Comedy Review: Patton Oswalt—Talking For Clapping

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I’ve been a fan of Patton Oswalt’s comedy (and acting, and writing) for a long time now, so I pitched like hell to cover his new standup special for The AV Club and got it, to my great pride—and, you know, anxiety. For one thing, reviewing standup comedy is an intensely personal and important thing for me. For another, Patton (yeah, I’m calling him Patton) is someone I respect a great deal as an artist (I said it) and a person. He swings his mighty little morning star around on Twitter against the abusive and hurtful ignoramuses of the world far more than is healthy for him, and far more than someone with his accomplishments and schedule needs to. Clearly, he just can’t help but talk about things that are important, no matter how much misspelled, personally insulting invective he gets for it. But also, Patton and I have written back and forth on said Twitter and he once sent me, unsolicited, one of the kindest and most flattering things anyone’s ever said about me and my writing in response to my review of a completely unrelated-to-him comedian. No, you can’t read it. That one’s just for me.

But I’m one of those professionals. And so the prospect of reviewing Patton’s new standup was filling me with—what’s that stuff?—oh, terror. I’ve had to review things made by actual friends—you know, people I’d have to see in my actual life—before, and it multiplies my anxiety about writing (always pretty high to begin with) by a factor of about 37. Luckily, I loved Talking For Clapping. As smart as ever, and better integrating his evolving sensibilities than I thought his last two albums did (although they were pretty great, really), the special is a warmly, wryly, geekily pissed off paean (not to say elegy) to common sense in a world that defiantly blows fart noises at common sense. (Or calls out “faggot” to a young Patton in one of his earliest standup gigs, as he relates with signature bemused virtuosity here.) Speaking about getting older (he’s about my age), Oswalt examines how things—even for an arrested manboy trapped in his obsessions with pop culture—irrevocably change, just as they, in sneaky ways, never change at all. You are who you are, your life just forces you to deform yourself into new shapes to accommodate you. I laughed, I related, I sat in something like awe at the unexpected run about his young daughter’s preference for her own chosen geek universe over the one he’d prefer, wherein he—naw, I’m not going to spoil that one. I appreciated. Here was one of the best standup comedians I’ve ever loved, doing what the best standups do, laying out his evolving sensibilities in original thought. It’s great.

And, in a horrifying coincidence that knocked me back on my ass far more than I expected, Patton’s wife, writer Michelle McNamara, died the day before his special (and my review) came out. I was having a nice evening with Emily and our friend and fellow AV Clubber Zack Handlen when he checked his phone. We were all shocked—people our (mine and Emily’s age) don’t just die. But we moved on with our night. It’s only when we got home that I read what I could and it really hit me. I spent the rest of the morning (we stay up late) feeling gutted. It was a strange, again horrifying, coincidence, nothing more. And certainly, Patton Oswalt and I have no more actual friendship than a few Tweets and online chats. He was suffering an unthinkable tragedy. I was feeling taken aback. There’s a huge difference.

Still, though—standup comedy is an intensely personal enjoyment. And I’d spent a week or so listening and re-listening to Patton’s new special—wherein he talks, as ever with nimble turns of phrase and undisguised warmth about his often bewildered love of his role as husband and father, among other things. It was baffling to get this terrible news. I felt the foolish, distant grief you get when someone’s work (seasoned here by the smallest dash of personal connection) truly touches you, and they suffer an unimaginable loss. I sent a two line DM (and, fuck, does the phrase “two-line DM” sound especially, modern-ly ludicrous) expressing love, and sorrow. I wrote a paragraph more expressing same in the comments for the review when it went up that morning, adding that I hoped the internet, collectively, found a way to not be its braying, vindictive, soulless self for a while. (The AV Club commenters, at least, seem to have risen to the occasion.) I cried a little. I felt foolish, of course. But then I chose to forgive the tears—someone whose work, no matter what it is, truly touches you is someone who’s important in your life. Doesn’t matter if the connection is only deeply, commercially impersonal or if he once sent you a kind note one time.

Anyway, here’s my review, for what it’s worth after all this. I’m glad I liked the special so much, and relieved. In the grand scheme of things, neither it, nor this, mean anything to Patton, of course. In the end, it’s a funny special from a great comedian, and I’m happy I got to write about it.

And, just in case I thought I was done with crying, Patton just published this obituary of Michelle. The grief of a writer is a potent, powerful thing, and not to be taken lightly. 

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