Patton Oswalt loves a weirdo. He loves other things, too — the title of his new Netflix special is I Love Everything, and in his hour-long performance, the list of what he loves includes but is not limited to the chain restaurant Denny’s, his daughter, his wife, the concept of consent, and the bread company Ezekiel 4:9. He has a special pervasive fondness for weirdos, though, even though that’s never an explicit part of his material. It’s the baseline mechanism for most of the special, the place his mind seems to go perpetually and maybe in spite of himself. He casts himself as a happy, hopeful Everyman, a generic dad figure doing his best and begrudgingly eating boring breakfast cereal now that he’s past 50. But he’s most animated and most comfortable when he’s putting himself in the mind of some very bizarre, possibly murderous, personality.
Oswalt’s early joke about breakfast cereal is a good demonstration of the places his stories prefer to run. It begins as a complaint about the stultifying breakfast cereals you’re supposed to eat as an adult: They’re tasteless and unappetizing; they’re full of ancient grains; the back of the box no longer features entertaining characters and games. Even worse, Oswalt says, is that responsible grown-up cereals have boring, novel-length origin stories. “The idea for Sorghum Farms happened outside a Phish concert in 1990,” Oswalt narrates, imagining he’s reading off the back of the box. “‘We were both selling tie-dye in the parking lot and we wondered out loud at the same time why our gorp couldn’t be tastier, and that’s when we both said, Jinx, I owe you a kombucha, and we bought a little farm …”
The cereal box isn’t about the cereal (although it is, because the cereal is hilariously boring), and it’s not really about Oswalt either (although it is, because the entry point of the joke is that Oswalt’s now old enough that he has to eat amaranth flakes). The cereal box is mostly about the way it allows Oswalt to follow the thread of who makes it, envisioning the imaginary hippie couple who’ve dedicated their lives to creating healthy breakfast foods. But even that’s not weird enough. The hippies aren’t distinct enough, so Oswalt next imagines a more interesting version of the ancient-grains origin story, one where the hippies run a murder cult, planting the bodies of their corpses to become fertilizer for the grains. “Sweetie, it’s a murder farm!” Oswalt imagines saying at the breakfast table. The breakfast hippies would be so much better if they were after Oswalt for his “roomy, fertile torso,” which he’s sure could “grow a lot of buckwheat.”
It’s a pattern that repeats throughout his material, but it doesn’t feel repetitive because each Oswalt-invented weirdo is individual and surprising in their own way. There’s the home construction contractor who’s a perfectly nice, reasonable guy. But then there’s the vast world of subcontractors he introduces the audience to — people like the wallpaper guy who keeps yelling for someone named “Kirby,” even though Kirby doesn’t exist. There’s the weirdness of the low-rent wedding DJ, and the people who’d be willing to hire him. It’s most noticeable at the end of the special, in the impressive final set piece that becomes a long consideration of the restaurant Denny’s. It’s a cheerful, bland chain restaurant that Oswalt remakes as a crossroads, a stopover point for people about to turn their lives around or instead make them much, much worse. Denny’s, a place designed to be as indistinct as possible, in Oswalt’s mind becomes a neutral place that attracts people who operate at extremes. Even the anodyne breakfast-food characters who populate the kids’ menu become fully formed people, including a prostitute fried egg and her regular customer, a shriveled sausage link.
The returning cycle of it — the apparently innocuous thing, Oswalt as the comfortable and nonthreatening observer, and the inevitable arrival of the highly strange or stressed person — also works because Oswalt’s stance tends to hit a spot somewhere exactly between judgment and generosity. The wallpaper-hanging subcontractor who keeps yelling at an underling who doesn’t exist is goofy, and Oswalt sees how absurd he is. Of course he sees it, and of course what he’s saying is, “That guy is weird!” But he’s simultaneously delighted by it. He’s truly joyful about how bizarre this person is, and he relishes imagining how they got to be that way. It’s a pleasure that spins outward. If this is the wallpaper subcontractor, what could the tile guy be like?
It’s never truly open generosity. Oswalt himself is above it, a position that can feel just the teensiest bit mean, and perhaps the smallest ounce self-congratulatory. All of these stories and all of these characters require Oswalt’s ability to empathize with them just enough to imagine them. They would not be as entertaining if he were sincerely mocking them. None of the Denny’s bit would work if Oswalt weren’t so clearly familiar with exactly what it’s like to be the other kind of Denny’s patron — not a nice father out with his daughter, but a hulking, incoherent mumbler, jabbing furiously at a menu while glaring at nothing out the window. But he also can’t be them. Not now, at least. Not when he’s in pleasant comedian mode, when he’s the guy drawing the portrait rather than the portrait’s subject.
There’s an entire mode of comedy where the comedian flays themself for public consumption, displaying all their darkest, most unnerving vulnerabilities to be laughed at and laughed away. In Oswalt’s I Love Everything, that impulse is still there. All the weirdness, after all, still comes straight from Oswalt’s own vision of the world; it’s him up there, imagining that a serial killer has left a note on his windshield instead of his own wife, or trying to envision the porn made for guys who only want very begrudging consent. But his power is in his ability to split himself in two. He’s both the nice guy and the conduit for aberrant strangeness. He’s sitting in Denny’s, having an idyllic day out with his young daughter, and at the same time, he’s staring out the window plotting his revenge.