Standup comedy is a hard road, which probably explains why so many comedians, faced with a life of low-paying gigs in small clubs, eventually go the easy route. For some that means peddling relationship jokes that were hackneyed when Bob Hope was still doing USO shows, or hitting the daytime talk shows and hoping to land a role on a low-rated sitcom. For others, it means cultivating a tiny but loyal audience on the alternative comedy circuit and doing obscure Andy Kaufman-style routines for an insular group of devotees.
Patton Oswalt is too smart and too ambitious to go the easy route. He wants to have it both ways, appearing in family-friendly fare like Pixar’s Ratatouille while keeping his standup sharply left-of-center. He also does darker dramatic roles, like the lead in the 2009 film Big Fan, while constantly refining his comedic chops. This puts him in rare company at the moment, alongside peers and friends like David Cross and Louis C.K. – guys who’ve made mainstream inroads without sacrificing the integrity of their material. And on the three CDs (2004’s Feelin’ Kinda Patton, 2007’s Werewolves and Lollipops and 2009’s My Weakness is Strong) and numerous TV specials he’s recorded in the last decade, he’s developed one of the most unique personas in modern comedy.
Oswalt’s material is a mix of highbrow intellect and lowbrow intensity, witheringly insightful about modern life but not above a good, goofy gag. Even when he’s shouting, he’s probably shouting something smarter than you’d expect to hear at a comedy club; Oswalt’s one of the few standups who can get a gut-laugh out of a phrase like “sheets of papyrus.” Although he’s equally agitated and incisive, he’s not a Lenny Bruce or a Bill Hicks, a prophet of rage trying to shame his audience into living a better life. He’s also not interested in dumbing himself down in hopes of scoring a Tonight Show appearance. (In fact, Oswalt compared Jay Leno to Nixon amid the last round of late-night wars.) He’s an erudite everyman, a reader of Alan Moore comic books and Roberto Bolaño novels, likely to slip references to both into his bits provided they make the joke hit harder. He’s a guy who’s as befuddled and bemused and bound up by modern America as his audience.
And fans identify with Oswalt’s sarcastic smarts, deep love of art, weakness for junk, and candor when it comes to discussing his own personal foibles. He’s the wise-ass geek made good, the not-so-popular kid in high school who was obsessed with pop culture and disgusted by the idiocy of his peers. When Oswalt talks about his depression, and trying to lower his Prozac dose, it’s in the context of preparing for the coming Road Warrior-style apocalypse, when there will be mutant bikers and no more SSRIs.
Unlike Cross, Oswalt’s attacks on fatuous politicians and contempt-inducing celebrities never degenerate into bitter, joke-free harangues. And though he’s got a standup’s love for gross-out shock tactics, he’s never as scatological (or as shocking) as Louis C.K. More than any other member of the so-called alt-comedy crew, Oswalt is almost lovable.
Of course, that’s not to say Oswalt’s persona is all smiles and cuddles. Like most of the best comedians, anger is fuel for his work. He looks around and sees fools getting ahead, people consuming garbage without a care in the world. Even when he’s discussing something seemingly innocuous, like bad movies, his irritation keeps ratcheting up in intensity, mounting to an over-the-top pitch of hysterical (in both senses of the word) cultural criticism, an Oswalt trademark. In one of his most famous bits, aghast at the incomprehensible crappiness of the Star Wars prequels, he dreams about killing George Lucas with a shovel. And speaking of fan identification: One guy loved the Lucas riff so much that he got a tattoo of a little cartoon Oswalt smacking a little cartoon Lucas on the head – against Oswalt’s reasonable objections. (Oswalt can also be merciless with interviewers who peddle him softball questions. We attempted to wrangle an interview with the man himself, but schedule conflicts prevented us from pulling it off. Perhaps it’s for the best.)
Still, even though he can be a brutal critic – and self-critic – there’s always a core of agreeable silliness to Oswalt’s material, even at his angriest. His legendary takedown of the “Famous Bowl,” KFC’s fast-food abomination, captures Oswalt’s combination of amped-up language, incredulousness over America’s excesses and pinpoint accuracy in describing the horrors of a cultural train wreck: “America has spoken: Pile my food in a bowl like I’m a dog. I don’t give a shit any more. If there’s any way you could put my dinner in a blender, and then liquefy it, and then put it in a caulking gun and inject into my femoral artery, that would be even better. But I know you don’t have a lunch-gun, so until you invent one, just make me a failure pile in a sadness bowl.” And some of Oswalt’s best routines are out-and-out absurd; dredging up half-remembered bits of cultural effluvia to skewer them, for instance, he talks about his deranged impression of PBS art instructor William Alexander (“like Klaus Kinski on crank”) and imagining the impresario behind the Paas Easter egg empire as a Machiavellian tycoon.
Recently, Oswalt made two big splashes as an author. The first was a contentious-but-hilarious piece for Wired magazine where he lamented the decline of geek culture and its absorption into the mainstream, along with the way the Internet’s instant access to everything has destroyed the idea of a “hidden treasure.” In the piece, he coined the endgame of the information age Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was … Available Forever. This is Oswalt at his funniest but his weakest, too, aiming his intellectual firepower and high-wattage annoyance at an essentially innocuous trend. Is it really so bad that you no longer have to haunt used bookstores to find copies of Philip K. Dick novels, or that the entire run of Dark Shadows is available on YouTube rather than Nth-generation VHS tapes you were lucky enough to find at Goodwill?
Better is Oswalt’s recently released and totally winning first book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, a combination of a rambling memoir and homage to the writers, comedians and filmmakers who reared him as an outcast teen, and a gag reel. There’s a tenderness to Oswalt’s depiction of his suburban adolescence that’s new for him, even though he certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the mundane and awful aspects of being a teenager. Oswalt’s as cutting on the page as he is onstage, and Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is full of the same bitter wit you get in his standup. But unlike the sarcastic Wired article, where one gets the feeling Oswalt just bristles at the idea of the great unwashed encroaching on his formerly private geeky playground, the book invites outsiders in and explains the importance of all of this various input, from Anthony Burgess books to Abel Ferrara movies, to shaping Oswalt as a comedian. As he puts it in the introduction, “Comedy and terror and autobiography and comics and literature, it’s all the same.”
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