Comedy is hard. I have great respect for the performer who gets up on stage alone, microphone in one hand and drink in the other, in an attempt to make a drunken audience laugh. Some comics opt for the easy route of clichéd dick and fart jokes to appeal to the lowest-common denominator; others elevate the art of joke-telling to subversive social commentary. Of course, the latter is the more fearless and desired of the scenarios, but one can’t fault a comedian for falling back on safe material after sensing hostility in a crowd that clamors for mediocrity.
Comics like Patton Oswalt fall uncomfortably in between art and edifice, achieving a sort of stymied irreverence that doesn’t always connect or satisfy. This is not to say that Oswalt isn’t funny, for he’s quite capable of inducing hearty belly laughs throughout his first comedy album, the recently released Feelin’ Kinda Patton. But Oswalt is more of sprinter than a marathon runner, and therefore is more successful at bizarre, seemingly off-the-cuff bits than the stretched-out sections that slow the album’s otherwise quick-witted flow.
The best moments on Feelin’ Kinda Patton are those that don’t feel too forced or wear out their welcome. Oswalt scores big on 1980s heavy metal videos (“Bands that rocked so hard, they could change the physical properties of things!”), TiVo (“Greater than even the gift of life!”), parenting (“Be a boring parent so that your kids will hate you and become cool!”), President Bush (“I really think he can get us into the apocalypse”), and peaks with exaggerating the confrontational ads of the Black Angus restaurant chain. He can get an inspired, almost manic riff going that’s highly effective, especially when he moves swiftly between topics. His random visions of the apocalypse (which includes Avril Lavigne and the Good Will Hunting screenplay) and ironic insights into the mixed messages inherent in liquor ads are also highlights. It’s only when he gets stuck on a topic for too long (a lunatic comedian he watched in Toronto, slowing down an Alvin and the Chipmunks LP, Robert Evans’ ESPN ads) that he loses speed and the listener’s attention.
Oswalt’s got a couple of repetitive obsessions that are immediately problematic. First, he’s in heated pursuit of the title of Analogy King: too many of his jokes hide their punchlines in a tacked-on analogy. After you’ve heard “…that’s kinda like” used in abundance on every other joke, it becomes more of an expected crutch and loses any intended impact. Secondly, he takes any chance he can get to imitate the stereotypical Down’s syndrome voice for a joke’s big payoff, and the fact that he does it often is uncomfortably off-putting. Don’t misunderstand me here: I’m all for comics with edgy material and a disregard for the stifling politically correct atmosphere of the 21st Century, but the problem here is that Oswalt seems to derive great pleasure from just aping the voice.
Oswalt has seen his notoriety increase in the last couple of years and is finally coming to be known as Patton Oswalt the Stand-Up Comedian (he who opened for Aimee Mann and Michael Penn on the couple’s 2000 Acoustic Vaudeville Tour) rather than simply Patton Oswalt the Guy I Can Sorta Place When I See Him But I Don’t Know His Name (he who has a regular role on the TV show King of Queens and small roles in films like Magnolia and Starsky and Hutch). Feelin’ Kinda Patton is a bid to help boost his stand-up profile, and it does a reasonable job of representing where he presently stands. Oswalt certainly has the promise to deliver an entire set of solid comedy, but right now he’s only halfway there.