Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t crack too many Trump jokes (“What’s the point at this point?”), but Patton Oswalt’s range as a comedian really sinks in when you consider the two bits about the American president he has written since 2017; one apiece in Annihilation (his 2017 Netflix special) and I Love Everything, his latest stand-up special which released on Netflix last month. In Annihilation, Oswalt compared the shift from Obama to Trump to a hypothetical scenario where “the head of the linguistics department at Rutgers is suddenly replaced by David Lee Roth” (lead singer of Van Halen — not a band you’d follow for the lyrics, as evidenced by the poetics of lines like “wham bam oh Amsterdam/yea, yea, yea/stone you like nothing else can/yea, yea, yea”) In comedy terms, this joke is the equivalent of murder with a silk scarf; allusive, sure-footed, a joke that asks something of its audience.
In I Love Everything, on the other hand, the 50-year-old comedian opts for a scatological approach — the blunt weapon, so to speak. He says, “You could not feel more superfluous in terms of making fun of the president because the Trump administration is an 18-wheeler full of monkeys and PCP that has crashed into a train full of diarrhoea, and so there’s diarrhoea-covered monkeys on PCP running around and everyone is just watching it like, ‘Oh my god!’ And then you as a comedian walk up and go, ‘Hey, do you want to hear a joke I wrote about this?’ And they’re like, ‘No, I’m good.”
I Love Everything is yet another reminder of why Oswalt is one of the most underrated contemporary comedians. He’s not flamboyant, he uses physical comedy very selectively, and he often sounds like he’s stepped right off a lectern at that Rutgers campus he was wisecracking about a minute ago — the genial professor, adored by freaks and geeks alike. Any other comedian alluding to the writings of John Cheever and Anaïs Nin would sound like they’ve swallowed Wikipedia pages under great duress. With Oswalt, these references feel organic, like the super-boring Sorghum Farms cereal he consumes these days (“There’s a beige bowl on the box, a color I like to call ‘bargaining beige’, like ‘How many of these do I have to eat before I can have one Cool Ranch Dorito at three o’clock today?’”)
Annihilation is remarkable, above all, for Oswalt’s ability to create intelligent comedy out of grief — in his case, the April 2016 death of his wife, the journalist and true crime writer Michelle McNamara. Three years down the line, I Love Everything reflects a new phase in his life: he’s now married again (to the actor Meredith Salenger), and anybody who has found love again against all odds (“Not to bum you guys out, but I was very, very resigned to living in the gray”, as Oswalt says) will identify with Oswalt’s hilarious extended routine about his second wedding — a mini-treatise on superstition, strategic pessimism and the hypothesis often erroneously referred to as Murphy’s Law (‘anything that can go wrong, does’). Because everything in his wedding was going exactly as planned, Oswalt thought this was a sure sign that the marriage won’t last.
Oswalt, as it turns out, was a wedding DJ as a teenager in Sterling, Virginia, “in the last DJ company that still used cassette tapes, well into the 90s”. Because of this, they underbid and won “the shittiest gigs around” — forced retirements, shotgun weddings and unplanned pregnancies that become shotgun weddings. “We were the ambient sound of rage and despair”, as Oswalt recalls. His over-the-hill colleagues insist that their shitty sound systems were laying the foundation of a happy marriage, because when something goes wrong in the wedding, it means that the marriage is solid — “we are like love wizards, you know.” After Oswalt realises this was bunkum, he quips, “Those marriages didn’t last a month after the weddings. We were not love wizards, we were divorce necromancers!”
Ultimately, Oswalt’s strength as a comedy writer lies in the freshness and eccentricity of phrases like ‘divorce necromancers’, stuff that seems to come naturally to him. While he doesn’t have the physical presence or the jester’s energy of a Dave Chappelle or a Chris Rock, he more than makes up for it with his razor-sharp writing that extracts humour from unusual places, and changes gears quickly — the text on the back of his cereal box segues into a bit about hippies and kombucha, a romantic prank played by his wife transforms into a voice-acting bit about ransom calls. He’s also great at audience work; his back-and-forth sequences in Annihilation last longer than any other stand-up special I’ve seen, not least because people genuinely like talking to him. They trust that while there will be jokes cracked at their expense, there will be no meanness; a distinction lost on most leaders of state these days, much less comedians.
To that extent, I Love Everything (and Oswalt’s body of work in general, across stage and screen) swears by the simple, powerful words of his late first wife, Michelle McNamara — “It’s chaos. Be kind!”, and I think that’s admirable.
This article was first published in DeadAnt, an online publication and new-media venture focused on stand-up comedy in India.