Comedy is a funny thing (no pun intended). I’ve been to comedy clubs where stand-ups weren’t very good, and the crowd was laughing. It wasn’t the two-drink minimum that loosened them up, as many were laughing before the drinks had even arrived and the first, new comedian was onstage. It’s because you’re watching a live performance, you’re out for the evening, and you’re geared up to have a good time. My wife thinks with the bigger named comedians, it’s because you were invested enough to spend $40 a ticket to see them in a big theatre. So, you’re already a fan of that person, and you don’t want to be bummed that you wasted $90 (if you bought a pair of tickets, and those pesky service charges), so you convince yourself you like it.
The reason I explained all that is because I’m a huge fan of stand-up comedy, but over the last 10 years, I’ve been disappointed by many of the big names.
I saw Jim Gaffigan live twice, and he killed it both times. Same with Brian Regan and J.B. Smoove.
When I was in New York years ago, I went to the Comedy Cellar and saw 8 stand-ups on one bill (including the great Jim Norton), and only one of them wasn’t funny.
The last Jerry Seinfeld special, which came out last week, was a pleasant surprise.
Yet when I saw Wanda Sykes, who cracks me up in movies, TV shows, and talk shows — I was in the front row in Las Vegas. She performed for an hour, and only two jokes were funny (her opener did 15 or 20 minutes and was great).
Since I was a fan of Patton Oswalt, I once drove up to Irvine to see him at The Improv. He only had a few bits that were funny (one of them involved eating soup in an airport at 6:30 a.m.). It was disappointing to have driven an hour north for that, but I made the same trek there for Kevin Pollak and Kevin McDonald/Scott Thompson the following year. I’m willing to travel for good comedy.
When Oswalt played one of the bigger theatres in San Diego years later, it was a bit funnier, but not great. And I realized that something happens with comedians. When they’re starting out, they have their solid material. Comedians will tell you that it takes years and years to get a “tight five.” So it makes sense that if it takes that long for a mere five minutes of solid laughs, they won’t be able to just do an hour set a year after they started to get attention in stand-up circles. So before they’re famous, we’re seeing their best stuff. Once they become famous, they do this Bill Cosby thing (not the raping), where they get onstage and tell stories about their life. Now, the way Gaffigan and Seinfeld do this, is hysterical. With most of the other comedians, they’re mildly amusing musings, but not all that funny. And unfortunately, that’s where Oswalt falls these days.
The comedians that are “storytellers” can work. I’ve laughed listening to Cosby, David Sedaris, Garrison Keillor, John Mulaney, and Mike Birbiglia (my wife and I were both sick, but still couldn’t stop laughing and coughing, in the second row of his show at UCSD).
In the ‘80s, I remember some comedians doing longer monologues that were very thought provoking — Eric Bogosian (who became more well-known as an actor), George Plimpton, and Martin Mull come to mind.
Certainly Patton Oswalt could become another monologist with great stories, but this special isn’t a good example of it.
This special was taken from two performances at the Knight Theatre in Charlotte last September.
A few of his topics started out promisingly, but then they just didn’t deliver the laughs. For example, his take on Denny’s — the most “self-aware restaurant franchise in history” and the fact that they have pictures of the food on their menu. It went on way too long.
When Seinfeld talked about the fights with his wife in his last special, it was funny. With Oswalt, it was…odd. Not only the fact because his first wife died, and he got remarried a year later, but…the humor in the story just wasn’t there. She left a nasty note on his car windshield when he went on a hike. Uh…okay.
My wife felt he sounded like a d-bag talking about all the repairs he was doing to his house, asking “Why is he talking so much about himself and all these things he’s doing? Who cares about his hiking and the crazy dude who wallpapered his house? There were a few times his bits got a smile on my face (although didn’t elicit laughter). One of those was about breakfast cereal (a topic Seinfeld also covered in his last special). He described the way the boxes of cereal looked years ago, with how “serious” they look now. It was a solid segment, although it also went on a bit long. He seems to meander on topics instead of segueing well into the next one.
When Oswalt, who we all know is a fanboy of sci-fi stuff, talks about a chance to see a screening of a Star Wars film and sitting in the Millennium Falcon — he turned it down to instead go to his young daughter’s elementary school art show. That story might be of some interest to his other family members, but for a story during a stand-up special — it needed a lot more.
He told a story about his days as a wedding DJ that didn’t go anywhere interesting. That’s surprising, considering that seems like a profession that’s ripe for good jokes.
Watching a stand-up comedian on TV probably isn’t the ideal situation for jokes to work, but it’s a perfectly fine venue for good storytelling, and in that regard, Oswalt just didn’t deliver.
I’m sure he’ll have me laughing hysterically the next time he’s on a talk show, or pops up as a weird character on screen. I just think I’m done with his stand-up.
1 ½ stars out of 5.