Patton vs. Audience: Whoever Wins, We Laugh
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.