Sub Pop Records has a pretty good thing going over at their headquarters. For a few years now, the “big” indie rock label has been putting out comedy records from some of the most vibrant stand-up comics working today. The latest album in this budding tradition is Werewolves and Lollipops from veteran comedian Patton Oswalt, and it continues Sub Pop’s new trend of not just releasing stand-up records, but really good stand-up records.
The label’s roster of comics (most notably David Cross and Eugene Mirman) have, along with Oswalt, been some of most successful comics at drawing an indie crowd. By signing with Sub Pop and booking shows in rock clubs, these guys are doing their best to revive a comedy world whose most noticeable face, at present moment, is the hapless and cartoony Dane Cook.
And while Cross and Mirman are both smart and hilarious, they both have styles that will probably keep them from ever being at the forefront of a new comedy movement. Cross is too caustic and rambling, and Mirman is just too out there. The two will always have loyal, even cult, followings, but as for leaping themselves and comedy to the next step, they may not be the right fit.
However, Patton Oswalt just might be the guy for the job. He is a nice middle ground between Cross’ ranting and Mirman’s strange quick delivery, and while he’s not afraid to be angry or crass, he never forgets he’s up there to make people laugh. And he is funny. Not only is he funny, but he can be as smart and political as he can be scatological. He may be the only comic going that can have both a reference to author Tillie Olsen and a smattering of fart sounds in the same set.
Oswalt spends much of this set, recorded live in Austin, calling out everything from KFC’s bowl meals to — no surprise here — President Bush. And while the absurdity of fast food, and the country’s current political plight are hardly new topics, what Oswalt does particularly well is show have somewhere along the line crossed over from alarming to absurd. When he compares Bush and Cheney to the Duke boys, in a hilarious bit where Waylon Jennings does voice over as they ruin the country, it could seem initially childish and goofy, until you realize that media coverage of the Administration has somehow become just that. We’re to the point where not only are we not surprised when our government fails us, but we smirk cynically as it happens.
That Oswalt reserves the same mix of disgust and fascination for George Lucas, Paris Hilton, “hungry and miserable” movie stars, small towns in Virginia, and in one case a fan at the show paints a picture of a world set up to push us towards hopelessness and nihilism and cynicism. But where his true talent comes in, and where he really breaks off from someone like David Cross, is he isn’t really overt about that sort of message. Instead, he allows the jokes to build on themselves so that, when he quotes Brian Dennehy saying to him, “Character actors, who gives a fuck if we’re fat?” it is self-effacing and hilarious in its own right, but also lends to the idea running through this that people — whether they’re a werewolf or a lollipop — are being set up for disappointment.
Not all of Oswalt’s bits work, of course. One concerning what years are acceptable to have birthdays runs on too long without enough of a pay-off. And his musings on all things geeky, from the Star Wars prequel’s campy horror flicks to comic books to Star Trek, might turn off some fans less inclined towards those things. Those bits in particular stand out because the rest of the album, for all its “subversion”, welcomes the audience into the jokes without dumbing them down.
And in the end, probably the biggest tragedy about Patton Oswalt’s new disc, and the work of his fellow comics, is that they are considered “subversive”. This sort of comedy is based in questioning what’s around you and making you think some while you’re laughing your ass off. What then is “mainstream” comedy doing? Perhaps this is the problem, the one that keeps comedy from taking off the way it could. The sitcom trajectory, where comics do just enough work, write just enough simple jokes to get their own show, all the while underestimating an audience that, given no easy alternative, eventually succumbs to the dumb jokes.
Luckily, Patton Oswalt, like the other comics mentioned here, does things like The King of Queens and Best Week Ever — from which he was fired, he says on the disc, for wishing death on the celebrities they covered, rather than writing simple jokes about them — not as a way to cash in on his stand-up, but as a way to finance his comedy career. And, now 20 or so years into his stand-up life, it is high time Patton Oswalt got the recognition he deserves.