L.A. Comedy Trip: Patton Oswalt’s Comedy

Why do I find so much joy in watching Patton Oswalt perform? And not just me. Last night at the Irvine Improv he killed, unequivocally. The crowd (a sold-out show on a Monday night) roared with love for nearly a minute as he got up on the stage. But his hourlong set, though great and funny, was nothing innovative. I mean, I wasn’t transformed the way I’ve been while watching Maria Bamford or Jon Dore this week. Is it a heart-over-head thing? Just what is it that makes Oswalt’s comedy so different, so appealing?

I was thinking about this on the drive home, and then R.E.M.’s “Stand” came on the radio. In 1998 I took a class in American Sign Language, and our final exam involved grouping up with classmates to perform choreographed routines to pop songs, translating the lyrics to ASL. It was precisely like that scene in Napoleon Dynamite where the Happy Hands club does “The River” except we were in college and the audience was larger. The whole thing remains a nightmare. It was my idea to choose “Stand” and I regret it.

Because I’ve been thinking only about standup for the last two-and-a-half days, the first thing I did when I remembered this terrible experience was try to form it into a standup bit. How to render it in a way to generate maximum laffs? One time, doing my ASL homework at my desk, I miscalculated the path of trajectory for my index finger and ended up giving myself a bi-nostril nosebleed. I thought it would be funny to revise the truth and imply that this was enough to make me quit. Like after laffs from the “Stand” confessional bit I could say something like “I didn’t last long in that class. I had to drop out after I gave myself a bi-nostril nosebleed doing my homework.”

I find the fact that I gave myself a bi-nostril nosebleed while practicing my ASL homework very funny. And I found myself fussing over the proper wording of this joke to evoke the greatest amount of laughter. Was bi-nostril itself funny, or not at all funny because it’s too clunky?

Oswalt would never bother with this kind of problem. “I wish I could sit down and write jokes,” he says, “but my method has always been spewing on my feet. It’s all topics scattered, and the writing happens between signal and noise, mouth to microphone.” I figured he was being disingenuous when he told me this. Or terse, because busy, and eliding over some truth of the process. But no. Oswalt’s delivery has this continuous looseness that invites us to laugh whenever we feel impelled to. His jokes land more like napalm than missiles.

It was all new material, and knowing Oswalt’s disdain for those who record and post online material as comics are developing it, I’ll try not either to spoil too much of the mechanics nor to imply that what I saw was the funniest these bits can be. But one was a reconsideration, in the post-YouTube era, of Orwell’s notion that having a camera trained on us at all times would be oppressive. The opposite would be the case, Oswalt said, with Big Brother asking people, “Please stop showing me your ballsack.” This line got worked and developed through several variations—Oswalt at a high performed level of incredulity as Big Brother—that kept the laughs coming. It was like some kind of machine was being calibrated, but never in a cold or showy way that would diminish from the comedy.

It’s a poor example. Maybe this clip, from the Comedians of Comedy series that still isn’t on DVD for some reason, is a better one. It’s like Oswalt is funny the way our friends are funny. He’s funnier, yes, than most of our funny friends, but his comedy isn’t scripted and deployed at us the way of so many other comics. (Not to disparage this approach; Bamford’s and last night’s opener Blaine Capatch’s jokes are scripted almost to the word, and it’s this kind of fidelity that makes the jokes work.) His is a more riffing comedy, milking the potential from his premises with a dynamism that’s infectious. Or maybe it’s like a novelist’s approach—telling a freeform story in a composed style—as opposed to a poet’s, fussing over the proper words in the proper place.

It’s Oswalt chief talent, this loose style. His secondary talent is producing metal guitar noises with his mouth—of which there was plenty last night. Squibbally-flabbaly-doo! I could listen to an hourlong set of this alone.

2 thoughts on “L.A. Comedy Trip: Patton Oswalt’s Comedy”

  1. I like how you lure potential readers here by piggy-backing off of Oswalt’s success, then act as though you’ve got any room to criticize.

    You write like I imagine you sign and that ain’t good, Delilah.

  2. The Happy Hands song in “Napoleon Dynamite” is called “The Rose,” not “The River.”

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