Being a nerd used to mean something, Patton Oswalt proclaims in the opening sentence of his lauded Wired essay, “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die.” Being a nerd used to take patience and sacrifice. Patience because issues of Watchmen were few and far between, and the time between a science fiction movie’s theater run and its release on video was completely void of illegal viewing options. Sacrifice because, firstly, true nerds were collectors, which is expensive, and secondly, you probably weren’t popular.
These days, if you’re into Watchmen, searching for “Alan Moore interview” on YouTube brings up 379 results. You don’t have to memorize the names and call signs of all the pilots on Battlestar Galactica, you can Google it. I just did.
Oswalt deems this new era of nerd culture Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever. Nothing is collectible or hard to find, there are no personal obsessions that someone else isn’t already blogging about. The nerds of the 80s and 90s aren’t even nerds anymore. Joss Whedon and Judd Apatow are household names. Patton Oswalt has 243,000 followers on Twitter.
In his book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Oswalt looks at life as a nerd, before and after Dungeons & Dragons came out of the basement. The result is both and elegy for an underground world, and an examination of how, as an exile of that world, he functions in the modern day.
Falling into the Patton Oswalt Didn’t Fit In In The Past category, (Patton Oswalt Doesn’t Fit In In The Present will follow shortly), the book’s first essay is about the underground movie theater where Oswalt worked as a teenager in northern Virginia. In this instance, underground merely means below street level. As he describes it, “you descended three flights of stairs into a murky, fluorescent-lit lobby…Then, once you bought snacks and drinks, you descended another flight of stairs to an even dimmer, grimmer lobby where you’d choose one of three theaters. It was a theater designed like an artless logic problem—which door leads to freedom, which to death, and which to Adventures in Babysitting.”
Oswalt and his coworkers were a truly bizarre band of cinema personnel. The assistant manager lived in one of the theater’s closets, where he hid weaponry. The manager wanted to be a cowboy. When not reading Orson Scott Card at the ticket booth, Oswalt would engage with his coworkers in casual harassment of each other and after-hours drinking. As he points out, while he was doing so the hardcore punk scene was exploding a few miles away in Washington, D.C.
That, the implication goes, would have been a cooler place to be. But no one chooses their own origin story, and if he’d been in a club getting sweat on by Fugazi, he never would have spent all those nights listening to R.E.M. and reading William Gibson, which gave him the sense of pride that comes from finding something you love and keeping it to yourself. When being a nerd meant something, Patton Oswalt was a nerd.
Which is why it’s not surprising that, once his hobbies went mainstream – as he writes in Wired, “Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells. The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s.” – he darted back into the shadows.
The basically chronological essays move from his pudgy, sexless youth to his years as a stand-up comic on the road. Stand-up comedy is a thankless profession for those who aspire to be good at it, Oswalt explains, because comics who are bad at it are so frequently popular. He cites Louis C.K. and Bill Hicks as role models, but was forced to open for three types of comedians whom he calls Blazer, “Wild” Willy, and Topical Tommy, whose names I hardly need expound upon.
But great comedians were out there, he says, “And knowing they were hidden in strip malls made me feel like I was a member of one of the last mystery cults on Earth.” It’s nice to hear this – that he found another hidden fraternity.
Which brings us to the Patton Oswalt Doesn’t Fit In In the Present portion of the book. What this portion lacks in poignancy, it makes up for in being outrageously funny. It lacks the hazy poignancy of the first half of the book because, yes, while those years on the road were excruciating, they eventually landed him on The King of Queens and Ratatouille, and got him an invitation to an MTV gifting suite where the free Adidas made him feel shallow (the poor guy!).
At this point in the book, though, you’re happy for how well he’s doing, because his writing shows him to be such an endearing, brilliant, funny guy. All essay collections are hit or miss. Oswalt hits well and misses infrequently. His skewering of 90s comedy is spot on and, like a true stand-up, he can make almost anything funny. He lovingly describes his former Dungeons & Dragons avatar, then writes him an epic poem. There is a comic strip in which two vampires bicker over who has more vamp cred. His description of hotel amenities, in particular, got me: “I make a pot of coffee with the little coffeemaker that’s in the room. Now the room smells like a hot, wet hat. The coffee tastes like pants.”
The title essay is a classification of the three main elements of science fiction, and therefore the three kinds of science fiction fans. Zombies simplify, Spaceships leave, Wastelands destroy.
Oswalt counts himself as a Wasteland. “What is stand-up comedy except isolating specific parts of culture or humanity and holding them up against a stark, vast background to approach at an oblique angle and get laughs? Or, in a broader sense, pointing out how so much of what we perceive as culture and society is disposable waste?”
I agree to an extent, but I’d color him a Spaceship. Pop culture’s embrace of old school nerds has obviously been good to him – with the Comedy Central specials and working next to Jerry Stiller – but I get the feeling every once in a while he’d like to fly back to visit rural Virginia in the 80s and re-read Ender’s Game.