There's no doubt that more people know about comedian Patton Oswalt than ever. And I'm not just talking about people in comedy. Oswalt's new CD, "My Weakness is Strong," has bounced around the top 10 among all albums in Apple's iTunes since it became available for purchase there on Aug. 18 -- it comes out as a CD/DVD package this coming Tuesday, after part of it gets broadcast tonight as an hourlong Comedy Central special.
For all that he has done for independent comedy venues and comedians over the past five years through "The Comedians of Comedy," and for all of the mainstream appeal he garnered playing "Spence" on the CBS sitcom, King of Queens, or even his character roles in Blade: Trinity, Reno 911! and Balls of Fury, none of that has done as much to raise his profile as his voiceover role as Remy the rat in 2007's Ratatouille. The success of that film ($206-million-plus at the U.S. box office, and double that worldwide) got everyone to take another look at Oswalt. He's followed that up with a recurring role on Showtime's United States of Tara, multiple shots taking on pop culture evils on 2008's The Root of All Evil on Comedy Central, and now stars in the upcoming movie, Big Fan, which debuted to raves at Sundance and begins appearing in cinemas next weekend.
But Oswalt has been first and foremost a stand-up comedian. As he told AST back in December 2005: "I’m not doing stand-up so that I can start doing movies or TV shows and never have to do stand-up anymore. I do movies and TV shows and write things so that I have more free time to do stand-up. Or I’m trying to increase my exposure so that I can do more stand-up. Everything is so that I can do stand-up; it’s not the other way around."
Which is probably why he was so excited to promote his new special with his first appearance Friday night on The Late Show with David Letterman. You could see it on his face when he took the stage, and even hear it in his voice. "Wow."
This set is a quick TV-friendly run through parts of three tracks from the CD: 12) Obama, 2) Birth, and 3) Fat. On the CD and DVD, Oswalt tags them up quite a bit.
I remember first seeing Oswalt in a suit in the green room of the Comedy Underground in Seattle more than a decade ago as he prepared to headline the joint. He was funny then. But he has gotten a lot more casual both with his literal look onstage as well as the profanity that's likely to come out of his mouth. For every "Uncle Touchy's Naked Puzzle Basement" or "Sky Cake" reference, there are plenty of F-bombs and other words that you'd never hear him say on Letterman. In fact, when I saw him perform his new hour at Carolines in NYC a week before he taped "My Weakness is Strong" in D.C., I made a notation in my notebook: "(sex, wordplay, stories, voices...one kick away from Dane Cook?)". Watching Oswalt's DVD this weekend, however, I'm not quite as sure about my knee-jerk comparison. Or am I? Maybe he's more like the Bizarro version.
Oswalt certainly gained more popularity when he tapped into our nostalgia for Carvel ice cream cakes on 2004's "Feeling Kinda Patton," and hit another level a couple of years ago when he laid into our love of crap fast-food such as the KFC Famous Bowl (that's so far his most popular stand-up bit on the Internet, and I compiled it and several other Oswalt vids here, which you can click on and win a copy of the new DVD) on 2007's "Werewolves & Lollipops."
For "My Weakness is Strong," Oswalt does delve into his love for Jet Blue (although that's a DVD bit that's not likely to appear on Comedy Central), but the focus is more squarely on himself in this 64-minute performance, as the then-imminent birth of his daughter (Alice, born in April) got him thinking about his weight, his reliance on illegal drugs and prescription meds, his need to find a better home for his wife and daughter (call ahead before you look at an occupied house!), and how starring in Ratatouille not only revealed his cynical nature but also ruined his Halloween plans. There's a bit on how much our world has changed just in the past 10 years, which Comedy Central labels here as a DVD-exclusive as well.
Let's take a look:
Comedians often have an extra chuckle when they get absurd or offensive, and several minutes later an audience member takes offense, as if the previous bits were fine by them? For me, sometimes I take a step back when a bit is steeped in realism (even if embellished) but gets one major fact wrong. I mentioned this in another recent CD review. There was one such moment for me in that bit about 1999, because Oswalt is referencing events from 1998 as being in the future. Anyhow. Is that just me? Am I quibbling? Moving on.
Because really, I'm not trying to nitpick so much as I'm trying to open up a discussion about the comedic choices we make onstage, and why we make them. I enjoy seeing Oswalt's take on our culture, and you certainly enjoy him, too. And the fact that he has used his increased fame to help expose more of you to great talents such as Zach Galifianakis and Maria Bamford, and then in turn, several other creative comedy thinkers, is to be applauded by any fan of comedy. I also think any comedy fan will love Oswalt's last routine on the special, in which he recounts a gig-gone-wrong back when he was opening for a comedy magician. Aside from all of the personal reflections, the real cultural meat from Oswalt comes late in the special (tracks 13-14, "Demons" and "Sky Cake"), whereupon the 40-year-old both puts to rest any notion that comedians will miss George W. Bush -- "I would happily give back the 10 minutes, tops, I wrote about George Bush, if we weren't torturing people and our money wasn't on fire. It was not f*cking worth it!" -- and then reframes our understanding of how and why civilization began and continues to embrace religion with something as simple as "sky cake." It's devastatingly simple, profane and funny all at once.
The DVD, in addition to the "bonus" tracks on 1999 and Jet Blue, also includes a fake infomercial (with appearances by Galifianakis, Joe DeRosa, Jon Glaser, Paul F. Tompkins); there's an homage of sorts to The Room, with performances by Julie Klausner and Mad Men's Jon Hamm as Oswalt plays writer/director Alfan Golenpaul, enticing you to invest your money in his awful movies; and you also get more than five minutes of Oswalt making fun of the way some stand-up comedians open their specials by role-playing this very process with his director, Jason Woliner. You'll enjoy it!