Can an aging nerd find happiness?
Pre-pandemic, fandom seemed like one of the great blights on our society, the landscape littered with angry geeks taking to the internet to complain that The Last Jedi sucked or demand the release of the nonexistent Snyder cut. Most lovers of superhero movies and Star Wars are eminently normal, well-adjusted human beings, but the fact that we only heard from the irrational, immature minority made it easy to tar them all with the same dismissive brush. Why don’t they just grow up?
Patton Oswalt was 50 when he filmed his most recent stand-up special, I Love Everything, and if you’re seeking a role model for how to navigate through your awkward, defensive young fandom to become a wiser, contented middle-aged dude, he’s as good as any you could hope to find. Oswalt’s comedy has often leaned on his obsession with pop culture, the more obscure the better — I Love Everything sneaks in non sequitur references to Avalon and Faces of Death, just because — but his voracious consumption of comic books, albums, movies, TV shows and comedy is always endearing rather than nauseating. On stage, his dorkiness is self-deprecating, a product of coming of age at a time when fandom didn’t rule the entertainment industry. Back then, you felt a little embarrassed about the geeky stuff you adored.
But in I Love Everything, Oswalt isn’t focused on such minutia. He’s got a daughter and a new wife — and, you may recall, the wreckage left behind by the tragic death of his first wife, Michelle McNamara, who was the focus of his somber 2017 special Annihilation. By comparison, the mood of this new hour (streaming now on Netflix) is lighthearted, mellow, relieved. Oswalt has cared about comedy all his life, but I Love Everything suggests a man coming to terms with the fact that comedy, like a lot of our obsessions, maybe isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things.
Insecure artists cling to the idea that you need to experience profound misery in order to make great art. It’s this line of thinking that assumes stand-up comics would be overjoyed by the prospect of Trump’s presidency. (Oh, how that cruelty would be such fodder for zingers!) Halfway through I Love Everything, Oswalt torpedoes that fallacy, comparing the current administration to “an 18-wheeler full of monkeys and PCP, and it has crashed into a train full of diarrhea. And now there’s diarrhea-covered monkeys on PCP running around.” The point is that the spectacle is so outrageous and ridiculous that it hardly requires a comedian to highlight it.
As with much of I Love Everything, though, the point is also that Oswalt doesn’t seem concerned with coming up with the killer bit. His Trump joke is okay, nothing monumental, but it’s delivered with that reliable combination of exasperation and wit that’s long been his trademark. Throughout the special, the observations are amusing, a little complacent, the product of a well-off guy who knows how fortunate he is. If Annihilation was simply about surviving McNamara’s passing at the age of 46, relying on the comforting familiarity of stand-up to give him an anchor during a traumatic period, then I Love Everything (as its defiantly upbeat title suggests) seems to be about appreciating happiness. You won’t laugh as often as you have during earlier Oswalt sets — or quite as hard. But the reassurance in seeing that he’s still okay after all he’s gone through is sufficient compensation.
A few weeks after Annihilation aired, Oswalt married Meredith Salenger, and he talked about how grateful he was to find love again. “I’ve only ever felt that level of joy once before in my life, and it was so profound and perfect it felt greedy to ever wish for it again,” he said in 2017. “But I did, so now all I can do is show Meredith a level of gratitude and love that’s greater than the joy she’s brought me, and my daughter Alice. Because this is a new level of joy, and a new life, and I’ll always strive to deserve it.” He sounded like a man who had gone through hell and was stunned to discover that, maybe just maybe, that agony wasn’t going to define the rest of his days.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Annihilation’s fascinating candor has been replaced by I Love Everything’s breezy cheerfulness. Mostly, Oswalt wants to tell us how ecstatic he is to have found Salenger. During his set, he reflects on the mindset he had as a widowed single father: “I’m gonna live in the gray, and I’m just gonna raise my daughter alone. … And then I met this poem of a woman who relit the sky, and I just said, ‘I’m going to run at love again.’ If you see love, run at it.”
That sweet sentiment leads to some mild jokes about his time back home in Virginia as a cheap wedding DJ — a not-too-fondly-recalled period in which he encountered a slew of glum couples about to tie the knot — and a cute anecdote about the resolution to a fight he and Salenger once had. None of it is hilarious, but it is awfully warm. Oswalt was never one of those confrontational comics who willfully provoked an audience or tried to dismantle the form, but I Love Everything is unapologetically domesticated and declawed. When he brings up #MeToo, he talks about how it’s only proved how milquetoast his sexual turn-ons are. (“I always thought that I was on the bleeding edge of depravity, and then I’m reading all these #MeToo reports, and I’m just like, ‘I’m just a fucking bowl of vanilla ice cream.’”) I mean, he does a whole routine about the subcontractors for his new house.
If Oswalt feels any guilt about “going soft,” he couldn’t care less. I was reminded of a story he used to tell about his college psychics professor who, in a feeble attempt to cater to nerdy students like Oswalt, composed a word problem that involved Star Trek’s Chekov firing the Enterprise’s phasers — which enraged young Patton because, duh, it’s Sulu’s job to fire the phasers. The joke was that Oswalt, an angry know-it-all super-nerd, was in the wrong — he was a fool for getting worked up over such nonsense. Now in his 50s, having experienced grief, fatherhood and remarriage, Oswalt has shifted to a new stage of his life with a fresh perspective and zero regrets. It’s telling that, at the end of his special, he introduces another special, Bob Rubin: Oddities & Rarities, featuring the far edgier and more combative comic, whom Oswalt cites as a major influence. Let Rubin be volcanically animated and seething with anxiety — Oswalt’s happy right where he is.
No doubt that news will disappoint some hardcore comedy nerds, who can be as obnoxious as any other form of fandom. For them, Oswalt has a response in I Love Everything, and it’s the special’s highlight. He tells the crowd about being invited to the Solo premiere, which was going to include a full-size Millennium Falcon — an awesome experience for a Star Wars geek like Oswalt, except he had to go to his daughter’s second-grade art show instead. (Making the FOMO even worse: “Her art project was the shittiest robot I’ve ever seen.”)
Oswalt lets his displeasure register with the laughing audience before imagining his excited 8-year-old self coming out of the original Star Wars, only to be told that, as a grownup, he’ll miss the chance to see a full-size Falcon at a fancy Hollywood premiere because he’s on dad duty. You can see the frustration on his face, but you also sense it’s an act. “I know for a fact that I would have said… ‘I get to fuck a lady someday?!’” He lights up. “I would have been so cool with it!”
Being a nerd is fun, he seems to be saying, but other aspects of life are more rewarding. Even back then, Patton Oswalt had his priorities in order.