Patton Oswalt's first half-hour HBO special a decade and a half ago (I'm as surprised as you) marked the arrival of a unique comic voice, one that would, in the subsequent years, assume a place alongside Louis C.K., Chris Rock, and Eddie Izzard as one of the foremost working practitioners of the art. Along the way, he continued to develop a specific comedic style, deftly mixing generous portions of pop culture geekery with trenchant political commentary, absurdist flights of fancy, and occasional confessional sidebars.
But we geeks must grow up, and Oswalt did; he was married in 2005 and had his first child two years ago. His 2009 special, My Weakness is Strong, saw a subtle but noteworthy shift in the focus of his material, as concerns of marriage and impending fatherhood started to work his way into the act. The Oswalt of his new special, Finest Hour (which first aired last fall on Showtime), has pivoted further towards these themes--but, thankfully, without abandoning his distinctive persona or welcome edge.
Sure, there are stories of fatherhood: running "daddy errands"; realizing that his parenting choices come off, to his mother, as criticisms of hers; engaging in impromptu "dance parties" with his daughter. But Oswalt hasn't transformed into some kind of insufferable daddy comedian, or even shifted to predominately family-focused material (a la Ray Romano). He's still dealing with the same insecurities (when his mother insists that, via her methods, he "turned out just fine," he tells the audience, "I let that go. I don't have four hours"); he's still capable of taking the mundane and coming up with an ingenious pop analogy (as when he compares his immediately-winded dancing with his daughter to a bloated Axl Rose's performance at the VMAs).
But because Oswalt is letting us in to personal matters, and taking on a more plainly autobiographical bent on stage, his persona is evolving past the comic book geek box that some keep sticking him in. He's an enormously likable comic, to such a degree that the acknowledgement of one of his rare fumbles (at one point, he says "bewery" instead of "brewery") stays in, because his immediate reaction gets such a warm and genuine laugh. And because of that familiarity, he's also approaching the kind of hallowed ground Bill Cosby treads in his performances these days, where he can tell a story that's not inherently funny, but more anecdotal--talking his way out of a ticket, a misunderstanding at the deli counter--and turn it into a first-rate bit via the skill of the telling and the insane leaps of logic he can take within it. (The unexpected references help too; there's as many left-field call-ups here as in a good Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode.)
He bounces from one topic to the next--other subjects include The Avengers, cursive writing, the Spam museum, the circus, jock rock, dreaming, Jerry Maguire, Disneyland, living in L.A., and walking a dog in New York--with an abandon that borders on recklessness. His segues that are minimal, and sometimes entirely absent ("The circus is in town!" he'll suddenly announce, or tell us, apropos of nothing previous, "I've got some Ambien waiting back in the room..."). He's got no hesitancy about pulling a weird bit out far past its presumed breaking point (see the riff on the vomit-bag guy: "Please let me vomit for you"). And neither domestic bliss not fatherhood has softened his occasional darkness, which comes with an early warning, after a particularly odd dramatization: "Yeah, Dr. Suess on an angry pussy hunt. Strap in!"
Video & Audio:
The anamorphic widescreen image is crisp and attractive; skin tones are natural and clarity is good. Oswalt wears a dark suit against a dark curtain and the frame is heavy on shadows, but there is no crushing of note. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is nicely immersive, placing the viewer in the midst of well-separated audience reaction, while Oswalt's audio is clean and audible. in the center channel.
"Encore: KFC Bit" (8:32) marks the comic's return to KFC, which he memorably skewered with a bit on the "Famous Bowls" on his Werewolves and Lollipops record. He discusses the company's response to the notorious bit, as well as how the company went "Caligula crazy" with the "Double Down" sandwich and a test-marketed product called the "Mega Leg" ("That sounds biblical!"). It's a great bit, as funny as anything on the special--eight and a half minutes well spent. "Pre-Show Superstitions" (7:18) cleverly combines footage of the comic backstage with the typical enthusiastic sound bites from fans in the lobby. And "Stuff that Patton Mentions" (4:10) is a charmingly low-rent featurette that promises exactly what it delivers.
To his credit, Oswalt proves himself a comic who is still taking chances and still evolving, even when he could easily rest or coast. Patton Oswalt: Finest Hour doesn't quite live up to its title (that honor still probably goes to his untouchable first album, Feelin' Kinda Patton), but it is still an outstanding hour-plus of stand-up from one of the best in the business.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.