Patton vs. Audience: Whoever Wins, We Laugh

Categories: Comedy
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The crowd that came to the Pantages to see Patton Oswalt on Saturday night expected an edgy, provocative yet giddily enthusiastic set from one of the top comedians in the business. What they didn't bank on was the possibility of a good 15-or-so minutes of the roughly hour-long show being devoted to Patton exchanging barbs and retorts with a couple of the crowd's more obnoxious members--and having this off-the-cuff material provide some of the funniest moments of an already-strong set. It was a bit reminiscent of the legendary rant from his album Werewolves and Lollipops, where he zeroes in on an audience member who shouts "woooo!" at a completely inadvisable time during his set and absolutely goes off on him ("You are going to miss everything cool and die angry!").

Maybe the audience member who yelped "I love you, Spence!" at him remembered this bit, and was hoping to stir up a similarly memorable occurrence of comedic hostility from Oswalt for the benefit of the rest of the theater. If so, it worked: as anyone who's listened to him on radio shows like The Best Show on WFMU or podcasts like Comedy Death Ray has learned, Patton's just about as funny riffing off the top of his head during conversations as he is with his prepared material. And after jabbing back at the shouter's King of Queens namedrop ("Are you just gonna yell out my IMDB profile?"), he got a gigantic laugh out of his accusation that the fan was "enjoying me wrong" and an even bigger one when he compared the fan's misguided, intrusive enthusiasm to a corn on the cob stand's loyal customer, who just so happens to forego eating it and just shoves it up his ass instead.

And while that seems like an all-purpose retort to the kind of over-devoted fans any comedian with a fervent following might attract, another hollering crowd member inspired some of Oswalt's most wonderfully bizarre improvisational material when, upon asking the guy what he went to school for, was told "Nutrition Science." Oswalt's speculation as to what that involved--putting corn syrup in celery; finding a way to grow cow udders on carrots--highlighted what makes his comedy great, a social and/or political undercurrent (in this case, agribusiness as supervillainy) rendered completely ridiculous by vivid, grotesque imagery. Most of his remaining audience-rapport material was a bit kinder--a grateful exchange with a fan who sent him a box of cookies from a bakery in Illinois; a jab at the pointlessness of the Minnesota-Wisconsin state rivalry ("this isn't The Warriors")--but even so, he kept it sharply barbed.

As for the backbone of his set, it was all-new material that was more than good enough to sit alongside the other albums and comedy specials he's released in the last decade. He was at the top of his game when it came to extracting uncomfortable-yet-goofy comedy out of the idea of humanity at its most disheveled and desperate. He reached his stride early with a bit on how sweatpants automatically denote a certain type of apathy, and peaked with a deliriously hostile ad campaign proposal for Weight Watchers that involved coming to terms with how angry dieting actually makes people. (It involves folks getting so pissed off at the vegetables they're about to eat that they taunt their meals with the promise that they will eventually be turned into shit.)

Oswalt really goes to town on the vitriolic and self-loathing aspects of familiar, relatable gripes, and artfully expands them into seething diatribes that hammer home the fear of a downward-sliding life. An airplane seatmate who has an unusually flashy skill with using a barf bag; a morbidly obese man who makes the deli-counter request "I want all the ham!"; Jesus as a man whose superpowers make him too lame for the X-Men ("send him to the Justice League, they'll take anybody"); the idea of the circus as something that nobody would even consider going to if it was first introduced today--there's a lot of negativity and bleakness in Oswalt's material, but there's something liberating and fun in it too--as though the suspicion that our very existence is a demented fluke was not only confirmed, but revealed to be not that big a deal.
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