When a comedian finds themselves becoming successful, they are usually caught in a catch-22. More often than not, their success stems from striking a particular nerve with an audience, shedding new light on a truism with humor that is relatable and speaks to their experience. At the same time, the world of comedy is very insular, sealing off those it accepts from the audiences with whom they once shared a kinship.
Patton Oswalt has been somewhere on the sliding scale of fame for over a decade now, receiving several Grammy nominations for his stand-up albums and having a cushy role as Spencer on “The King of Queens.” During this time, he has proven to be a master of finding absurdity in what most would write off as mundane. From grocery store self-checkouts to the KFC Famous Bowl, no inconsequential part of the modern human experience is outside of Oswalt’s impeccable ability to make anything sound insane.
With “Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time,” Patton Oswalt’s fifth hour-long comedy special, he knowingly walks a tightrope by drawing from a well of experience most will never fully understand. The bulk of Oswalt’s set focuses on topics such as performing comedy at a casino and, as he puts it, the “sacrilegious” amount of money that comes with it, and other tales relating to having a matured career in show business.
It is hard to deny that success and career stability have changed Oswalt. In fact, it’s the point of the special. The Patton Oswalt of old had something to prove, while his present self could phone in the next few years of his career and not lose an ounce of the goodwill he’s earned from audiences and fellow comics.
Thus, it is particularly noteworthy that “Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time” is a very grounded and palatable hour of stand-up comedy. When so many stand-up comics have seen their acts consumed by career-related lifestyle changes, Oswalt’s necessary pivot toward material one step removed from the common is a constraint that creates opportunity. Since Oswalt is as much of a storyteller as he is a joke slinger, he carves out metaphor and context with surgeon-like precision, placing the audiences into his shoes even though they’re unlikely to ever fill them.
“Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time” does not pack the wallop of much of his earlier work, but that is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison. It may not be as punchy or quotable as something like “Werewolves and Lollipops,” but there are few hours of comedy that have come out this year that are as consistently funny as this one. Oswalt continues to be a master of his craft, and the message of his most recent special is loud and clear: He’s not going away, but he could if he wanted.
“Patton Oswalt: Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time” aired on Comedy Central on April 6. The album of the same name is available on iTunes April 8.
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