“That’s a great bit.”
You’ll hear it every so often. A comedian walks off the stage to the back of the room. As the MC tells you the next performer was on Corden, another comic will lean in and say, in a somber voice, maybe even with a tint of jealousy, “That’s a great bit.” It is the highest compliment we can give.
Jerry Seinfeld said “A good bit goes deep.” The best bits stay in your mind years after hundreds of other bits disappear. They are comedy’s slightly shabbier equivalent of “Hey Jude,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Purple Rain.” One such bit is Patton Oswalt’s “Steak,” from his 2004 special No Reason to Complain. Its about how the new ads for Black Angus restaurants make him uncomfortable. Watch it now. If writing this essay is just the journalistic equivalent of shoving my phone in your face and playing “Steak,” it’s worth it. And don’t read any further until you watch it or the bit will be ruined. I don’t want to be a waiter who sells you on the special and then pees on it as it arrives.
A comedian dissecting a commercial is not unique. Taking a premise like that and getting twenty three laughs and four applause breaks in two minutes and forty six seconds is brilliant writing. Figuring out how to make a thought get laughs takes up 90% of a comedian’s time, yet when a reviewer mentions a comic’s writing, it’s only about the subject matter, never the language itself. Critics discuss the “what” of a bit, but rarely the “how.” Every word of “Steak” is a master class in comedy “how.”
In front of countless audiences, Oswalt pounded these words like a blacksmith until they were just right. He built a powerful laugh engine from an oddball premise with zero emotional juice to play off of. It’s not a sex joke, an aging joke, or any of the primal human topics that always deliver. This wasn’t even some nationwide ad campaign you couldn’t escape. No one was sitting in the crowd going, “I sure hope he touches on those steakhouse commercials.” Oswalt makes it work through sheer linguistic prowess.
Oswalt needs a whole minute just to set up the joke and he still gets four laughs and an applause break along the way. He has to. Today’s comedian has a harder task setting up jokes than their predecessors. The crowd’s attention span is shorter. They need constant laughs through every part of the act or they tune out. As a comic, you are both an orator and a drug dealer. The audience will listen to your speech as long as you give them the series of repeating dopamine rushes they bought a ticket for. Think of a safecracker in a heist movie who has to hit a tumbler every thirty seconds or the computerized safe shuts down. If a comedian goes thirty seconds without giving them a laugh, the audience gets resentful and discouraged. Yet If the setup isn’t perfectly understood, the bit is shot. Chris Rock says his setups twice just to make sure they get it. Oswalt has things he needs to make clear and he has to keep the crowd laughing while he does it. First, he has to make sure they don’t think he just hates meat. If you think he’s a disgusted vegan you won’t have the proper perspective to ride his mental water slide into the ha-ha pool. So he tells them he loves steak because he hates hippies. The joke that follows gets an applause break, keeping the crowd entertained enough to submit to more setup.
They also need to know he’s not a snob of Black Angus. He’s put off by the quantity, not the quality. So he imitates a Black Angus commercial from a friendlier era, and portrays a happy customer. This gets another laugh and buys him enough time to say that now the ads have “turned into a gauntlet of threatening food.” With those seven beautifully precise words, Patton’s setup is done, the comedy fuse has reached the wick, and the next minute and forty-six seconds bring seventeen laughs including three applause breaks. That is Rodney Dangerfield-on-The-Tonight Show-level efficiency from a concept that’s much harder to communicate than “I get no respect.”
Patton’s writing shines beyond the setup. The most clever thing he does to jam maximum laughs into this bit is an abrupt shift from a monologue to a two-character scene that he pulls off seamlessly. Right after the threatening ad guy’s first line, Oswalt becomes the customer from the old Black Angus ad again. Only now he’s nervous. Then, when he goes back to the threatening guy, he’s changed from an ad spokesman to a Black Angus waiter. Instantly, we are inside the restaurant watching a dialogue. Oswalt does this with no explanatory words at all. He never says, “If I heard that I’d be like…” or “Can you imagine if the waiter came out?” He just does it. And every boring expository word he saves gives him more room to stuff the remaining minute with laughs.
Improv teachers tell you to find the “game of the scene” and heighten it. To get his explosive finish, Oswalt sets up three games at once, then turns up the heat on all three simultaneously. The customer gets more and more uncomfortable. The food onslaught gets more and more deadly. The waiter descends slowly into utter madness, earning Patton three applause breaks, starting with his first unhinged threat, “You’ll each get your own!” Patton then heightens the desperation of the customer. He looks around, panicked, giving us the image of a whole restaurant indifferent to his peril. The waiter bellows “I’ll suck a cock on Christopher Street before I give you a mixed green, pal!” for the next applause break. Until now the bit has been Gaffigan-clean. The first swear word in a bit has power, and Oswalt makes it a doozy. Adding homophobia to the waiter’s faults makes him even more menacing, scoring a third applause break with “Bend over Abigail May, ‘cause here comes the gravy pipe!”
On the surface it’s strange that a silly joke about steak hits so hard, but the bit isn’t totally frivolous. Comedians turn fears into laughter. This bit couldn’t succeed without tapping into dark undercurrents in our society. There is a vein of thinking in America that not participating in gluttonous consumption is a sign of personal weakness. Health is for the timid and feminine. Advertisers exploit our insecurities to push our spending buttons, yet billions can’t afford a single ounce of steak. The bit is not a direct comment on any of these things, but as you laugh, you can’t help but confront aspects of our decadent society. The original McDonald’s hamburger isn’t called the “small hamburger.” That’s as big as they thought a burger would ever need to be. Despite ballooning obesity and heart disease rates, our restaurants are pumping themselves up into Roman vomitoriums. Comforting elements of the old America are becoming something scary.
Comedians see life from a different angle and feel driven to get other people to see it with them. Oswalt’s vivid description was so memorable that two of his fans actually cooked the whole thing down to the 84th potato bacon bomb and sent him the pictures. He made his vision so compelling for them that, like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, they had to make it in real life. His carefully curated list of words was so powerful that, like a magic spell, it brought forth the thing he saw in his mind into the real world. That’s a great bit.