Patton Oswalt has always seemed like a smart, well-meaning, empathetic guy, but I still got nervous when he first uttered the word “woke” about three quarters of the way through his new Netflix special We All Scream. Was he about to reveal himself to be yet one more comedian of his era who disappears up his own ass while complaining about “cancel culture”—or, as it should be called, “reasonable criticism that almost never actually hurts anybody’s career”? It wouldn’t be a complete surprise, since the 53-year-old comedian took some social media hits after doing a set with his old friend Dave Chappelle this past New Year’s Eve; honestly, it wouldn’t be a surprise simply because Oswalt is a 53-year-old comedian.
Oswalt’s “woke” material isn’t the kind of knee jerk aggression and condescension we’ve come to expect from comedians of a certain age. For him the butt of the joke isn’t whoever might be offended by poorly considered jokes that punch down at vulnerable members of society—you know, the kind of anti-“woke” comedy that Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais have embarrassingly engaged in for years now. Oswalt instead targets the anti-“woke” by essentially calling them old and out of touch, albeit in a way that tries not to offend them, either. His whole framing is that “woke” ages poorly—that anybody who lives long enough will become confused and put off by evolving mores and changing definitions of normalcy.
It’s obvious that Oswalt is trying to address one of the major cultural issues of the day—one that’s especially germane to his career of stand-up—in a way that won’t insult or criticize anybody. That just makes it all so toothless, misguided, and unnecessary. He wants to say something without saying anything, but in the process of constructing an absurd possible future that would prove his point—one in which it’s legal for people to fuck their clones—he effectively depends on a strawman argument that demeans the LGBTQIA community’s justified complaints about comedians like Chappelle. Oswalt doesn’t name anybody or get into any specifics, but this bit still reads like an attempt to explain and thus somewhat absolve comedians who have used their recent sets to insult at-risk individuals who are already discriminated against and endangered by today’s society. I think it’s clear that’s not really Oswalt’s intention, and I don’t think he has any problems with the LGBTQIA community or any desire to make fun of them, but his attempt to navigate this thorny issue simply doesn’t work. It’s also not particularly funny.
Fortunately there’s a solid 50 or so other minutes in We All Scream, most of which come before that detour. Oswalt still has the charm and the skill with language that has always been the backbone of his stand-up; his comedy is less about the uniqueness of his observations and more about how he vocalizes and performs them. He’s comfortable on stage and after eight or so comedy specials his audience is equally comfortable with him, making the hour feel something like reconnecting with an old friend.
The highlight of the special is a long story about how protective Oswalt’s wife gets when they spot a stranger in their backyard. Oswalt keeps piling on notes and details about her increasingly agitated and defensive state, crafting a funny and relatable sketch in the process. He goes for a similar slice-of-life approach with several minutes of Covid material early in the show, and those don’t work quite as well. It’s been two and a half years since the pandemic started, and we’ve seen a number of comedy specials about it in that time. Oswalt’s thoughts on the matter are fairly standard, focusing on how we all planned to use our new found reserves of free time to work on self improvement but almost never actually put in the work to get in shape or learn a new language. It’s nothing comedy fans haven’t heard before, but Oswalt is still likable and proficient in his delivery.
Elsewhere Oswalt returns to the kind of crowd work found in his 2017 special Annihilation. He talks to a handful of front-row audience members about their jobs, and although he gets off a few good lines, this section winds up feeling longer than it is. There’s nothing particularly interesting about the guests he chooses or what they do for a living, and Oswalt isn’t able to salvage what feels a bit like dead space. And the ultimate punchline, that the last two members called on are way less confident and accomplished than their fellow crowd members, feels perfunctory—not like Oswalt is reacting to them and what they say, but simply getting to a beat he had planned on hitting before he ever talked to them.
His material in We All Scream isn’t the strongest, but Oswalt’s still such a charming and familiar presence that I can’t say I disliked the special. When you’re as experienced as he is, and with such mastery of the audience, there’s a pretty huge cushion when it comes to your actual jokes. The only time Oswalt gets near a sour note is that ill-advised bit about “wokeness,” and fortunately it’s relatively short and saved ‘til the end of the hour. I’m pretty sure I won’t watch or listen to We All Scream nearly as much as I have Oswalt’s earlier works, but his fans won’t regret watching it.
Patton Oswalt: We All Scream is now streaming on Netflix.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.