Patton Oswalt knows a thing or two about bouncing back.
The 30-year standup vet, one of the most popular comedians working today, generally takes two to three years in between comedy specials. Following the tragic death of his wife, true crime author Michelle McNamara, Oswalt turned around a new Netflix special within 18 months of his Emmy-winning previous outing. (“The whole process of grieving is to get beyond it so you can get back into the world,” he told Fast Company while promoting 2017’s Annihilation.)
A tiny, throwaway moment in his just-released new hour, I Love Everything, demonstrates the comic’s resiliency in real time, in a way that should be instructive for any public-facing creatives.
About midway through the new special, which is Oswalt’s most consistently funny work in years, he trips over his words. It’s the kind of candid moment comedy specials generally edit out in an effort to present the most polished version of the performance possible.
“So . . . I got invited . . . to the pre-new [sic],” the comic starts, teeing up a hilarious story about (not) attending the premiere of Solo: A Star Wars Story. (If you know about Oswalt’s legendary Star Wars dorkery, you’ll be excited to hear this story.)
Even before he flubs the word “premiere” by jumbling the word “new” into it, there’s a pause that’s half a beat too long. It’s something that might be awkward in the nervous hands of a less skilled performer, but Oswalt is far too seasoned for that to happen.
“Oooh! Hang on, let me do that again,” he says, addressing the camera crew as much as the audience. It’s fairly standard to flub a line in the taping of a special; it’s just not something the maker of the special usually would let the eventual audience see.
Next, Oswalt abandons the production crew and addresses the live audience, to let them know they are still in the good hands of the total pro they were laughing with not 10 seconds before.
“Oh, you get to see the behind-the-scenes making of this,” he says with a smile, as though his slight stumble was the best thing that could have happened. The audience responds with scattered giggles.
“Watch this,” he continues, still smiling, as he moves back to where he was standing at the start of the joke. “Go right back to my starting thing. Are you ready? Watch this. Okay.”
The comedian then turns his head toward the audience, and gets through the first three words of repeating his set up before saying “fuck it” and laughing hysterically at the artifice of it all. The audience laughs uproariously in kind and cheers at Oswalt acknowledging this weird little moment.
He draws the laugh out as long as he reasonably can, caps it off with a “holy shit,” and then starts the joke without pretending he hasn’t already tried to tell it twice. (“No, I did get invited to the premiere of the Han Solo Star Wars movie…”) It’s not a seamless dismount—it’s the opposite, and the show is better for it.
Leaving that whole moment in the special accomplishes two important things. First, it lets young comics and any kind of live performer know that even after 30 years into a successful show business career, even the best still stumble from time to time. Most standup specials from veterans slickly provide the illusion of perfection. This one punctures it.
Secondly, the way Oswalt handles his minor slip is a master class in poise, good humor, and resiliency. He seems supremely unbothered with himself or the situation and finds the funniest way to get right back on track, all while treating the crowd with respect and transparency.
The lesson here is that if you ever mess up in a live performance, be kind to both yourself and your audience. It’s your best hope of transforming the moment everyone dreads into an applause break.