In one of the most satisfyingly realized bits in Talking For Clapping, Patton Oswalt’s new Netflix special, the stand-up, in the middle of talking about his elderly parents, spins some of his signature tongue-tripping wordplay about their dog. Noting that the poor, obese Jack Russell terrier—thanks to his parents—looks like “waffle batter and ball bearings in a beaver carcass,” Oswalt stops to exclaim in horror, “Holy shit, they raised me! Oh God, it all makes sense.”
Oswalt’s comedy emerges from the collision of his self-effacement (about his obsessive nerdiness, his physical appearance, his depressive tendencies) and his nimble, opinionated intellect. The very act of doing stand-up comedy involves asserting that what you have to say is worth listening to, and is, at its core, right. On stage, the tension between Oswalt’s warring inferiority and superiority complexes brings his observational comedy a personal dimension that, coupled with his obvious, writerly joy in language, makes for a uniquely funny style.
And Oswalt is opinionated. A popular and divisive figure on Twitter, Oswalt addresses the seeming hell of needing to express his strong views online while simultaneously coping with the anxiety and blowback from doing so. In the middle of a riff about how rigid political correctness within marginalized groups can allow “evil motherfucking people” who have mastered the lingo to slip right past, Oswalt pauses to address the crowd, saying, “I almost lost you with that bit. That’s what makes comedy exciting.” He smiles when he says it, but he’s right. Being adventurous in comedy means spotting the edge and doing a very complicated dance there. Sometimes you’re going to dazzle. Other times, you’re going down—hard. When he calls himself “an old cis white motherfucker” before calling out people he fundamentally agrees with for focusing on terminology rather than the big picture, he’s on the edge. (On RuPaul catching heat for using the word “tranny,” Oswalt exclaims, “She laid down on the barbed wire of discrimination in the ’70s and ’80s so this generation could run across her back and yell at her for saying ‘tranny?’”) Later, after getting applause from his appreciative audience for praising President Obama, he demurs, “Thank you, but that’s the least risky thing I can say in fucking San Francisco in front of my fans.”
Back to that bit about the poor, fat Jack Russell (who still has his attack instincts, but who immediately pisses himself in fear while dutifully baring his teeth), Oswalt bemoans his similar state. “I’m supposed to be this skinny, cut, little muscular scrapper dude,” he states, instead of, as he spits out, “fat, angry, fighting with people on the internet and then I hate myself for doing it and I hide under the bed and I’m afraid of ghosts and the apocalypse.” As self-lacerating as Oswalt can be, he’s hardly dour about it. Talking For Clapping glides along both on Oswalt’s verbal virtuosity and his overall improbable hopefulness, especially when talking about his young daughter. In his pop cultural and political material (masterfully blending in a run that likens the need for a female president to male film directors’ need for great female editors) Oswalt displays a wary hope that common sense will win out in the end. Even if, along the way, there’s plenty of nonsense for him to make fun of.
Fatherhood and aging play a big part in Oswalt’s material here, all enlivened by his cliché-averse self-awareness. Any time a comic rails against “the current generation,” there’s going to be an element of condescension. But Oswalt leavens his criticism of, say, the gay nephew of a gay friend bemoaning the fact that his school’s “gay prom” isn’t being held on the same night as the straight kids’ prom (“He had to stop himself from saying, ‘You need to shut the fuck up.’”) with the thought that it’s a good thing that “things are changing but they’re also getting way less radical.” It’s a generous foundation upon which to build jokes about snotty baristas and internet commenters, although noted Twitter target Oswalt clearly exorcises some resentments in his hilariously mean one-word impression of the latter.
In talking about being a father, Oswalt lets that grudging optimism shine through, his anecdotes about bad birthday party clowns, the capacity of little girls for “Sicilian” psychological vengeance, and insipid children’s TV emerging both astutely lived-in and affectionate. (Extolling the usefulness of cartoons to give parents a half-hour of time to themselves, Oswalt opines that he could live with Yo Gabba Gabba! even if its traditional educational disclaimers turned sinister, imagining himself telling his daughter briskly, “Sweetie, race-mixing is fine. Don’t build a pipe bomb, okay bye.”) The centerpiece of the special is a sweetly hilarious bit about his daughter’s preference for My Little Pony over Oswalt’s beloved Star Wars. Oswalt, admitting that he no longer gets obsessively angry about such nerdy sacred cows, shrugs and proclaims “I don’t have time to absorb another whole little realm,” before, in a gloriously extended ramble that rivals his famous Star Wars filibuster on Parks And Recreation, he reveals that he’s done just that.
Throughout, both Oswalt’s more angry, passionate pieces (the shell game that is the presidential election, those internet trolls) and his observational material (aging, inappropriate ringtones, even the well-worn “trip to the DMV”) are uniformly sharp and confident. Oswalt, at 47, has been up on stage for more than half his life, and he knows how to build a set, alternating longer and shorter pieces, and switching speeds in a way that’s deeply satisfying. As usual, Oswalt ends with a longer-form anecdote (here about the worst birthday clown in the world) that closes the show by slowing down the pace into storytelling mode. It’s emblematic of how personal Oswalt’s comedic instincts are, buttoning the consistently strong 68-minute set with his writer’s eye for detail and closure. Here, too, there’s a guarded hope that things—as fucked up as they appear to his restless sensibilities—are going to get better. The message he takes from the bewildered mom who hired that shitty clown (“I’m so pissed off right now but I kinda want to see where this goes.”) might serve as Patton Oswalt’s comedic mission statement.