Patton Oswalt: Finest Hour debuts tonight at 10 p.m. on Showtime
This past January, I saw Patton Oswalt live for the first time; I’d been a fan of his for several years, but somehow missed every show he’d done in Austin, Texas between 2007 and 2010. Ostensibly in town to promote his book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, the set was also a chance for Oswalt to work out the material that would eventually become his new TV special/album combo, Finest Hour. Yet, when I left the theater that night, it didn’t feel like I had just seen the “finest hour” of material from the stand-up whose last two albums featured stinging, insightful, and playfully hilarious commentary on American consumerism (“America has spoken—pile my food in a fucking bowl”) and religion (or what he describes on My Weakness Is Strong as “the old ‘sky cake’ dodge”). This new material was strangely squishy—though it did make room for Oswalt to stray from the path and spend a few minutes talking about jerking off in his hotel room. Sure, I was prepared to hear more material about Oswalt becoming a father, but to hear the comedian speak positively about wearing sweatpants in public? That was jarring
Of course, one of the many great things about stand-up is its fluid, ever-evolving nature, and what was presented as a so-so live set comes together in a tight, tidy presentation in Finest Hour; the rhythm and flow of the special echo the best, most masterfully constructed of Oswalt’s individual jokes. Finest Hour falls short of literally being the best 60 minutes of Oswalt’s career, but it’s still a sterling example of the stand-up form.
In short, Finest Hour is Oswalt’s first special/DVD/album that doesn’t feel like an exponential leap forward in terms of writing and joke-telling. But that in and of itself says something positive about Oswalt’s artistic evolution: At this point in his career, he can still be insanely funny without rocking the audience’s world. Some might take this—as I did in January—as a sign of a mellowing comedian, but it’s really Oswalt’s next step toward becoming a figure of unending stand-up esteem like George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, or Bill Cosby. You know: the type who doesn’t necessarily need to come up with a new set every time he goes on tour but does so because he’s not content to settle into a greatest-hits rut. And by merit of his keen eye for details, well-articulated worldview, and skills as a writer and editor, the type who can stay consistently funny while doing so.
Finest Hour feels like a logical continuation of 2009’s My Weakness Is Strong: There are updates on Oswalt’s continued adventures in fatherhood, his desire to become more physically fit (and his inability to stop “swimming towards pie”), a quick goof on the peculiarities of Christianity, and stories that begin with incredibly pedestrian set ups involving air travel and grocery shopping that quickly go off the rails in distinctly amusing ways. Oswalt has always been gifted at burrowing into the particulars of a story, and while his setups begin like so much throat-clearing, by the time he’s dropping a humor nugget like “the Zorro of vomit-bag users,” it’s clear that all the exposition is necessary. Oswalt is always thinking a few steps beyond simple observations, and Finest Hour features some great theoretical digressions: Jesus’ X-Men audition scotched by the fish-and-loaves miracle, a New York City crackhead relating a back-alley blow job ruined by Oswalt and his dog, FBI Christmas parties soundtracked by the borderline insane ramblings and improvised songs of an automobile-bound Oswalt. And while the freewheeling portions of his live shows don’t always turn out off-the-cuff gold, it’s evident from the lengthy spiral of nonsense Oswalt spins in that last bit (Sung in response to an adorable puppy he spies from his car window: “Send an APB to the Burbank cops/ There’s a thief made of cinnamon and lemon drops”) that he was able to workshop some in-the-moment material into well-structured portions of a larger joke.
If Oswalt dropped any crowd work or spitballing into the sets that make up Finest Hour, they were left on the cutting room floor—though the editors allowed enough space to include Oswalt chastising himself for mispronouncing “brewery.” (“Gotta go visit the bew-ery—you know, where they bew the beers?”) Otherwise, there’s no noticeable post-production monkeying, and audience reactions are kept at mercifully low volumes. And as noted in The A.V. Club’s recent interview with Oswalt, since this is a Showtime special, the set is presented as an uninterrupted whole, with no threat of a commercial break derailing the rhythms of, say, Oswalt’s sharp critique of the modern-day circus. Director Jason Woliner takes a similarly casual approach, cutting between cameras often enough to maintain forward momentum—but never to the point of distraction. Aside from one oddly placed close-up of audience members reacting to an Avengers reference, Woliner keeps the camera trained on the star, breaking only for wide shots showing that, yes, this special was recorded in front of a healthy, responsive audience in Seattle.
During the special’s most overtly political routine—where Oswalt counters Biblically derived arguments against gay marriage with “I’m glad you like a book”—it occurred to me that the more scathing examples of Oswalt’s comedy have always channeled a particular type of anger. (Though, if our interview with him is any indication, that’s less and less the case in his daily life.) During the George W. Bush era, it was a righteous indignation. But as he’s grown as a comedian (and, I suppose, a human being), his exasperation at society’s intolerances and stupidities have softened into a bemused exasperation. Now, two specials into being a father, he isn’t mad that some people mask their personal ugliness with words that were written more than a millennium ago—he’s just disappointed. And while longtime fans might perceive that as a comedian growing soft with age, after watching Finest Hour, I see it for what it truly is: an artist coming into his own. Sure, he tells some cute stories about his daughter throughout the special—but he also compares someone else’s kid to a serial killer. If this is a softer Oswalt, at least it’s his own brand of softness. And it’s still hilarious.