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Patton Oswalt’s standup special shows what kind of comedy Netflix does best

In I Love Everything, Patton Oswalt makes good on the joy of his new life while showing the limitations of Netflix’s current approach to comedy.

The jubilance of Patton Oswalt’s new life is layered into every observation he makes in I Love Everything, his latest Netflix comedy special and a treatise on turning the page. Oswalt played Remy in Ratatouille and Spence in King of Queens, and most recently has settled into big-time TV comedies like Veep and A.P. Bio. In between, Oswalt was engulfed in the tragedy of the death of his late wife, the author Michelle McNamara, who passed away suddenly in 2016. The name of Oswalt’s latest special is no mistake, and the comedy within it is designed to send the same message: He’s OK.

Now remarried, Oswalt, who is 51, is not reimagining the nature of comedy when he steps onstage. No, Oswalt is there to chat through life with effective observational wit. Most will have seen his shtick before, though he’s slightly more crass than most of his kin. Oswalt is far from a poor man’s version of anyone else, but his comedic style will inevitably be compared to the king of observations and the man who gave Oswalt his first opportunity, Jerry Seinfeld.

The first time Oswalt appeared on-screen was on an episode of Seinfeld, and he got an HBO special in 1996, when he was just 27. Since then, it doesn’t feel like the recipe has changed much for Oswalt. If anything, it’s gotten safer.

The Hollywood mainstay used to talk about religion, materialism and American culture onstage. Heck, in his last special, he discussed McNamara’s death head-on. He took a genuine challenge role in Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, playing a bullying victim who needs a brace to walk. Whether it be the money or the security that comes with years of consistent work, Oswalt has brought very little besides name recognition to Netflix with his comedy.

In I Love Everything, Oswalt preaches from a sleek, modern stage designed to look like the front of a McMansion, drawing people inward into the happiness he’s achieved. Oswalt is nothing if not genuine in this new project. He tells the audience that if they ever find love, to “run toward it,” and he repeats it several times for good measure. The words are spoken in the tone of a man who’s lived the two poles of vulnerability, having had love and lost it.

From a comedic perspective, it’s obvious Oswalt’s has sunk his teeth into fatherhood, because it’s where all his best observations come from. A lengthy riff on the characters on the Denny’s kids menu closes the show while the audience slobbers all over itself with the giggles. The guy — of course — is very funny.

Returning to what precisely Oswalt adds to Netflix outside the awe of having a Patton Oswalt special on your platform, the specific issue here is what Oswalt is adding to Netflix’s comedy brand. Netflix has thrown so much money at comedians that it effectively swallowed up the entire industry. Comics who can’t even draw crowds on the road get at least a half-hour if they meet the right Netflix executive at the back of a Los Angeles club. Oswalt doesn’t fall into that group in terms of name recognition, but he might as well when it comes to quality. There’s really nothing special about his work.

Audiences are trained to expect a new comedy special on their Netflix home page at least once a week (Seinfeld himself put one out last week that got pretty lost in the weekly cavalcade of new content), but it’s increasingly rare that one sticks out. Like local comedy clubs, it’s one thing to have enough fans to make it worth the while of club owners (or Ted Sarandos) to book you. It’s far more difficult to bring in new people to comedy for the first time, or even to gain mainstream attention outside the comedy world.

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Only a few can stake their claim to such broad appeal, and they rake in millions a year: John Mulaney, Amy Schumer, Dave Chappelle, you know the names. But Netflix has turned others into revelations, from Ali Wong to Hannah Gadsby to Hasan Minhaj. This latter group has as much latitude over the shape of Netflix’s comedy brand as anyone. At its best, Netflix is a purveyor of new perspectives and new styles in comedy, not merely the recreator of the weekend slate at the club downtown.

Because of its capital and reach, Netflix has the bandwidth to seek out incredible, fresh talent and broadcast it to millions. Oswalt doesn’t fit anywhere in this puzzle, and yet he and many folks like him (mostly part of previous generations of predominantly white, male comedic voices) continue to populate the platform’s comedy slate more than anyone else. Sure, they bring attention, but that’s not what Netflix needs anymore. They’ve earned the trust of audiences and the industry (for the most part), but haven’t backed that up by crafting a stable of reliable, exciting voices that can define its brand going forward.

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