Patton Oswalt at Just For Laughs, Montreal

Review by Steve Bennett

He may be a big(ish) star, but the ever-grounded Patton Oswalt hasn’t lost sight of what a useless chump he is.

A physical wreck, occasionally self-loathing, occasionally pathetic, occasionally petty, his stand-up reflects the reality of lazy, first-world lives when everything is convenient – except happiness.

That’s summed up perfectly in a scene he depicts with almost cinematic clarity, as he stands in front of a wall of ready-meals and is suddenly overwhelmed with suicidal thoughts. It’s poignant and tragic… yet Oswalt’s matter-of-fact acceptance of the fact brings hilarity from the futility of existence. Quite some feat.

Elsewhere the miserable undercurrent comes to the fore as he confesses to binge-eating an unlikely combination of junk food just out of boredom; while a story about a socially awkward 19th Century rose-cultivator – yes that old hack comedy staple – turns into a bleakly sad one-act play. You’re never too far from misery with Oswalt’s set – which perfectly suits that careworn, hangdog face.

When, in another confessional section, he talks about getting a prostitute, it hangs heavy with the grim reality of the situation, in absolute contrast to the ‘so I was banging this chick…’ shtick of a conventional alpha-male club comic.

As you might expect, Oswalt is not one of those slick rat-a-tat performers so prevalent in Montreal this week. His stories need space to set the scene and a loose performance to add the personal touch. There are segments, sometimes quite lengthy, when you’re not laughing – but the rewards are greater when they come.

His inward-looking humour reveals his changing attitudes to life as he’s got older, as demonstrated by how his once-passionate hatred for certain bands has subsided into just ignoring them. Though it would be a mistake to think he’s entirely grown up, as stories about how he brings up his three-year-old daughter attest.

Self-doubt is another strong theme. He recalls a night early in his career at the ‘Sir Laughs A Lot’ comedy club in Milwaukee, performing in an alcove ‘like a goblin’. Amid his terrible on-stage death, a well-spoken man questioned Oswalt’s career choice – words that seem to haunt him to this day

So racked with self-doubt is he that he projects on to other people – in one stand-out routine he imagines Arnold Schwarzenegger's infidelity came in a moment of clarity when he realised how unlikely his success story was.

Yet for all his avowed insecurities, Oswalt seems effortlessly at home on stage. So much so that when he receives a very lengthy answer to the stock ‘what do you do?’ question to one audience member, he settles himself in for the yarn, sitting patiently and cross-legged on stage for the life story. Conventional wisdom says comics should repeat audience responses so the whole room can hear – but not being able to make out this convoluted tale didn’t seem to matter: just watching Oswalt’s genuine interaction endeared him to an audience who could identify with his frank worldview.

Published: 27 Jul 2012

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