Patton Oswalt starts and ends his new stand-up special We All Scream—his fourth hour for Netflix and eighth overall—by making fun of himself.
The 53-year-old comedian has been increasingly focused on the humiliation of aging in recent years, including a hilarious riff about the differences between people in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and sixties in his previous special I Love Everything, which came out in early 2020. That makes We All Scream the first hour that Oswalt wrote, toured and taped all during the pandemic era and he is quick to acknowledge that he did not thrive under COVID lockdown.
After an opening bit about how easy it is to get injured after 50, he segues into a an extended tangent about “clown pubes” that he says exemplifies the type of absurdist places his mind went when he was trapped in his home without the accessible platform of the stand-up stage to expel his darkest thoughts, as he has done consistently for the past three and a half decades.
Oswalt has always excelled at exposing the parts of ourselves that we generally like to keep hidden. And his own life circumstances have forced him to look inward in recent years, beginning with the sudden death of his wife Michelle McNamara in the spring of 2016, which he channeled into a searingly emotional set just a few months later and ultimately became the centerpiece of his 2017 Netflix special Annihilation.
In I Love Everything, Oswalt swerved back into a more purely silly place by focusing on his attempts to re-engage with the world in a positive way, including by getting remarried to current wife Meredith Salenger. As he told me on The Last Laugh podcast when that special was released, “I think it reflects just that kind of resurging of the life force after being in so much darkness and then being back in the light. You know, like a man who was dying of thirst and gets a sip of water and it’s the most luxurious, delicious water he’s ever had. So that’s kind of how life felt to me after coming out of all that.”
But while Annihilation was about a very personal tragedy, much of We All Scream, which also marks Oswalt’s directorial debut and premieres this Tuesday on Netflix, deals with the collective horror that was these past few years. And that includes his unvarnished takes on the political divides exacerbated by COVID-19.
When Oswalt tells the Denver crowd nearly halfway in that he’s vaccinated and double-boosted, it is met with applause from his like-minded fans. But he is quick to point out how “sad” it is for them to celebrate that simple action. “You get applause for taking the most basic care of your health,” he remarks. “That’s like me saying, ‘Folks, I wipe after I shit.’”
He goes on to compare “MAGA country’s” refusal to get vaccinated to the “backward, racist, sexist, homophobic dipshits” who were happy to line up for the polio shot all the way back in 1955. “Gimme that shot, I can’t police these water fountains from a wheelchair!” he imagines them saying.
As expertly written as this section is—including the perfect word choice of “plague barge” in reference to the cruises conservatives can’t seem to stop taking—the special really takes off at the end when he turns toward the future and what the country might look like if it continues in the direction it’s been heading in recent years.
And while he has plenty of harsh words here as well for those to his right politically—including a dig at his old friend Joe Rogan, a “sweet guy” who has gone “off the rails”—he notably does not let himself off the hook.
“I’m woke, I think,” Oswalt tells the crowd. “But you know what? I won’t be someday. Be woke, be open-minded, just don’t pat yourself on the back, because it will bite you in the ass.” He jokingly frets that while he is totally on board with trans rights today, there may come a day when he makes the mistake of criticizing Americans who want to sleep with their clones.
“I’m woke, I think. But you know what? I won’t be someday. Be woke, be open-minded, just don’t pat yourself on the back, because it will bite you in the ass.”
Oswalt speaks from experience as an outspoken progressive who found himself in unexpectedly hot water after he innocently posted photos of himself posing with Dave Chappelle (“a genius I started comedy with 34 years ago”) last New Year’s Eve.
After commenters accused him of betraying his transgender fans, Oswalt wrote a long response in which he both apologized for not considering the “hurt” his original post would cause and defended his right to simply share a photo of himself with an old friend.
“For all the things he’s helped ME evolve on, I’ll always disagree with where he stands NOW on transgender issues,” Oswalt wrote of Chappelle at the time. “But I also don’t believe a seeker like him is done evolving, learning.”
While he doesn’t address that incident explicitly, Oswalt does predict that as he continues to age, he will inevitably fail to keep up with the progress of society and risk getting “canceled” for expressing opinions that are no longer acceptable. But unlike Chappelle, he manages to make jokes about gender identity without making trans people the target. He even imagines a better future when demographics have shifted so radically that comedians will go out of their way to make sure they are not offending the straight white minority in America.
Ultimately, Oswalt doesn’t need to punch down because he is so good at making himself the punchline. The very last thing Oswalt does in We All Scream is tell a deeply embarrassing story about himself that I won’t spoil here but just know that it involves explosive diarrhea and rivals the funniest closers of his career.
For more, listen to Patton Oswalt on The Last Laugh podcast.
The Daily Beast