One of the central tenets of “Wits,” American Public Media’s flourishing variety show hosted by John Moe, is the power of improvisation. Guests indulge Moe by participating in a number of different games and scenarios, and the lighthearted, jocular event moves pleasantly along, riding on the coattails of the guests’ openness, humor and intelligence (just as you might expect from a show called “Wits”). So when dialing up Patton Oswalt, who will return as a guest on the show next Friday at the Fitzgerald Theater, one could expect a fun, open conversation with the comedian who voiced the well-intentioned chef/rat in Disney’s sweet animated flick “Ratatouille.” The reality was something more like pulling teeth.
Patton, what was your experience like the last time you were on “Wits”?
“It was fun,” he said. “It is on YouTube. You can watch it. You can watch it and describe it from there.”
OK. Not a great start.
Well, what do you do to prepare for “Wits”?
“Nothing,” he said shortly. “I talk to John for a little bit, and then I come out and kind of wing it.”
Great. What about your background helps you excel at this kind of show?
“I don’t know. There are some elements to standup that are improv,” he said, halting.
Oswalt, 44, went on to add that he didn’t have any formal training or anything like that, but he was certainly experienced in the ways of being onstage. Which, uh, helps.
John Moe, on the other hand, had a lot to say.
“Wits” is now on its third year, and its first as a nationally syndicated radio show, so Moe has had time to get used to its quick pace. Between talking about his experiences working “Wits” full-time (just a year ago, he was splitting hours between this and APM’s “Marketplace Tech Report”) and philosophizing about the role of creative work, he also expounded a bit on Oswalt.
“What we look for [in guests] is friendly geniuses,” said Moe, chuckling. “Obviously, they need to be pretty well-known in order to keep up the value and star power of the show, and then we look for people whose work we really admire, or find captivating to us. And then we make sure those people are nice people. Because the show really wouldn’t work if you were a diva, or a grouch.”
Oswalt, by all accounts outside of this interview, fits Moe’s description. He is not just a standup, but he’s a writer, an actor and a voice talent, as well as what’s often broadly coined “a personality.” He’s the quintessential comic’s comic. He’s also starred on “The King of Queens,” accumulated more than 1.2 million Twitter followers and has written comic books. Most recently, he wrote a passionate note on Facebook in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing — a note that went viral.
“I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths,” he wrote. “But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet.”
It was an encouraging message that struck a chord of positivity with people in a vulnerable moment, so they shared it. People connected with what he had to say — the product of a whip-smart mind that’s accustomed to delivering digestible insights to huge audiences.
Part of Oswalt’s mass appeal is that he’s a guy working in myriad media, doing interesting stuff and not really caring about what his next project looks like — or who likes it — as long as it’s cool to him. He’s the type of guy who collaborates on an A.V. Club video one moment and sleeps with Charlize Theron the next (in a movie, the darkly fun “Young Adult,” worth watching if only to spot a few Minneapolis landmarks).
“I just want to do whatever’s good,” Oswalt said. “That could be anything. It’s not that I’m looking for serious roles, or comedic roles, or anything like that. I just want to work with really creative people who are trying to do amazing stuff.”
And that means he doesn’t care about the budget of the project, either. When he says that, you believe him. Oswalt’s résumé runs the gamut from big time to, well, a little bit more DIY.
In addition to Oswalt’s better-known, more commercial roles, he’s known as something of a nerd. The first time Oswalt appeared on “Wits,” Moe played up Oswalt’s nerdiness, parodying one of the geek world’s more fanatical pastimes in a segment called “Dungeons and Pattons.” Part of the allure of nerd-dom is that you are, by definition, a little different, but there’s an alienating aspect to that, as well. So when Oswalt was asked whether being misunderstood was something that motivated him, the idea seemed to resonate.
“That’s what being artistic is about,” he said. “It’s like you’re trying to get your point of view across, and trying to get people to see with your eyes.”
That seems to be Oswalt’s sweet spot: taking a subject and its built-in audience, and getting everyone to see his point of view, his Patton-ness — even if it means being a bit feisty in the process. This is all you can ask for in a performer — someone to take material on any topic and turn out something memorable.
And if that doesn’t happen next Friday on “Wits,” maybe Oswalt will whip out his spot-on imitation of a bookish public radio announcer, as he did in 2011. You can watch it on YouTube.
With: Comedian Patton Oswalt and musical guest Ben Lee.
When: 8 p.m. May 3.
Where: Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul.
Tickets: Sold out.
Listen: 8 p.m. May 11 on 91.1 MPR; 9 p.m. May 12 on the Current.