at his best when he has a mike in one hand, a glass of red wine in the other, and a captive audience of unsuspecting ears, for which he skewers everything from VH1's Metal Mania to megalomaniacal movie producer Robert Evans. (For a taste of the goods, pick up his recently released comedy CD, Feelin' Kinda Patton.)

As it turns out, Oswalt is something of an amateur music critic himself, and so on the occasion of his upcoming stops in San Francisco, performing at the Independent on Sept. 26 and 27 as part of the "Comedians of Comedy" tour, I thought it might cheer me up to chat with the guy and get his thoughts on a few music-related topics.

Garrett Kamps: So, Patton, what's up with you and your fellow comedians performing in rock clubs instead of traditional comedy venues? Do you guys think you're rock stars or something?

Patton Oswalt: Yeah, all comedians are frustrated rock stars, and all rock stars are unfunny comedians. So what the hell, I'm gonna borrow their venues for a while. Basically, in my opinion, rock stars have access to much smarter fans, or much hungrier fans. 'Cause whenever I do comedy clubs, there's a cover charge and a two-drink minimum, and it just struck me that the 18- to 24-year-olds who I'd really like to be performing for can't afford that, but they can afford to go to a rock venue if I keep the price down. So that was the whole idea.

GK: What do you think the lamest thing about popular music is right now?

PO: I think the lamest thing about popular music right now is the way that -- lemme see if I can put this right -- it's the way that these big corporate bands and big corporate labels are trying to emulate the whole DIY ethos of the early '70s. But they're emulating the DIY ethos with a $5 million budget behind it. As horrible as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera are, there's almost an authenticity to them in that they're bubblegum pop stars. But someone like Avril Lavigne is so much more evil to me, because she's trying to come off like she's punk, and doesn't give a fuck about the record industry, when she could not care more if she tried. She is the most calculated, buffed and scrubbed, studio-controlled entity that I've ever seen. And it's also washed over into rock: There are all these bands like Good Charlotte, they're all these whiny, my-dad-didn't-hug-me bands. My friend calls it "my feelings metal." That's the kind of thing they're doing, and they could not be more [like] studio creations.

GK: What musical act's sheer existence has been the greatest gift to stand-up comedians?

PO: I think it's the ongoing circus with Michael Jackson. And the greatest gift is, he's still a very young man. We have decades of this stuff. He's not going to get any better. He's not going to work out whatever demons are in his head, so it's just going to get worse. And he has funds and resources to make it worse, and keep it going, and it's going to be fantastic.

GK: Can you think of a runner-up?

PO: In the past couple of years, it's a combination of Courtney Love and Madonna, just the desperate, what-can-I-do-to-stay-in-front-of-the-camera-at-any-cost. It just proves my thesis about people.

GK: What's that?

PO: Just how innately corrupt human beings are, but in a really beautiful way. Like, if they're dangled money or fame or the prospect of sex, you're going to get wonderful, creative, fucked-up behavior out of them. And you get the most fucked-up behavior when you give them fame, then you dangle the possibility of the fame going away. Then you get amazing shit.

GK: So do you watch MTV to get material on this stuff?

PO: I don't watch it. I've been watching Country Music Television, 'cause their videos are fucking insane. They've completely lapped rock and rap in the insane video category. It is awesome. It's just so visually garish and goofy -- it's really fun. It's what rock 'n' roll videos used to be back in the early '80s, when it was this instant art form and they didn't really understand imagery, so it's just fucking crazy. ... It's much edgier these days. Like, if you see a video today by System of the Down and they're going, "Smash the state" -- it's actually more startling to watch a country music video where they're going, "I want the state to smash you." It's so great. It's so ballsy just to say that.

Speaking of the state and whether it'll be smashing you in the next few months and years, John Kerry, and specifically his former band the Electras, re-entered my life last week. As you may or may not remember, six weeks ago I ran a satirical story about the Electras, a Behind the Music- esque "oral history" of the band that included phony quotes like this one:

John Kerry: '62 was when things really went south. The reefer, the sex. Shit, one night [guitarist Jon] Prouty and I nailed half the glee club and the entire front line of the St. Paul's field hockey team. We were getting away from what really mattered -- the music, you know?

Obviously a joke, right? So you can imagine my surprise when I received this e-mail from "Ragtime" Jack Radcliffe, pianist for the Electras: "You have a number of your facts wrong in your story about my band and the reissue. ... And I have no idea where the 'quotes' came from, but they are not even close. Please call me or e-mail me for an opportunity to set the record straight. The real story is actually even better than what you printed."

Oh, goody.

Garrett Kamps: So Jack, let's set the record straight.

Jack Radcliffe: That would be good, no pun intended I hope. [GK: Huh?]

GK: I got your e-mail and I couldn't tell if you were mad or what?

JR: No, just being an editor [Radcliffe works for the Enterprise newspaper in Brockton, Mass.].

GK: Well the piece was a satire.

JR: Yeah, I get that.

GK: But you did mention that the real story was better. What is the true story of the Electras?

[Radcliffe goes on to explain that, contrary to what was indicated in my original column -- that the reason there have been two separate reissues of the Electras' only recording is the Democratic and Republican factions of the band couldn't reconcile their politics -- the reality is that Radcliffe simply didn't approve of the other band members' business proposal. Or something.]

GK: Well, let's talk about being in the band. What was that actually like?

JR: It was weird fun. And when I say weird fun, I mean -- OK, get the time, flashback, it's 1961, '62, we're at an all-boys Episcopal prep school. We are all, pretty much the guys in this band, with the exception of Rand, Larry Rand, the guitar player, pretty much the black sheep of our families. We were there because our parents could no longer deal with us. They figured, "We'll put 'em out in the woods of New Hampshire with no cars, no girls, and no drugs." And so our mission was to find cars, girls, and drugs. [GK: Oddly enough, this is consistent with what I wrote in the fake Electras piece.] ... They had these dances, they weren't regular dances, they were afternoon tea dances. And busloads of girls -- God help us -- from girls' schools would show up, and it was like a cattle call. And of course, we were the band, so we were hipper than shit.

Finally, we get the breakaway gigs, where we actually get to go -- get this -- on the road. And so during long weekends, Spring Break, and during summer, we played some private parties. And we got a little more interesting. There was actually some ... [whispers] alcohol, and I think there was some heavy petting, or at least light petting, with members of the opposite sex. And that was what it was really all about.

GK: So did you ever have girls throw their skirts up on the stage?

JR: Uh, no. But we did have -- you ready? -- at the Chapin School, in New York, a very posh school in Manhattan, several girls took their shoes off and danced in stockinged feet. I kid you not. We saw stocking and calf. [Laughs]

GK: So what was the single wildest moment in the life of the Electras?

JR: I think that after the Chapin School party, when we all went up to a friend's apartment on Park Avenue and proceeded to get obliterated by alcohol. And I think a couple of us actually found front-clasp bras and actually figured out how to open them.

GK: So what did lead to the dissolution of the Electras? [My oral history had indicated rehab.]

JR: The normal attrition process known as graduation.

GK: Do you have any advice for what Kerry could do differently to improve his chances of winning this election?

JR: Yeah, put the band back together. Put the band back together and appear on Jimmy Kimmel. Fuck 'em. Show 'em you still got some stuff.

On the one-in-a-million chance that John Kerry is actually reading this, let it be known that I second that notion.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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