Book Review: Patton Oswalt’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

(Originally appeared in The Washington Post, January 28, 2011)

Patton Oswalt, a Sterling, Virginia-raised comedian who toiled for years in Washington area comedy clubs, is one of those rare performers whose material translates to any medium without losing its sharpness – including, for the first time, print. Part memoir, part graphic novel, part collection of humor essays, his “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland” is a little ungainly but extremely likable.

The book will be valuable to anyone who wants to know how to get from here to there. Simply: how to go from being a broke, carless teenage movie usher in the Towncenter strip mall in the 1980s, just an outcast “stuck in the syrup of the suburbs” and surrounded by “paint huffers and skate rats,” to becoming one of the most respected comics working. Oswalt has appeared in more than 25 movies (including playing the lead in 2009’s wonderful “Big Fan”), released numerous albums and toured with a veritable who’s who of today’s top comedic talent, including Zach Galifianakis, David Cross and Todd Barry.

So, how did he do it? It helps to start out, as Oswalt did, as a “dopey faced” kid obsessed with science fiction and post-apocalyptic fantasy board games that allow a player to create highly imaginative, personal worldviews and characters. Read any memoir by a professional comedian or humor writer, and their beginnings begin to blur into a very common theme. It’s no surprise that many spend their childhoods creating and living in fantasy worlds of their own devising—these worlds are the precursors to the imaginary worlds they will eventually create for their stage personas, with themselves again cast in the role of hero or, at the very least, sage.

Oswalt breaks it down into even further geeked-out minutiae. In his opinion, the average teen outcast falls into one of three highly specific categories: those who prefer zombie stories (and feel a “disgust with the slick and false”), those who enjoy spaceship stories (and are content with “their insular, slightly muted lives” because their “deflector shields [are] up”), or those who, like him, tend to gravitate to stories that take place after the apocalypse (and are “confused but fascinated” by the blandness of the world).

For Oswalt, this blandness begins to evaporate with a little help from Monty Python, Richard Pryor and George Carlin – and with the arrival of an even more exciting, possibly treacherous, obsession: “I went to a pool party – the first one I was skinny enough to swim at without my shirt. I made out with a girl, and the curve of her hip and the soft jut of shoulder blades in a bikini forever trumped the imagined sensation of a sword pommel or spell book.”

While Oswalt might have written more about the skills he used to wend his way through the bleak landscape toward success, it is well worth it to join him on his odyssey. That the hero of this tale is a formerly overweight nerd who hails from suburban Virginia makes it only more gratifying – especially for those outcasts dreaming that, one day, they too will be able to bridge the gap between here and there.