It’s perhaps telling that the funniest bit in Patton Oswalt’s new hour-long special, Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time, is a long story about performing comedy to a bunch of drunken casino-goers for an obscene sum of money. That’s not intended as a criticism, really—more an observation on how stand-up comedy becomes more introspective as a comedian’s career goes on. There are plenty of solid bits in Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time, and Oswalt is a stand-up comedian at his peak, who can command an audience’s total attention even when working with quieter energy or telling longer stories punctuated by fewer jokes. But his best story is about him realizing that at this point in his career, he barely needs to do anything at all to make money and be a huge hit with a crowd.
Oswalt was just on an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, shooting the shit about hipsterism and Superman and the like with one of the grand old men of stand-up. Seinfeld always comes off as a remarkably grounded man for someone who has essentially made millions of dollars from being funny, but there’s certainly something lost from a stand-up act when that happens—it’s unavoidable. Oswalt is no billionaire, but he’s been an A-List comedian for more than a decade now, and himself acknowledges that his own edges are softening and his righteous anger cooling in his newest hour, developed largely within Southern California (he sought not to travel by plane while working out the hour) and shot last year in San Diego by Epix—a network that is making a major push to host more and more significant stand-up specials, filling a void left largely by HBO.
Oswalt’s earlier albums featured epic, blistering rants, unforgettably searing but still brutally hilarious. There’d be so many one-liners and dazzlingly clever turns of phrase within a furious diatribe, one wouldn’t be able to figure out what was so funny until the second or third listen. While he has not produced material quite at the pace of Louis C.K., he’s been close, giving us a new special about once every two years. Much like C.K., we’ve watched him mature over the years—Oswalt’s happily married with a kid, doing wonderfully for himself in his chosen profession, and hell, even George W. Bush isn’t there to kick around anymore. It’s no surprise that Oswalt doesn’t let fire the way he used to.
But he mines that change nicely in Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time, which isn’t quite as uproarious as his past specials, but makes for a big improvement on his last, Finest Hour, which saw Oswalt in similar life circumstances but had a nasty, bitter edge to it that was never quite justified by the material. It’s not as if Oswalt is all softballs and puppies now—he rips into the state of Florida for an inspired few minutes, and mocks German humorlessness as exactly the kind of defense mechanism you think it is.
The aforementioned best bit is his long dissection of a situation most comedians could only dream of experiencing. Oswalt takes us through the theoretical dream offer stand-up gig: tons of money to do barely any material at a casino for a crowd so drunk, the very sight of Oswalt is enough to have them leaping to their feet and cheering. The situation is ridiculous, Oswalt seems to be saying, but the larger situation is even more ridiculous—is that really the success we desire? To be popular enough that you no longer need to make any effort at all? He could, essentially, tour casinos filled with drunks month after month, be pampered in honeymoon suite after honeymoon suite, and rake in more than enough money that he’d ever know what to do with, with next to no effort at all.
It’s to Oswalt’s credit that he’s not asking us to applaud him just because he keeps plugging away, even though he doesn’t need to. He’s asking us to applaud him because he’s still a compelling voice, even if he’s one that acknowledges the change in his attitudes over the years. Where he used to care so much about music he’d get angry if people listened to the “wrong” stuff, now he’s happy to leave well enough alone. Where he used to get depressed for pretty typical reasons any broke twentysomething might get depressed, now he finds that unhappy brain chemistry creeping up on him in the strangest of ways.
Oswalt is clearly not quite finished with this evolution. Some of the material is a little creaky; the big laughs are less frequent, the quieter ones creep up on you after a few days. But Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time is a highly watchable, polished hour nonetheless. He should never stray from our screens for too long.
Written by and starring: Patton Oswalt
Directed by: Bobcat Goldthwait
Format: Made-for-TV comedy special
Debuts: Tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on Epix