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Festival of Books: Patton Oswalt reads from 'Wasteland' and zings goth girls attacked by bee

May 1, 2011 |  1:21 pm

Comedian, actor and author Patton Oswalt was the first author to take the Los Angeles Times stage at the Festival of Books on Sunday morning, his 15-minute tardiness for the 11 a.m. start time explained away (by the two women sitting behind me) as "he was probably partying with zombies last night."

The reference was to Oswalt's book "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland," in which he explains his Gen X teenage world view that divides the world into three types of people: the Zombies, the Spaceships and the Wastelands. It's something that takes a little explaining, which he does to hilarious affect on the printed page, but it's not the kind of thing that lends itself to the zingy delivery of a live audience sitting in the hot sun.

So, instead of tackling the title, Oswalt began with two short readings, the first from a chapter in which he riffs on ridiculous descriptions of wines, including: an "Obscura Chenin Blanc, $14: A finger tracing a friend's demise in a pile of spilled sugar on a mahogany table. Cherries. Black pepper winking at a werewolf who just took the wrong contract. An idea hiding in a shoe. The swordsman! A winter morning! No percentage in kittens."

The second reading was from a chapter about meaningless gifts from his Grandmother Runfola, "all of which I actually received" he assured the audience.

The list included "the cassette case for AC/DC's 'For Those About to Rock' with a 'Best of Steppenwolf' cassette inside of it" (for his 11th birthday) and "a lantern shaped like an owl" (for his 25th birthday).

But as a skilled stand-up comedian (the travails of which he details in the book as well), it was the humor beyond the printed page that made the session most memorable. In a Q&A after his reading, he gave advice to an aspiring comedian ("put your jokes on Twitter") and shared the oddest thing a fan had ever done ("A woman gave me this abstract painting that was still wet, and when I said thank you, she said: 'Well, thank you, person I DON'T EVEN KNOW.' ").

Then there was his response to a kerfuffle in the front row shortly after he took the stage. When two tattooed young women in black dresses scrambled out of their chairs, Oswalt responded as if they were comedy club patrons leaving a set. "Oh, go ahead, run from the truth." Then he noticed they were fleeing a bee and he started laughing.

"Two goth girls running from a bee? You should let it stab you with its stinger and drink in the delicious pain," he began. "That's what the Vampire Lestat would do. Did the lead singer of Joy Division hang himself for nothing?"

The crowd convulsed with laughter, the goth girls sat back down and the errant bee flitted off, unaware that it had helped showcase the author's A-plus in comedic timing.

-- Adam Tschorn

Photo: Patton Oswalt, comedian and author of "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland" at the Festival of Books. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times