[In addition to being a regular contributor here at Collider, Evan Valentine has also been doing stand-up comedy for the last decade. We’ve asked him to review Netflix’s comedy specials given his own experience and viewpoint in the industry]
“It’s chaos. Be kind.”
Tragedy and comedy are linked. The funniest comedians are often using the artform of standup in order to deal with the demons that are haunting them, and have been haunting them, throughout their lives. Alcoholism, suicide, and drug abuse are common in the world of comedy, but none are as powerful as the spotlight, standing in front of a microphone and airing your grievances to a waiting audience. In his Netflix special, Annihilation, Patton Oswalt rallies against the dawn in a world gone mad. Oswalt recently went through the horrible, unexpected loss of his wife last year, and is attempting to piece himself back together for the sake of his daughter while also combating the depression that was always a constant in his life. You may not consider Annihilation to be the funniest comedy special that you’ve ever seen, but it might be the most necessary.
To give you some background on Oswalt, if you aren’t already familiar, the 48-year-old comedian has been in the world of comedy since his 20s. Finding a place in Hollywood in writers’ rooms for such fabled television shows as Mad TV, Oswalt was eventually able to record some comedy television specials while also becoming one of the supporting characters on the ultra-popular King of Queens sitcom. He continued climbing up the Hollywood comedy ladder, making appearances in movies and television, while also managing to create a name for himself in the world of nerd pop culture. His most famous role in that regard is probably on NBC’s Parks and Rec, as a worried citizen who needed to convey his idea for the next Star Wars movie as being a crossover with the Marvel Universe proper. Patton Oswalt is a staple of the comedy world, a figure that aspiring comics look up to not simply because of his material or his fame, but also his personality.
Before we dive into the core of his latest special, though, what would comedy be without a swing at the orange elephant in the room, and our current commander in chief, Donald Trump? Oswalt was notorious for his criticisms of George W. Bush in previous comedy specials, so it goes without saying that his words for Trump are even more biting. Oswalt uses his opening salvo to dive into his daily basic routine in the world of Trump, how his thoughts tend toward the apocalyptic (even so far as portraying the idea that alcoholics were throwing their “sobriety chips” into the wind, waiting until the end of Trump’s term before picking them up again), and breaking down how utterly bizarre the whole situation is. The stout comedian even takes the opportunity to empathize with Trump – not sympathize, mind you – but empathize with his situation in how maybe the presidency wasn’t exactly something he was expecting or even wanted in the first place. It’s biting, well-considered commentary, and Patton is one of the masters at it.
From there, Oswalt talks about the idea of getting into a fight, which shows off another side of his comedic brilliance. He has so many strengths, but storytelling is one to note, as he paints vivid portraits of the real-life tales he tells. In the past, Oswalt would regale the crowd with stories that would convey the absurdity of, say, a giant rat running across nearby power lines, or his experience with accidentally waltzing into an orgy in the Hollywoods Hills or, my personal favorite, a blasé birthday clown who emerged from the forest, did a terrible job of being a clown, only to return to the woods from whence he came. In Annihilation, the fight scene Oswalt comes across of a “power lifter” demolishing an opponent on the street, only for everything to then return to normal, is fantastic. In another great story, the comedian talks about taking his daughter into a haunted house, in a way that had me absolutely rolling with laughter as he described the scariest thing he saw.
In one of the most impressive feats of comedy I’ve seen in some time, Oswalt decides to focus entirely on crowd work, picking a few random strangers from the front row of the theater and deciding to talk with them about who they are and what their jobs are. As a comic myself, I can tell you that crowd work is exceptionally difficult. So much can go wrong when a comedian is simply delivering their own material, therefore, working off-the-cuff with complete strangers seems like insanity. Oswalt taking an opportunity to work the crowd during his Netflix special is, in a word, ballsy. The most unbelievable thing about it is that Oswalt manages to take three complete strangers, their professions, and seamlessly weave them all together in a final punchline. It’s some masterclass comedic timing and structure to be sure, and if it wasn’t Oswalt, you would assume the audience members had been planted there.