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Patton Oswalt says comics have a social responsibility: We can’t just ‘talk about dating or airline food anymore’

Patton Oswalt talks about comedy with Washington Post writer Elahe Izadi during a Washington Post Live event.
Patton Oswalt talks about comedy with Washington Post writer Elahe Izadi during a Washington Post Live event. (Kristoffer Tripplaar/for The Washington Post)

With unparalleled scrutiny, a punishing trend of “no apologies” and audiences who’ve grown up in echo chambers, it’s a tough moment to be in comedy. But according to Emmy- and ­Grammy-winning comedian Patton Oswalt, these factors are part of what make comedy today so crucial.

“I think we have a social responsibility whether we want it or not,” Oswalt said. “We can’t just get onstage and talk about dating or airline food anymore.”

Oswalt spoke with Washington Post pop culture reporter Elahe Izadi on Tuesday about the evolution of free speech in comedy as part of “Free to State: The Future of the First Amendment,” a Washington Post Live event series produced in partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that explores issues surrounding free speech in the United States.

Oswalt, 49, has long been a proponent of comedy in service of advocacy and activism. Comedy is meant to be a means of interrogating the times in which we live and the values we hold, Oswalt has often argued, pointing to the work of comedians such as Richard Pryor and George Carlin, known for provocative, socially minded material. But today’s landscape leaves so little room for truly progressive comedy, especially when both sides are out for blood rather than genuine dialogue, Oswalt said.

Izadi pointed to comedians such as Samantha Bee, Michelle Wolff and Roseanne Barr, who have recently made headlines for making politically related comments which have been deemed incendiary by one side, and valid commentary by the other. Comedians have freedom of speech, Izadi said, quoting comedian Chris Rock, but not freedom from consequence.

“It’s scalp-hunting for either side of the political spectrum,” Oswalt said. “It shows how degraded the discourse has become.”

It’s a function of the tribalism and bipartisanship that shapes people’s lives, Oswalt said, that go fundamentally against the nature of comedy. It’s supposed to be challenging, but challenging material is suddenly unpalatable to so many people who aren’t used to hearing perspectives or problems outside their own. Comedy isn’t meant to be catered to the audience, Oswalt said; it’s catered to the comedian.

The polarizing political landscape has also birthed a tendency to stick by problematic statements instead of just admitting a mistake, Oswalt said. Comedy is supposed to be expressive and organic, and sometimes it can stray into dangerous territory. But not allowing comedians to step back and say “I’m sorry” leaves no room for growth and just breeds more binary conversation, Oswalt said.

“Why is it now we’re in this weird, fake-proud, no-apology culture where somehow you’re weak if you say, ‘I got that wrong,’” Oswalt said. “Saying that you won’t apologize is like saying, ‘I have no more need to evolve or learn.’ ”

This unforgiving culture is stifling, Oswalt said. Comedians are supposed to flirt with the boundaries of what’s acceptable, but it’s tough to do that when it feels like a single mistake can ruin a career. The audience has to rise, to be more open to the content, so comedians can be freer to use comedy as a tool for progress. The line for what’s acceptable is always moving, Oswalt said, but ideally, if comedians are doing their jobs, that shouldn’t matter.

“If you’ve found a good approach for it, then there is no line,” Oswalt said.