No one, so far as we are aware, discusses Patton Oswalt with the same graviats that is used for Dave Chappelle or the currently semi-exiled Louis CK.
Oswalt was a guest on Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee but he is not considered an auteur.
He should be.
He’s not, because he regularly works on network sitcoms. And those sitcoms are not off center or in anyway subversive. No one is going to watch The King of Queens and confuse it with Larry Sanders, Curb, or Seinfeld.
And they shouldn’t but that doesn’t mean Oswalt’s stand up isn’t significant.
Oswalt’s stage persona has a lot in common with a lot of other stand ups – he’s one part a man who sounds semi-suicidaly depressed and a man who is serving drinks with rusty razor blades.
In-between slashing his wrists and yours he is delivering a specific excavation of a specific strata of contemporary America. That strata is about what might be called the vast middle – the sort of people who have HBO but they watch Kevin James and think The King of Queens is funny, notwithstanding that its theme and its theme song are not just basterdized dirty reused needle renditions of Springsteen – as if Springsteen were a television jingle producing whore like Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men – rather than as john Landau said, Steinbeck in Leather.
But Oswalt is, like the small number of better heirs to Mark Twain and Will Rogers, telling stories that begin with the banal details of work-a-day detritus that The King of Queens audience calls its own. From there he adds a level of self awareness in which he discusses being a somewhat famous celebrity, who might be in a movie you might have seen, and how it’s as awkward for him as it is for you, except as he quickly adds, he’s being paid a pirate’s treasure to be stoopid.
After that it’s where things get complicated. Oswalt then launches into stories about how he continually finds himself confronting awful things in the manner of the banality of evil, as if the banality of evil was delivered to your front door by Amazon Prime. Though if he knows who coined the phrase he hasn’t let on and we suspect he wouldn’t even if he did.
The stories are if not always usually – as the best public story tellers know – set to revolve around a combination of his bewilderment and his being a stand in operating on behalf of the audience. As their avatar he is the modern incarnation of The Tramp – he is a wreck, a fool, a nobody who possesses both a sense of innate dignity, and a corresponding contempt mixed with sympathy for the catastrophic stupidity of the masters of the universe, the aspiring masters of the universe and their foot soldiers.
Oswalt with a whore is a classic piece as are his journeys into the dark heart of Middle America where Kentucky Fried Chicken’s new menu is treated with the same reverence a huate intellectual would treat an exhibit at The Tate.
Oswalt is the sort who will tell you how he was put up at a nice hotel by a massive production company, that wanted to hire him to play second banana in a film where he says something arch and funny, and almost true, while a leading man kills bad guys, rescues a famous actress and blah blah blah.
But while at the hotel he gets involved with a woman who has locked herself out of her car, is running from a coke addled loser named Tad, has a gun and a wad of cash she can’t or wont explain, says things that almost sound like complex postmodern narratives and in all other respects sounds authentic.
And then a midget with a monkey shows up.
Like a contemporary bespoke DADAist Oswalt will give you banal details and then stands back and as a stand in for everyone else says, but in the midst of all of this banality suddenly the hand of the ABSURD appeared and everything went to shit but like Harold Lloyd on a building’s ledge, or Buster Keaton, he is both participant and observer.
What matters even more though is that Oswalt is telling a specific and important truth.
The system is built on lies, it lies every minute of every day and we are all both participant and observer if we are at our best, but we are also surrounded by coked up morons named Tad, people who locked themselves out of their cars and maybe did it on purpose or maybe not, and then something authentically weird happens but precisely because the system generated it, it’s racing towards the banal – the truth that the system is a midget with a monkey and Tad may be an accidental king, and the woman with the mysterious wad of cash and the gun and the car, are both ridiculous and the living embodiment of a Tarot pack.
At the start of the Tarot the first card shows the earnest fool beginning his journey towards wisdom. But in being both earnest and a fool he doesn’t see that as he steps out his front door he is about to trip and fall down because he doesn’t see what’s right in front of him.
Patton Oswalt is the Fool and our fool and he’s watching the world and nudging America in the side to say – pst, buddy, yeah it’s as weird as it appears and by the way, here comes a midget with a monkey.