It’s an easy time to be cynical. Protests have erupted across college campuses, North Carolina’s recent discriminatory bathroom bills have been passed, and Donald Trump is a potential presidential candidate. The world would appear to be in a bleak place, with little reason to be excited for the future.
Which is why Patton Oswalt’s recent stand-up special, “Talking for Clapping,” is so absolutely delightful. Rather than angrily lament the state of the current civil rights movement, he gently pokes fun at it while remaining optimistic about the future. Instead of complaining about fatherhood, he tells loving anecdotes about his daughter. And, as is standard with any stand-up by Oswalt, there are plenty of nerdy references to be found, to subjects ranging from “Blade Runner” to “Star Wars” to even “My Little Pony.”
One of the best elements of the special is the deeply personal nature of Oswalt’s stand-up. At one point, he talks about raising his daughter, and wanting to impose his passionate love for “Star Wars” while also letting her pursue her own passions. “She watches it every day,” he says about his daughter’s love for “My Little Pony.” “She knows the whole world. So that’s her thing. I don’t have time for that stuff anymore, quite frankly…I have to do adult things now.” In one of the special’s most sentimental bits, he resolves the tension between his daughter’s interests and his own wishes for her interests, admitting his pride in his daughter’s love of “My Little Pony,” as it mirrors his own childhood love of “Star Wars.”
“I see the same thing in her eyes that I had when I discovered ‘Star Wars.’ So I leave her to her thing…And she can watch, you know, the adventures of Twilight Sparkle and… Well, [Twilight Sparkle] starts off in the series… she’s working for Princess Celestia…There’s three kinds of Ponies in the…There’s unicorns, there’s Pegasi, and there’s Earth Ponies…” It’s funny to see Oswalt, a fully-grown adult, investing in a TV show aimed explicitly at children. It’s also incredibly sweet.
Moreover, in an era where comedians are frequently lamenting “political correctness,” Oswalt takes a nuanced stance on progressive issues. “…I couldn’t be a more committed progressive, feminist, pro-gay, pro-transgender person,” he says. “But I cannot keep up with the fucking glossary of correct terms, God dammit!”
Oswalt mocks modern activists for harshly criticizing RuPaul’s use of the word “tranny” (“She laid down on the barbed wire of discrimination throughout the ’70s and ’80s, so this new generation could run across her back and yell at her for saying tranny!”). However, he more pointedly critiques the general focus on language over intention. “If you get hung up on words,” he warns the audience, “then you’re gonna let a lot of evil motherfuckers slip through. Because evil people learn the correct terms very quickly…so they can smuggle their evil shit through by saying everything correctly, even though they’re hiding really bad shit in it.”
Oswalt proceeds to describe two types of people: one who respects “alternative lifestyles” but thinks “heteronormative behavior is a biological imperative…for propagating the species” and one who Oswalt characterizes as having a Southern accent, proclaiming, “If a couple of fags wanna get married, or some dykes, they wanna be men, how the fuck does that affect you, asshole?” The second person is, of course, the good guy in this situation, but you wouldn’t know that based on his language alone.
It’s a nuanced take on modern-day progressive issues, neither harshly against them nor blindly supportive of them. Oswalt continues his bit on progressivism by satirizing the history of civil rights movements; they’ve become, according to him, increasingly less radical. The ’60s were incredibly daring, flying in the face of Southerners who fought against integration. The gay marriage movement, by comparison, was less radical: The so-called “evil gay agenda” is nothing more than wanting to be married and serving in the military, something that should be difficult to oppose.
“Are people opposed to gay marriage,” he questions, “because they’re like, ‘I don’t wanna see a couple of gays wearing chinos and Izod shirts in my hardware store arguing about hinges like me and my dumpy wife are! I want that gay dude in a spangly G-string up on that fucking float gyrating to Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel Mighty Real’ because I need magic in my life!’” The trans* movement, as well as its opposers’ fear of surgically changed genitalia, is even less radical in Oswalt’s opinion. “It’s not a radical agenda,” he says, “if the solution is pants. The final transgender civil rights case will make it all the way to the supreme court, and I know the final word is gonna be pants.”
Perhaps the best bit of Oswalt’s special is the most political one, during which he crafts a conspiracy theory that claims people running the government behind the scenes pick their presidents to cover up for the awful, atrocious mistakes they make. Every president does something that makes their supporters squeamish, from torture under the Bush administration to drone strikes under Obama. How does the government deal with their secretive torture program? Oswalt suggests, “We’ll get a fun, bumbling cowboy!” (George Bush, obviously.) How does the government deal with “flying assassin droids” (drones)? He offers, “Cool black guy. I don’t know any other way.” Oswalt wants gay or female presidents, of course, but he knows there will be some terrifying baggage along with it: “By the time we get to [a] gay president, that means we’ve got Soylent Green.”
There are other great bits that I won’t spoil here, but they all retain Oswalt’s mix of optimism and frustration, cherishment and satire. “I’m happy that everyone is arguing and screaming about everything,” he says, referencing the passionate debates and chaos of the modern-day civil rights movement. “It’s going to be messy and then…it means a better world for my daughter to grow up in. And I know that sounds selfish, but it’s gonna be a better world.” In the meantime, while we wait for our better world to come, we can all enjoy Oswalt’s beautiful comedy.