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Review–Patton Oswalt: “Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time”

So, Patton Oswalt's dip into the EpixHD pond may have left him with skin rash, but at least those of us devious enough to click “GET A FREE TRIAL!” were able to enjoy the compelling waters without much consequence.

“Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time” showcases Oswalt at a moment in his career most entertainers never reach. The comic has been working in the business for over 20 years, comfortably supports his family with A-List compensation and is completely aware of how this affects his comedy. The most noticeable effect in this special is the lack of his trademark rants. Gone are the days of Oswalt’s nerdfighting, endearing cultural condescension from the “Werewolves and Lollipops” era — this special features the performer confiding that he doesn’t get mad about the bands and movies he dislikes anymore. “When I was 25, not only did I not listen to certain music, I would f**kin’ let you know,” he says. Oswalt has matured.

And by matured, I mean that he’s not the niche alterna-comic touting his indie status and scoffing at the sell-outs in their glittering west coast castles anymore. He illustrates this in one of the strongest bits of “Tragedy Plus Comedy” in which he recounts telling exactly zero jokes for a big-ticket casino gig full of drunks that howled at his mere appearance onstage. Oswalt reveals that he was paid more for the short, effortless set than he’d ever been paid in his life — and he’d never made an audience happier.

It’s this sort of honest, introspective story that colors Oswalt’s newest effort, and it works for the most part. While his earlier material played for the big laughs with joke-flurries so thick your head would spin, this hones in on a quieter energy. Oswalt embraces a nuanced wit that manifests itself in a collection of stories about his life rather than quick one-two punches. The laugh-per-minute count is lower, yes, but the hour-long special still sucks you in.

“Tragedy Plus Comedy” displays many changes in Oswalt’s style. However, his usual knack for detail is stronger than ever. The comic expertly employs his voice and body to deliver powerful punchlines with gestures, pantomime and perfectly paced storytelling. Oswalt may open the special by talking about losing weight and his goal of not looking like he’s “wearing a bulletproof vest” all the time, but his physical ability helps some of his best jokes land. Whether he’s contorting his face or emulating an indignant father from an incident with his daughter at the playground, Oswalt peppers his classic linguistic playfulness with bits that wouldn’t seem out of place for Buster Keaton.

Oddly enough, Oswalt’s weakest moments are in the final section of the performance. He closes with a short joke about Germans and their inability to enjoy humor because they’re overcompensating for the Holocaust. It feels out of place and ill-timed, leaving the special without a button to tie it all up. This is the biggest problem with “Tragedy Plus Comedy” — Oswalt doesn’t take advantage of his stories’ common themes to fully paint the picture of who he is, right now, as a comic. Why didn’t he close with the reflective, personal mood he’d been building for the entire act? Perhaps Oswalt wanted to give the audience some more traditional material; maybe it was just a choice in the moment. Regardless, it doesn’t work.

Since he’s taking this different stylistic angle, it’s not surprising that there’s some clunkiness in the delivery. The special as a whole is an exciting departure from Oswalt’s earlier work and teases at what could come in the future. If Oswalt takes the time to refine and master his new techniques as well as keep up his old bag o’ jollies, his next effort could be truly incredible. We’ll be patiently waiting.

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