Back in a previous life, I interviewed famed rock promoter Bill Graham and we began talking about lessons he's learned about creativity and talent. He told me this story about being backstage at a Jimi Hendrix show in NYC. Hendrix was getting ready to go onstage for the first of two back-to-back shows and Graham was somewhat jokingly complaining to Hendrix that he wished he could see the guitarist just play and not engage in all of the theatrics that dominated a recent show Graham had seen. Hendrix told him "man, I'm just giving them what they want." But he promised Graham he would play it straight during the first set. And he did. No setting the guitar on fire or playing with his teeth. Just flat-out mastery of the guitar and as he walked offstage to huge applause and shouting, Graham stopped him and teased "See! I told you." According to Graham, Hendrix just smirked and said "We'll see."
In the second show of the night Hendrix pulled out all of his tricks. He moaned, he abused his guitar, he played it from every direction imaginable and when he walked offstage at the end, it was to applause ten times louder than the first show. He tracked down Graham and told him "The audience likes what it likes. They don't care about art, they want to be entertained."
That story popped into my head more than watch watching Patton Oswalt's new Netflix stand-up special "I Love Everything." In some ways, Oswalt's style harkens back to the best stand-up of the 1980s and 90s comedy boom. That era gets a lot of scorn from modern-day comics who dismiss the period as a bunch of hacky joke machines just cranking out similar material. And as someone who was a stand-up in that time, it's not an entirely crazy take on the scene in general. But that period also spawned a number of really talented comedians who were (and are) straddling the line between jokemeister and the later "only a hack has jokes with a punchline" anti-comedy movement of the later 90s. Maybe I'm just a traditionalist, but I enjoy a comedian who can tell a story while still heading towards a conclusion anchored by some actual jokes.
I've been hard on a couple of recent Netflix stand-up specials that featured acts who came off as a lot of random musings occasionally interrupted by a off-topic joke. Or the sets that include the most pretentious of stand-up styles, the apology for the hackiness of the joke after they got a laugh. A lot of their set was the comedy equivalent of Jimi Hendrix playing with his teeth: "Hey! Look how clever I am!" Just souless tricks that easily please their audience.
Oswalt's stand-up isn't flashy or artsy. He's a guy just doing what he loves and that feeling comes across in his set, which is casual without being sloppy. He's not A-list famous, but he's been well-known to at least some of the public for a couple of decades. So he doesn't try and pretend he's just like the members of his audience. But his set also isn't filled a bunch of "guess who I know" references. He's just a guy talking about his life and trying to wrangle some laughs out of the situation. Yes, he's well-known enough to get an invite to an event where he's have the chance to sit in actual Millennium Falcon. But like the audience, he's also a dad who sometimes has had to painfully give up personal pleasures in order to support his daughter.
Aging gracefully as a stand-up is hard and there's always the danger of just seeming cranky and out-of-touch about the world has changed. Patton talks about getting old and how his life has changed. But even his complaints are good natured and centered in reality. As any of his fans know, he has suffered some painful losses in his private life. And while he hasn't dodged that in his act, the feeling that most comes across here is that this is a guy who enjoys THIS moment. He's in a good place personally, with a second chance at love and a beautiful daughter. While the title of this comedy special might seem ironic, it seems to be a pretty apt description of where Patton is with his life and career right now. He loves everything. And after watching this special, you might be tempted to love everything too.