Refilling the Flagon of Chuckles (or at Least an Extra Tall Improv Glass)...

One of these days, my wife Jen and I will see Patton Oswalt live at the end of a tour, when he has buffed his latest material to a crystalline sheen and stropped each and every punchline to its ultimate razor sharpness. He will be recording (or close to recording) his latest cable special or album, in a hall specially selected for its visual and audial excellence, and it will be a truly memorable night of comedy for us.

But until then, I love watching Patton Oswalt in workshop mode. Last night was our fourth time seeing him onstage in any setting, and our second seeing him onstage at the Irvine Improv (in the old theatre and now in the brand new design, which is much improved, though Patton did riff on how dwarfed he was in the larger, deeper stage layout. [The other two times we saw him live were at the Tenacious D and Friends – Stand with Haiti Benefit at the Wiltern in 2010, where he did a short set amongst many other acts, and at the inaugural Festival Supreme in 2013, where we missed his Stage 3 set (and others) because we could barely get back to that area comfortably without being crushed by the crowds, but he did get on the main stage to make a couple of introductions, and appeared onstage during Tenacious D's closing set, though hidden inside a costume.] 

The last time we saw Patton onstage at the Improv, he came out in sweats, just after having fed his then-infant daughter, and worked haphazardly but hilariously through brand new material off a legal pad. We had seen Eddie Izzard in the early part of a tour a few years back, but he was way beyond where Patton was that night in regards to polish. I found it fascinating to watch Patton throwing out lines and quite literally rewriting on the pad on the stage as he discovered what worked with the crowd and what didn't.

Skipping ahead to last night, Jen and I got to bear witness to Patton's first long stand-up set since his wife died suddenly four and half months ago. He was nervous (or at least seemed that way, and it would be understandable) and if he wasn't totally in control of his emotions, he did have the audience behind him the entire way. Most of the crowd seemed to have an awareness of what they were witnessing, and made allowances for it, although Patton addressed that issue directly on a couple of occasions, calling himself out when he felt that he had gained cheap applause through stage trickery.

Working sporadically off a legal pad once again, the hour-long set was a mix of brand new material, a couple of the best bits from his last tour (the "clown from the edge of the forest" story, for example), his fluent nerd-speak, and some crowd work with the first couple rows of tables (his refrain of "Tractors!" being a favorite for me) when he needed to clear his head a little. But hiding behind everything was that hill that needed climbing, which he tackled somewhat tentatively and more than a bit roughly. With less agile comedians, should they start a bit with "So, my wife died four and a half months ago...," the air would definitely find its way as quickly as possible out of the room. It was different here, because there was so much hanging on it. To a degree, we in the audience were all guilty of being rubberneckers, and perhaps Patton was as well. His act has long relied on being open about his life experiences in a rather sincere way, even more so in the last few years since he got married and had a child. To just ignore that in his act now would seem a betrayal, and he finally tackled it head on with a certain degree of success. Comedy is a fine-tuning process, and with material soaked in this much darkness, he has a lot of tuning to do before it is ready for mass consumption.

Patton had one sure thing in his pocket, and he was able to rely on the makeup of his audience when he needed a jolt of energy in the show: his high-profile Twitter feuds with various Trump acolytes, and his anger at the political circus in which we are enmeshed currently. In fact, so fired up was he on this point that he interrupted his new opening material to launch into some Trump material. "OK, I'm sorry, but this can't wait..." Everyone knew exactly what was coming. It was grand.

On a personal note: I found it interesting that when Patton mentioned that most of his audience were probably of like mind with him politically and then the resultant applause started, my eyes immediately drifted across the audience to see who wasn't clapping. (Mind you, Irvine is a city in Orange County, traditionally the most Republican-voting county in left-dominant Southern California.) The people on either side of us weren't clapping at that cue, but then they laughed as hard at everything, including every other anti-Trump rip that followed, as we were, so that response applause was clearly no indicator. I just found it interesting that my knee-jerk reaction was to suss out the enemy within. That is where our country has gone with this, and I am as guilty as anyone of being unaccepting of the opinions of others. We all need to step this back a notch or two.

[I wish that I had pictures but the Improv, much like a movie theatre, has a "no cell phone policy" once the show is underway. I don't like my movies interrupted, and I am certainly not going to ruin a stand-up show either. Unless Dane Cook is on the stage...]


Anonymous said…
Thanks for posting this. It's such a thoughtful writeup for a great performer in the midst of an enormous (and painful) transition. I'm just one more random human who's loved Oswalt's work for years and had her head kicked open by his stuff on multiple occasions; like many of his fans I'm quietly wishing him well. I've never managed to make it to one of his shows, sadly, (the only time I've seen him in person was a Q&A about Silver Screen Fiend), but I love that he's so open about his process; it's raw and genuine. Getting an equally genuine glimpse into the audience's part in that process was awesome. Thank you.
canucklaw said…
I want to say thanks for writing as well. I appreciate that you didn't try to give anything but an honest appraisal of your experience without quoting Patton's jokes verbatim and without any form of sensationalism. I would love to follow Patton as he works through the next period and watch his next set reveal itself. It would be like following the Dead, with slightly less patchouli and significantly more scotch.

Dave McKechnie
If life's a battlefield (and I believe it might well be), this was welcome news from the front.

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