Patton Oswalt is 46 today, and what better time to discuss how the comedian’s act has matured over the years. While Oswalt has always been hilarious, his recent albums have been more revealing and personal than his earlier work, and it’s made him a better comedian. Let’s look at how this evolution took place.
Many comedy fans were first introduced to Oswalt with his 2004 album Feelin’ Kinda Patton, and the corresponding Comedy Central special No Reason To Complain. To be sure, some of Oswalt’s best material came from this era, including his Angus Steak bit, which gave us the phrase “deep-fried potato bacon bomb,” and his rant about the ridiculousness of metal in the 80s (his takedown of the Damn Yankees’ “High Enough” is immortal). If there’s one flaw in this era of Oswalt’s comedy, it’s that his material is mostly just throwing spitballs at everyone else, but not taking a deep look at himself.
Oswalt acknowledged this in his recent Playboy interview with Wil Wheaton:
My first couple of specials are very impersonal. It’s very me trying to impress, me trying to show how smart I am and I’m pointing out how things are done rather than looking inward. That’s always the sign of a young comedian. “This is stupid, this is dumb, and this is where I said this awesome thing to this asshole.” You get older and you’re like, let me talk about this idiotic thing I did.
It’s remarkable how much his comedy has changed in the past ten years, and how willing he now is to talk about himself and his more serious problems.
Consider his 2009 album/special My Weakness Is Strong, in which he speaks openly about his struggles with depression. It was the most honest thing Patton Oswalt has said on any of his albums, and most impressive of all, he managed to make it really funny. When he talks about watching The Princess Bride eleven times in a row, we’re laughing along with him even though he’s telling an incredibly sad story. This was where he truly started to admit his vulnerabilities in his act, and the material benefited from his honesty. Patton Oswalt was no longer a smart ass making (very funny) observations about the absurdities of modern life, he was telling his darkest secrets. My Weakness Is Strong could not have been more apt a title. That album also included the famous “Sky Cake” bit, so it’s not like his abilities as a social commentator diminished.
Oswalt would continue being remarkably honest about himself with 2013’s Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time, but this time, he was more critical of his younger self. In the 11-minute bit “Sellout,” he mocks how cynical he was twenty years ago, while admitting that the concept of selling out is far more relative than he considered it to be. He also tells a great story about doing a casino gig for a bunch of severely drunk audience members. Anyone who has grown up to realize life is more complex than they thought it was as an angry teenager or college student understands where he’s coming from here.
The evolution of Patton Oswalt’s material is kind of amazing. In the early 2000s, he was an exceptional satirist of politics and pop culture. But the increasingly personal nature of his comedy has made his act infinitely more interesting. At 46, Oswalt has many more great albums in him. We can only wait with bated breath to see where he’ll go from here.