It’s pretty rare that a comedian can say “I literally brought down the house” and not be grossly misusing the word “literally,” but Patton Oswalt was able to make just such a boast at the end of his appearance at Gilda’s LaughFest in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The fact that it was Friday the 13th should have been the first tipoff that something bad could happen during his set. Then there was his opening bit about how it couldn’t possibly end up being his worst set ever, which is a bit like a character in a horror movie saying, “I’ll be right back.” Sure enough, the denouement of Oswalt’s set went awry when he made the mistake of interacting with the backdrop on stage, which in turn caused it to come crashing down on him. Being the consummate professional he is, Oswalt worked through it and ended his set strongly, but for a moment there the audience’s fear that they might have just witnessed the Final Destination-style ironic death of their comedy idol was palpable.
The show took place at the Fountain Street Church, a venue that has been used for several high profile LaughFest shows in the past, including Bill Burr and the Nerdist podcast. It’s a fairly unique venue, and you can count on every comedian starting their set with how weird it is to be performing in a church. Oswalt certainly did so, but before that he was beaten to the punch by his opener, Joe DeRosa. DeRosa, a comedy veteran with two Comedy Central half hours under his belt and a recent appearance on the excellent Better Call Saul, opened strong with a set focused largely on his fear of death. “I see death everywhere,” he told the audience. No doubt seeing a stage come crashing down on one of his comedy mentors didn’t help ease his fears.
Oswalt also opened his set by commenting on the church, reading off a list of notable speakers who had been there in the past. “Malcolm X spoke here,” he told the audience. “He had better dick jokes than me.” There was plenty of crowd work in his set, too, including a hilarious interaction with a local dentist who told Oswalt about treating a patient with meth mouth. When he wasn’t doing crowd work, Oswalt worked through a mix of older and newer material. Some of the bits were recognizable from his most recent special, Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time. Other bits were oddly anachronistic, focusing on the Christmas holidays at a time of year when those holidays are on few people’s minds. That was perhaps the one weak spot of his set, making it seem like maybe with his busy TV schedule he hadn’t had time to develop new material since back in December.
Overall, though, Oswalt’s set was hilarious, confident, and a solid example of why he’s one of the top comedians in the country. He seemed to enjoy it, too, telling the audience at one point, “Thank you. I needed this.” Here’s hoping that, near-death experience aside, he enjoyed it enough to make a return visit to Gilda’s LaughFest in the future.