Dead These Days
Patton Oswalt may be growing up, but that doesn’t mean he has to be happy about it. His Comedy Central special, No Reason to Complain, features the stand-up comedian ranting for 40 minutes on a variety of topics, most of them personal and all tailored to the post-boomers who stumbled through their formative teenage years during Reagan’s America.
It’s taken Oswalt a while, but he’s finally developed a voice based on his own nerdy neuroses. A half-hour Comedy Central Presents performance, taped in 1999 and included on this DVD, reveals a startling difference between then and now. The older show is competent, but has more than a few awkward pauses, not to mention an uncomfortable-looking Oswalt in suit and tie. In contrast, the more recent special is both fast-paced and relaxed. Dressed in jeans and an untucked shirt, Oswalt roams the stage, at ease with his material and audience.
He avoids the typical observational humor that resurged with Seinfeld. For the most part, Oswalt sticks to personal stories—about his girlfriend, places he’s lived, and what he wants from a movie: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the best movie titles of all time because just reading it lets you watch a free movie in your head. It’s the same kind of resigned geekdom he displayed in the documentary The Comedians of Comedy and the subsequent Comedy Central show of the same name.
It’s even more amazing to see where Oswalt is now when you look at where he used to be. Aside from the seven-year-old special, the DVD features a few deleted scenes and “Food for Thought,” a series of poorly shot video vignettes at least 15 years old, in which Oswalt plays a grocery store stock boy. The roots of Oswalt’s personality are there: absurdist humor, cultural references based in the 1980s, etc. But the sketches are just plain awful, and not in the enjoyably bad sense; they’re simply unwatchable, full of awkward pauses and forced delivery and rough edits. It’s like seeing a baby’s first steps: It’s nowhere near graceful, but at least you know it will develop over time. Thankfully, Oswalt learned to walk.
The deleted scenes included are unnecessary, though, nothing more than a loose collection of jokes that didn’t make the final cut either for content or pacing reasons, or because Oswalt flubbed a line and wanted to start over. They don’t add anything to the concert or shed any new light on Oswalt’s performance rituals, if there are any. It’s a shame, too, because Oswalt’s confessional, conversational style is a welcome retreat from the Carlos Mencias and Larry the Cable Guys of comedy, extremist blowhards without anything worth saying. The growing popularity of such middlebrow comics highlights Oswalt’s particular state: His star is slightly on the rise, but not quite fast enough.
Oswalt’s at a peculiar time in his life, too old to keep partying but too young to be considered “old.” He laments that all his friends are either getting sober or having kids, and that they’re “equally annoying.” He’s got a girlfriend, but he’s worried that being in love will ruin his career, since no one wants to see a happy comedian, the kind who’ll come on stage and say, “You ever go out with someone and then you realize three months into it they’re a little muffin basket made out of rainbow kisses?” He’s a man without a country, both an overgrown kid and an immature adult, looking to make sense of things in his own way.
Reaction shots of the crowd show scattered hipsters throughout, young men with thin beards and thick-framed glasses and zip-up hoodies. Oswalt’s preaching to his generation, and they love it. Predictably, the biggest cheers Oswalt gets are for his attacks on President Bush. Oswalt jokes that knocking the president isn’t exactly edgy material, proclaiming, “I don’t care who I piss off in the room full of people I e-mailed.” And he’s right: slamming Bush in front of a San Francisco audience shortly before the 2004 election was a surefire way to win the their support, even if it took no courage to do it. The war in Iraq was still relatively new when this special was taped, and the crowd exemplifies the politically opinionated but ultimately unmotivated young Left, who turned out to the polls in 2004 with the same low figures as they did in 2000.
Oswalt says there’s a “sick part” of him that wants to vote for Bush just so he can die in the inevitable apocalypse, a massive fiery death “when George Bush was president and mediocrity held sway.” It’s the line he ends on, darting off stage on the evening’s high note, unconsciously acting out what many of his generation and younger are known for: Delivering a passionate argument against what they view as an oppressor, then wandering off before actually taking action. Maybe we’re not as grownup as we thought.