Goodbye, Patton Oswalt: An Internet troll vanishes, still wanting it both ways

You can be a transgressive comic, or voice for decency. Try both and people notice the urine running down your legs

By Colin McEnroe

Published June 3, 2014 4:19PM (EDT)

 patton_oswalt (AP/Chris Pizzello)
patton_oswalt (AP/Chris Pizzello)

This week Patton Oswalt announced on Twitter he was going “radio silent” and told people to check his Facebook to learn why.

This is like saying you need one little bump of cocaine in order to start not drinking, but I do not judge.

Oswalt is taking a social media break, retroactive to June 1 and ending Sept. 2. “I'm locking up my tiny, personal online nightclub until the leaves turn brown.” This shows how estranged-from-the-essences social media can make you. The leaves do not turn brown Sept. 2. They stay shiny and green for a month or two longer. In fact the only way you can be sure that all the leaves are brown is if the sky is gray and you go for a walk on a winter’s day. It worries me to have to impart such basic information.

Before I go any further: Who gives a shit? If Yo-Yo Ma announced he was taking three months off from the cello, would he get the response Oswalt is getting? Would you even know? Of course, Oswalt’s response is coming from the Internet, which is sort of the instrument he plays. If Yo-Yo Ma quit cello for three months, I suppose cellos would get pretty worked up about it.

OK, cards on the table. I only kind of know who Patton Oswalt is. In this context, that may constitute an advantage. I know him mainly from his enjoyable work as Constable Bob on “Justified.” And I know that, after the Boston bombings, he posted an argument for what amounted to Lockean moral optimism.

“But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.”

Not particularly original, but when was the last time anybody was original? He’s mainly a comedian, right? Sometimes he makes fun of KFC Bowls, and sometimes, in the tradition of Lenny Bruce, he asks searching and funny questions about why human society is the way it is. I watched a bunch of his material, and most of it was pretty good.

So then I had to do a whole lot more Oswalt Studies research. (This is what I’m doing with my wild and precious life?) And I discovered that one of his specialties is the tweet joke (twoke?), which is simultaneously a joke in bad taste, a joke about jokes in bad taste and an attempt at moral instruction.

Here is the most recent example:

Then he spends a lot of time trying to reason with people who read that twoke in a manner that dissatisfies him. He gets into beefs, including with Salon. He and Lena Dunham got into a beef with Shia LaBeouf, whose name means “beef,” although it’s misspelled, so maybe his name means “beaf.” What the sonnet was to 16th century England, what the waltz was to 18th century Vienna, the beef is to modern Internet life. At any given moment, everybody seems to be outraged at some other person or group. Your have to wonder whether, as a species, we’re overworking our adrenal system by spending so much time in meaningless states of fight or flight. Oswalt also developed the trick of pretending to have deleted a previous, abhorrent tweet that never was. What resulted was, I guess, a kind of performance art in which he would troll people who were offended by a dick joke about Holocaust victims, a joke that existed only in a state of quantum entanglement. This is an amusing thing to do. Once. You start doing it over and over, and maybe you have a problem. I empathize. It’s tempting to bat these people around like spit-covered cat toys. I once had a woman demand that I publicly apologize to “the entire allergy community.” Here is my diagnosis: Oswalt is trying to have it both ways. You can be a transgressive, shit-disturbing comedian or you can be a voice for the restoration of human decency. You cannot be both without people noticing the urine running down both of the limbs on which you stand. The best articulation I’ve heard of what it means to be the former came from Anthony Jeselnik on “The  Nerdist.” It’s worth listening to the whole thing, but, in a nutshell, he says a shock comic can’t get into the business of reasoning with people or wanting them to think of him as a good person. “I’m never trying to be your friend,” he said. “I’m up there to satisfy myself, and I think people get that.” Somebody dies. You tweet a tasteless joke. You never flinch or look back. 

His (sick) clarity is admirable, and in sharp contrast to Oswalt who wants to be the male Sarah Silverman and Teddy Bear Socrates. On the other hand, he has 1.7 million Twitter followers, so who am I to instruct him?

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. The second is finding an ornate French-Algerian gift box for it. Oswalt wrote that he had his apercu while reading a line from “The Rebel” by Albert Camus in an airport. The line: "Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes." (This is another example of trying to have it both ways. Would Sam Kinison have said, “You know, I was reading Spinoza’s ‘Tractatus Theologico-Politicus’ on the crapper the other day, and …”?)

His subsequent analysis raises questions about whether he understood that line: “I've become my own tyrant — Tweeting, and then responding to my own responses, and then fighting people who disagree with me.”

I think Camus had a much more Jeselnikian view of tyrants. His point was that they stop caring about what their subjects think. They certainly don’t get down in the trenches and squabble with them.

Oswalt has at least prescribed for himself the right ointment: vanishing cream. We’ll check in with him when the leaves turn brown. But, dude, that’s November.

Colin McEnroe

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