Standup comedy is an illusion. The performer must trick the audience into thinking he or she is telling a story because it just occurred to them, or that something which never happened actually did. In Patton Oswalt’s latest Netflix special, however, there’s no artifice in his haunted eyes when he talks about his late wife, Michelle McNamara, and it’s clear that every tortured word is true.
Patton Oswalt: Annihilation is not like any of the comedian’s six previous specials. It’s not like any other comedy special, full stop. The hour-long show (now streaming) begins with an amuse-bouche of Trump-related material and then culminates in a main course of brutally honest storytelling about losing his wife, the mother of his child. (McNamara died unexpectedly in her sleep last year, at the age of 46. ) Highlighting the raw, heart-on-fire quality of the special, though, undersells just how funny it is most of the time. It’s a bravura comedic turn whose elegance belies just how crushing an experience the aptly named Annihilation was to create. As if grieving weren’t tough enough, imagine doing it in the public eye in the era of Trump.
“It’s a huge myth that you write the best stuff when you’re in the depths of despair,” Oswalt says during a recent interview. “You gotta get beyond the first little bit and then you can look back at it in a much broader context and find a way to talk about it.”
Oswalt has long suffered from depression and often channeled it into relatable material onstage. Although the grief over his wife’s death was far more powerful than his average bouts of depression, the comedian still ended up turning to audiences to work out his feelings after a few months.
Some of the stories and jokes he began telling in the fall of 2016 were too intense, some just didn’t hit the mark, and others he thought would illustrate what the hellscape of grief felt like ended up not working. All in all, though, after the initial shock of doing comedy again after unimaginable tragedy, the process turned out to be pretty typical: culling the best material through trial and error. Returning to comedy began to feel normal. And then Donald Trump was elected president.
As Oswalt describes in the special, being a comedian in the Trump era means getting sprayed with a firehouse of comedy fodder at all times. Crafting jokes became an overwhelming experience, not just because of the abundance of possibilities, but because of the ever-present distraction of breaking news.
“You have to become a bit of a detective and figure out what’s significant and what’s just neural chaff to get you confused and not focused on what’s actually crucial and useful,” he says.
While the omnipresent political chaos provided merciful respites from grief, Oswalt would not go so far as to call them welcome distractions.
“The whole process of grieving is to get beyond it so you can get back into the world,” he says. “And I was suddenly put into a position where if I was able to get beyond my grieving, this was a really shitty world to try to get back to right now. So it may have motivated me to make myself better so I could help make the world better, but it wasn’t like I was anxious to get back to this fucking garbage fire that people seem to have to be living through from day to day.”
Like all of his previous outings, Oswalt retired the material after the special was released. This time, however, one gets the sense that even if he is done with the material, it’s not done with him.