On his debut album, Feelin’ Kinda Patton, Patton Oswalt has a bit where he describes an open mic night where a strange, drug-addled character named Dr. Pepper performed. Though the character is meant to cast a pall on the night, and serve as a shorthand for the awfulness of open mics, Oswalt clearly has an affection for the strange man. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why Oswalt would want to executive produce Bob Rubin’s special, Oddities & Rarities, which puts the odd, almost anti-comedy approach taken by Rubin’s in focus. While clearly more talented than the aforementioned Dr. Pepper, both the open mic-er and Rubin require audience members to take a strange and surprising ride.
The special begins with a black screen with white text that informs the viewer this was thirty-five years in the making, and it shows. Rubin, whose sensibility was forged in the wild fires of 80s and 90s alternative comedy, is a relentless performer who sends beautiful, sad premise after beautiful, sad premise into the ether of the small room he’s taping in, seemingly indifferent to whether or not any of it is going to bring the entire room together in laughter. He’s earned every second of his truly unique special, from the mind-bending set, to the intro, which harkens back to the specials of early HBO, complete with comedy friends doing bad jobs at acting and a frenetic obsession with zoomed-in closeups.
In many ways, Rubin is an essential touchstone for what made comics like Brody Stevens and Harland Williams such standouts.
From the minute he steps on stage to the minute he gets off, Rubin is a whirling dervish in his delivery, equal parts pentecostal preacher and wunderkind emcee, rattling off incredible language without needing to take a breath. The premises Rubin dreams up are rooted in 80s-centric quotidian comedy that is blown-up to mimic garish nightmares of consumer culture, jumping from food, to health & wellness, to QVC culture and depression in increasingly stranger ways. Steeped in poetic imagery and the hippie/good vibrations speak of the post-60s counterculture, it’s easy to see where comics like Harland Williams and Brody Stevens took their cues from. One joke, “The crime rate in the synchronized swimming community is skyrocketing,” even sounds like a one-off strange aside Williams or Stevens might make, akin to their respective jokes about bigfoot and needing to wear moonblock at night.
The linguistic fireworks Rubin uses are dazzling, and stay impressive no matter how confusing the comedy may get.
His phrasing is utterly his own, but it shares DNA with the inventiveness of Maria Bamford, Mitch Hedberg, Hannibal Burress, Sean Patton, and, yes, Patton Oswalt. Evocative phrases like “windmills and zigzags,” “you moved the headstones, but you never moved the bodies,” and “Fender-amp dog” constantly pop up for the audience to grab on to or let whiz by, with another always immediately on its heels. Even if the constructs or topics can feel of their time (Nutribullets and bobbleheads make appearances), Rubin’s commitment allows everything to situate itself between being a hard joke and being an exercise in anti-comedy. This, in essence, makes his set bullet-proof, and allows one to appreciate lines like “I went to an Indian cassino to take back what they took back what we took in the first place, but now they’re way ahead,” or the odd recipe that calls for “Cherry-flavored dust of the bones of people who lived before us, a box full of earlobes from young virgins, parsley, and a 13 foot python because you can’t just juice, you gotta ride the snake, baby” however they’d like.
It’s easy to see what Oswalt wanted to bring to the world, as Bob Rubin is a true original, and a master of a craft even he may be hard-pressed to define.
Along with his Bill-Hicks-by-way-of-doomsday voicing, Rubin also sings, delivers Shaekespearan-like monologues, does a call-and-response bit with the audience, and constantly seems in motion, even when he’s still. Even if it’s not a viewer’s preferred flavor of comedy, it’s impossible to not understand what made Oswalt want to get Rubin out in front of a larger audience. His talent is multitudinous, which makes it that much more engaging to hear context-less jokes about dying his hair with Just for Mennonites, and the tag “Ever since I’ve been using Just for Mennonites, every woman with a bonnet’s been chasing after my toolbox!” It’s downright gleeful to hear Rubin offer lines like “People of San Francisco, heed my words: your Giants cannot save you now,” as a line about Shakespeare that’s delivered in a voice situating itself between English bard and Seinfeld’s J. Peterman.
Beneath the offbeat insanity and silliness, there’s a raw sadness that underlines everything, making Rubin that much more of a risk taker.
Perhaps the largest talent Rubin has is a fearless comfort with taking risks. Underneath fantastical stories about fighting bulls by making himself slippery or buying juicers from salesmen with deadly lightning bolt eyebrows are real expressions of existential despair. A gambling story about turning into a centaur and meeting your true love on psychedelics is underpinned with regret and loss. The Nutribullet bit sees Rubin become part of a time-traveler’s life of constantly returning to find out friends are dead. Rubin’s joke about writing a self-help book that requires one to do some cocaine becomes the story of an addiction. Over and over Rubin shares himself with his audience, and because of, not despite, the silliness his darkness is wrapped in, Rubin leaves the stage an artist.
Bob Rubin's latest special Oddities & Rarities will be available to watch for free on YouTube tonight at 7 PM CT!