The best joke in Patton Oswalt’s new Netflix special, We All Scream, starts with Oswalt attempting to explain his experience of the pandemic. He watched Deadwood twice, he says, then he went “crazier than a barn full of clown pubes.” It is an evocative image, and rather than just leave it there, Oswalt decides to dig deeper: How would you collect the pubes? How would you verify they came only from clowns? What, precisely, constitutes a “full barn” in this scenario? What if you were promised a full barn only to discover that packing materials were taking up some of the volume? The listener should be able to have complete trust in the speaker in regard to barns full of clown pubes — and comedy. “What I’ve done comedically, creatively,” Oswalt says, “I have opened the barn doors. There is a wall of pubes. And yes, it’s impressive, but you’re right to go, ‘You know what? I bet that wall of pubes is a half an inch thick.’” The joke continues with more images of full barns and clown pubes and with the continuing undercurrent of a theme: trusting that an artistic expression will be complete.
That joke is both fun and unfortunate. It’s a pleasant rabbit hole, and Oswalt finds twists in it. He loops back and starts again from new angles. His images are pleasantly tangible, full of detailed illustrations and tangents that seem insignificant but turn out to be entirely new areas to explore. In the larger context of We All Scream, though, it’s a regrettable outlier — an outlier because much of the rest of the special feels so thin by comparison and regrettable because it means the most memorable joke in an otherwise meager special is a description of an unfinished project that’s been polished up to make it look complete. What’s supposed to be a packed barn full of clown pubes is, sadly, several hairs short of a bush.
The most egregious instance of this is a ten-minute mid-show run of crowd work, which Oswalt tries to wrestle into a revelation of some kind but is mostly just a series of pleasant conversations about various career paths. It’s not that crowd work is inherently antithetical to a good special (even though its current most popular application is as the thing comedians put online as a way of producing social-media content without burning any of their jokes). The trouble for Oswalt is that this particular bit of crowd work, in addition to being quite long, can’t seem to get him into the groove of what usually makes an ideal Oswalt joke.
Oswalt’s best material tends to start with an apparently boring, casual, or otherwise innocuous thing that he then mines for potentially grim hidden backstories. In his previous special, 2020’s I Love Everything, the big set piece was his joke about the anthropomorphic breakfast-food characters at Denny’s — their dark inner lives, the sad things they need to do to survive. There’s a hint of that rhythm in this new special’s joke about radio stations: As each decade moves further and further into the past, Oswalt explains, the radio station that plays its music drifts further up the dial — because its audience is dying off! It’s roughly how that clown-pubes joke works: The intro is Oswalt himself, slowly losing his grip during the pandemic; the perspective shift is the moment he creates the barn owner as a character and spirals downward into who that person would be.
That sort of spiraling, expanding joke is where Oswalt tends to shine, but it’s just not in evidence throughout much of We All Scream. He has a joke about how he’s worried about aging and the possibility he won’t be able to keep up with new “woke” ideologies, but it lands with one silly stab at what a future generation might think of as acceptable, then has nowhere else to go. There’s a meditation on what it’d be like if Janeane Garofalo were president that dawdles along followed by a big closing story about a particularly unpleasant post-surgery experience that’s not especially groundbreaking but does at least take advantage of Oswalt’s ability to pick out striking details.
That crowd-work section, though, feels like the most telling indicator of what exactly We All Scream wants to achieve. The hour is directed by Oswalt, and the ten minutes of crowd work include the most careful pieces of direction and editing. How to follow Oswalt as he sits down at the edge of the stage? Where to cut? How many faces to include? The audience is well lit, the sound is clear, the moves from wide shots to close-ups flow fairly smoothly. None of it is especially memorable, but it does the job of being a comedy special. It checks the box. As a demonstration of Oswalt’s comic sensibility, his talent for well-crafted storytelling, or his pleasure in locating the weird dark corners of things, though, it falls flat. He attempts to push at some of the strange elements of the jobs that audience members name, and there are a couple of moments you can see his brain working on: How odd to sell lightbulbs! How promising to consider the comedy of prosecuting juvenile sex offenders! But he can’t, or does not want to, actually play out any of the potentially uncomfortable possibilities that are in front of him. It’s one thing to write out a long exploration of some dark comedic underbelly, balancing it for tone and complexity and loops. He uses the crowd-work section to present the idea of doing the same thing live on-camera, using his real audience’s real jobs. But in the end, he only feints at it.
For Oswalt completists, We All Scream is worth it for the barn joke and probably for the hilariously animalistic image he paints of himself in the special’s medical-comedy-of-errors closer. For everyone else, it’s a useful example of something that absolutely does happen occasionally, often for reasons a comedian can’t fully control: Sometimes specials get made before the hour is really ready.