Patton Oswalt wrote an essay titled "A Bit Dis-Remembered," exploring one of his famous older bits — on the Stella D'Oro Breakfast Treats, and his reaction to the old TV commercial for them.
He went back to look at the ad, and how much it had resonated with him and how well he had conveyed the tone of the ad, even if he didn't remember the dialogue with 100% accuracy. The bit appears on his first album, 2004's "Feelin Kinda Patton."
"Well, I remembered it differently. Proust bit into a madeline dipped in tea (or something very much like a madeline – isn't there some dispute as to the actual cookie?) and, upon tasting it, remembered a lifetime. I remembered two sad people eating mass-produced snack cookies and closed a gulf of nearly three decades in my memory. And Proust had better dick jokes."
Here is the actual ad:
Now for Patton's take on the ad:
And back to his self-reflection, eight years after recording the bit…
Okay, so at the time I wrote the bit, I hadn't seen the commercial in more than a decade. I'd searched for it on YouTube. YouTube, in 2003, had taken its first baby steps towards uploading every single thing ever filmed. Eight years later, as I write this, they're about .0000001% further into this task.
So I relied on my memory to write the bit. Just like I did with the Tom Carvel and Magic of Oil Painting bits. But those routines were more about the general impression that ice cream impresario Tom Carvel and painting teacher William Alexander left a viewer with. I did not even attempt to do faithful impressions or recitations of a local Carvel ad or an episode of Alexander's show. I took their essence, as I remember it, and spun off into flights of speculative fancy – in Carvel's case, his holiday-themed opportunism taken to grim extremes; in Alexander's case, wondering if his generic, forgettable, land and seascapes expressed a twisted, agonized artists' soul.
But it was different in the case of Stella d'Oro. I wanted to express how the commercial had burned itself, molecule by molecule, into my memory. Luckily, this is a commercial that, in the rhythms of its dialogue (it has a similar cadence to a Lou Reed song, now that I watch it again) did just that. Watching it again, it's made me re-think, even more profoundly, just how many books, CDs, DVDs I need to own. Maybe, I'm thinking, none."
The more interesting aspect to take away, if you're a comedian, is the very notion of nostalgic comedy — and how much technology has changed that.
In fact, Oswalt's memory fails him with regard to YouTube. It wasn't even an online domain in 2003, founded instead two years later in 2005. But in 2011, YouTube and its colleagues and competitors have put plenty of our collective cultural memories online to watch again and again. I knew YouTube came out in 2005 not because it was such a touchstone in my own life, although I do have a general memory of working at the Boston Herald and suddenly being able to watch videos without massive buffering issues. I knew the date because I typed YouTube into Google and checked its Wikipedia page.
Which changes the impact of nostalgic humor both for a comedian and for audiences.
Back in the pre-historic.com days, a comedian could joke about not remembering the 1960s, or about the disco days, or about anything from the 1980s — Dane Cook on Speak N Spell or…. — and the audience would respond enthusiastically just accessing their own memories. Without an Internet to remind us what really happened, you could play faster and looser with what you remembered. But what about now?
If you're Patton Oswalt, or if you're you, and you want to write a bit or build a chunk of new material based on something from your youth, do you make use of the Internet to get the details just right? Do you care if some audience members might know it better than you? Do you wonder if anyone will call you out on a mistaken memory?
Sure, maybe only a smart audience member or a comedy nerd might sweat the small stuff.
For me, personally, I know that whenever a stand-up comedian begins a routine with a premise based on a faulty fact, I immediately lose interest in both the bit and the comedian. It doesn't even have to be nostalgic in nature. I saw a stand-up put a half-hour on tape recently (presumably to deliver to Comedy Central in hopes of getting a half-hour) and include a whole bit about President Barack Obama and something that Obama never did. It's just not even true. So the rest of the joke is based on false premises.
Now as I spin further on this tangent, certainly there's room for stretching the boundaries of reality. I like plenty of absurd and surreal humor. A joke doesn't have to obey logic or science.
But when you're joking about a real thing that really happened and really existed, and everyone can verify it within a minute on their iPhones or BlackBerry, shouldn't you also use the technology we've got to get the joke right?
Then again, Pete Holmes made a fairly compelling counterpoint with his bit about the nostalgia of not knowing everything — as seen in this performance by Holmes on Conan.
So that's my initial takeaway from this. I am an aging man who remembers the days before the government let us have Internet. What do you kids have to say?