It Ain’t Pol Pot: Thought On Patton Oswalt’s “Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time”

There just isn’t nerd comedy without Patton Oswalt. The intellectually-charged punchlines, the esoteric references–in the campsite of the comedy world, there isn’t a single spot for a nerd to pitch his pup tent that Oswalt hasn’t helped clear the underbrush and stinging insects (ie, cruise ship comedians) away from. In comedy circles, this is widely understood and respected. If you’ve ever successfully told a joke that compared Aragorn’s familial bloodline to Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages, you have people like Patton Oswalt, Dana Gould, and Blaine Capatch to thank.

So now it’s ten years after the release of Feelin’ Kinda Patton (eleven years if you’re looking at it as 222, which, let’s face it: you should), and I am listening to Patton address perhaps the most ubiquitous topic of the standard, ho-hum comedian: that of his family and the wacky antics of children. And, surprisingly enough, it works. While he doesn’t stray into the “my kids are assholes” territory of Louis CK, it’s still sincerely funny material from a source you never expected it from.

Though, all things considered, perhaps we should have seen this coming.  We are none of us getting any younger–and even the ogre-stoner visage of Brian Posehn has thrown himself down the staircase that is “family life” (while pleading with us to not punch his baby). And while I don’t expect Patton to become a family-centric style of entertainer, but I can’t deny that something feels different. And his latest comedy special Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time raises the occasional bushy eyebrow.

That’s not to suggest that it’s a bad special: far from it. Patton Oswalt is still one of the funniest men in America, and this is just the latest comedy knight to defend our nerdly king when someone attempts to steal his crown away from him. No, Patton is just as smart, well-paced, and bodyslammingly funny as he ever was. But several moments in his special left me wondering if it couldn’t have been even better.

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The special starts off strong, with a devastatingly funny analysis of Florida that segues into life with his daughter. The family life has been good to Oswalt, and nothing about his child’s antics feels disingenuous (though the crib death of his first child, Ten Hours Sleep A Night, is never addressed). It’s a funny series of routines–Patton still feels like Patton–and it all wraps up with a little bit of dark genius regarding the various ways that his depression, like a virus, is perpetually evolving to meet his every turn.

Looking back, this first half of the special feels like it should have been the second half–the climax of “Creative Depression” is lightyears ahead of any of his other jokes, and would have been a great way to close Tragedy. It’s absurd and bleak and made me laugh hard. This is the high water mark of the special (which, admittedly, is no true insult). From here he goes into a truly interesting subject: that of gaining worldwide fame and “selling out”. It’s a fascinating topic–one that I always clamor to hear when people I admire touch on it.  Patton regales the audience with a time that a casino offered him a “sacrilegious” amount of money to perform for a half hour. His promise is that, while the story starts in his favor, it will end with him paying his dues as the karmic retribution of the universe sends him spiraling back to earth. However, this never happens, and instead the moral of the story appears to be that Patton has reached a level of fame where he can almost literally read his resume to an audience and be rewarded with Scrooge McDuck-sized bags of money.

From here he goes into a routine about clothes, and one about getting a hooker in his younger years: two beautiful opportunities to bring himself back down to Comedians Of Comedy-level Patton. And while it’s brutally funny to hear him compare his desire for trendy fashion to that of a dying soldier in the rice paddies of Vietnam, his hooker experience felt… off.

It’s an interesting story–one that I think many people could relate with. For while not all of us have reached the levels of loneliness or curiosity that buying a hooker can entail, Patton weaves the story in such a way it’s truly relatable. Unfortunately, it isn’t all that funny. It’s not tragic or thought-provoking, either–it just is. It feels like either the storyteller is leaving something massively important out, or (more likely) this is simply an interesting anecdote that might be better used for drinking conversation rather than a full-blown comedy routine.

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He picks it back up to a certain extent with the dull Germans and an encore about 19th Century rose gardeners (a routine that feels the most like some of his earliest work), but it never quite gains the traction of the first half of Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time.  I’m not one to put out those horrendous blanket statements such as “being a parent makes you less funny”, and I’m massively suspect of those that do.  Funny is funny and that is that. But some of these moments feel like he’s holding back something, and I can’t ascertain the culprit.

Perhaps his inevitable growth–or perhaps it’s something deeper. If I had a young daughter, would there be something in me that would want to alter the conclusion of my hooker story? Would I feel the need to address my sell-out hating past with any anemic scrap of authenticity that I could find?

Maybe. I honestly can’t say.

Maybe they’re just mediocre jokes, and I’m not quite used to that from a comedian who hits as hard as Patton Oswalt. It’s important to note, however, that I’m addressing a relatively small section of this special. I couldn’t, wouldn’t, allow two pieces ruin a larger whole for me, however distracting they might be.

After all is said and done, I still prefer Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time to Finest Hour (which I adored), and I absolutely believe that it’s worth purchasing. Patton Oswalt is still one of the funniest men in the business of show, and it’s a pretty great thing when the weakest jokes in a man’s arsenal are better than 90% of what’s out there. And our favorite Tyrant Nerd King doesn’t appear to be a sell out–so his conscience is clear (for the moment, at least).

Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time was written and performed by Patton Oswalt. It premiered January 17th, 2014 on Epix, and was released as a CD and DVD on April 8th, 2014. It is available on Amazon, iTunes, and wherever comedy is sold.

COMING SOON: The Conquistadork takes a reptile-filled stroll down nostalgia lane with a review of Richard Rosenbaum’s Raise Some Shell.

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One thought on “It Ain’t Pol Pot: Thought On Patton Oswalt’s “Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time”

  1. I completely agree that something felt like it was missing in the special however I assumed it had to do with the fact that I had previewed multiple clips of the special online which ruined some of the charm of hearing them for the first time in context. The closer didn’t have the same impact as the last two specials. I thought that Finest Hour was much stronger however.

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