“Anger eventually cancels out comedy,” Patton Oswalt told me in 2009. “I think what you have to do is find the thing that delights you, and if you really push [that], then the people that piss you off, it just makes them angry… If you’re onstage, and instead of cursing what you hate, you’re celebrating the alternative and making that seem better, that’s what drives your enemies bugfuck. That’s what just drives them into the red.”
Throughout Finest Hour, his latest Comedy Central special (out on DVD today), Oswalt celebrates all manner of things. ABBA, the “torture porn of the Old Testament,” his child’s dancing, Bob Seger, Green Lantern comic books, a guy who “plays [a puke bag] like Dizzy Gillespie,” even the simple pleasures of a food court filled with courteous people or having drinks and seeing a movie with a sibling. (Many of the more tangible items that make appearances in his jokes throughout are even featured in a wildly silly and impressively thorough bonus-material montage, “Stuff Patton Mentions.”) Even the way he walks out onto Seattle’s Moore Theatre stage and mouths “Oh my God,” at the packed, rapturous audience points to a certain type of celebration: an exuberant sense of appreciating just how far his hard work has gotten him in the past two and a half decades. You’d be psyched, too, if you got to stand in front of a couple thousand folks and turn a scenario in which a supermarket denizen says, “I want all the ham!” into a rich and ridiculous time-traveling-warrior epic.
More than simple celebration and appreciation, Finest Hour depicts Oswalt as a man learning as he goes. He still talks plenty of shit on people taking their beliefs to illogical ends or the passive-aggressive, nonsensical hatred of homosexuals, but he also turns the focus on himself. Whether it’s a quick apology for being a dick in the past to people who wore sweatpants in public (“They’re a miracle,” the new father admits), his “jock-rocking” all the boring stuff that happens in his life (from going to the post office to masturbating to internet porn when “he should be teaching his daughter to read”), his self-mockery knows no bounds. Oswalt cycles through several scenarios—from slaphappy rhyming songs to fart sounds—that both illustrate what a goof he is and eradicate any wall there might have been between performer and audience.
“What I love about Patton is his precision,” Paul F. Tompkins told me for that same 2009 story. “He writes these beautiful, rich, textured pieces that have so much happening in them conceptually and have such exact language.” Based on that criteria alone, this special very well may indeed be Oswalt’s Finest Hour yet. Phrases like “an unbroken belt of stink” and “Dr. Seuss on an angry pussy hunt” manage to be thoughtful, illustrative and laugh-out-loud funny at once. Elsewhere, “neck-deep in the crazy pool” and “chainsaw-titted clown” work that same magic. Illustrating Tompkins’s point, these are words that sound great together, grab the listener’s attention and somehow walk the line between hyper-intelligent highbrow and make-your-mother-blush lowbrow in such a way that they stand up to scrutiny, even out of context.
“I might as well put on Blackface,” Oswalt says at one point of auditioning for a role as the gay best friend in a romantic comedy, later spinning it to point out a weird, condescending trend in mainstream movies. “I wanna be the first dumb, gay best friend in the history of cinema,” as opposed to the “quip machine” that so many stereotypical Hollywood roles portray. Elsewhere, he discusses how we have gotten rid of slavery, but we still have the circus. Even when jokes like these hinge on him eventually turning to dicks or defecation, there’s an underlying thread that Oswalt is working to make the world a better place. He’s learning and striving just like everyone else, and he doesn’t always have the right answers. On Finest Hour he acknowledges his wavering atheism, wondering if maybe he should believe in 8,000 gods instead of none, and admits that maybe he’s a little more into Ambien than a dad in his 40s should be. It’s refreshing to hear a successful, outspoken dude saying, “Hey, maybe I don’t have any idea what’s going on either.” After all, what’s the point if we all keep getting older and don’t learn a damn thing?
“I hope and expect to look back on everything I think and feel right now and say, ‘Wow, I sure got a lot wiser,’” Oswalt told me toward the end of our 2009 conversation. “I hope—I really hope—for that. I still feel wisdom and humility are just specks on my horizon, though.”