It is 36 minutes into Patton Oswalt: Annihilation, Patton Oswalt’s new hourlong special, before the stand-up comedian mentions that on top of being a dependable source of David Lee Roth analogies, he’s also a widower and a single dad. Oswalt’s referring to the passing of Michelle McNamara, the true crime writer who was married to Oswalt before her sudden death last year at age 46, and Alice, her and Oswalt’s young daughter. The announcement is a somewhat abrupt pivot from the material—which is something closer to what we conventionally understand as comedy—that precedes it. The first half-hour of the comedian’s new Netflix special is the sort of clever, energetic performance that befits a comic of Oswalt’s stature and experience. He riffs about Trump; he does some crowd work, playfully needling a flustered publicist trapped in the front row; he tells a story about witnessing a bar fight outside a metal venue.
For any other comedian, the beginning of Annihilation would make for a memorable, entertaining set. But it’s the second half that will define the special in Oswalt’s career and public persona, because it’s the second that takes on what it’s like to become a widower and single parent in middle age with no warning or reason. If and how Oswalt would spin this personal tragedy into comedy is an undeniable part of Annihilation’s draw, as well as its astronomical challenge. Oswalt rises to the occasion with a frank, confessional monologue that never strains for laughter. The comic merely uses humor, as we all do, as a coping mechanism life has a habit of supplying for us. The only difference is that Oswalt’s humor is sharper and more concentrated, because we’re in the hands of a professional who’s mulled his loss and refined his delivery for more than a year. (Annihilation was taped back in June, at Chicago’s Athenaeum Theatre.)
Annihilation isn’t an impulsive outpouring, in the vein of Tig Notaro’s legendary post-cancer-diagnosis set Live. Its structure is more akin to Anthony Jeselnik’s Thoughts and Prayers, also available on Netflix: straight comedy that assuages and prepares the crowd for what’s to come, followed by an expert segue into the show. Oswalt was testing and tinkering this material for months beforehand; it’s the process all stand-ups go through when streamlining their act, though most acts don’t deal with such raw emotions while the performer is still working through them. More than a year ago, I watched Oswalt deliver a very early, abbreviated version of this set at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Hollywood. A few months later, Oswalt hit the talk-show circuit, and shared stories on significantly higher-profile but still relatively ephemeral platforms like Conan and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. One of my favorite parts of following comedy in a city like Los Angeles is to watch a joke take shape, from rough draft to late night to the canonical version that then becomes a permanent and accessible part of a comedian’s legacy. But that refinement takes on a very different cast when it’s tied to something as intimate, visceral, and evolving as mourning.
About that evolution: It’s not over, and Oswalt would very much like people to stop asking if it is, or pretending that loss proceeds in a linear fashion. “If one more person wishes me ‘strength’ on my ‘healing journey,’” he opens, “I’m gonna throw a balloon full of piss in the window of every candle store on the planet.” The phrasing, colorful and unorthodox, is pure Oswalt, though the statement isn’t a joke so much as a funny way to express a deeply felt emotion. Much of Annihilation’s second act doesn’t even try for jokes. Oswalt simply walks us through the nightmarish sequence of events that randomly and cruelly befell him. Just like in life, he has to wade through the darkest part of his “numb slog”—Oswalt’s preferred term to “healing journey”—before he can get to the lighthearted anecdotes about Halloween mazes and Polish airline workers.
The worst day of his life, Oswalt tells his audience, is not the day he woke up to find that his wife had passed away in her sleep. That was the next day, when he had to explain her death to their 7-year-old daughter. “I looked at my daughter and destroyed her world,” he recounts, sounding rightfully destroyed himself. “I had to look at this little girl that was everything to me and take everything from her.” Oswalt doesn’t try to force that shattering moment into a punch line or gild it with a false silver lining, but he doesn’t dwell on it either. Instead, he does what he had to then: soldier through and take his daughter to school, which is where the comedy hits. A man who hasn’t slept in four days (“It looked like a junkie had found a kid”) meeting a pack of clueless children (“When my mom and dad stopped living together, I had a stepmom right away!”) is as much punch-line setup as a sad circumstance, and Oswalt knows it. He doesn’t have to strain for comedy; he only has to communicate the comedy that he naturally comes across.
From there, Oswalt is free to move on to the indignities of daytime cemetery visits and the very real possibility that he’s dead and the nightmarish world we’re living in is just his brain’s version of hell. The cemetery story, in which an Armenian family has a screaming argument while Oswalt is attempting to deliver a rehearsed, meaningful speech to his wife’s grave, also implies a larger point about preplanned Big Moments, which is that they rarely unfold in momentous ways. Grief doesn’t work like it does in the movies; if it did, Oswalt points out, either Bruce Wayne would be “Gotham’s worst slam poet” instead of a superhero or Oswalt would be positively ripped by now. The everyday gets in the way of the grand and cataclysmic, which may frustrate certain expressions of sadness, but offers a way out of that sadness, too. Our paths rarely unfold according to plan, and that can be a boon as much as a curse.
That’s the theme of Annihilation and Oswalt’s takeaway from the past 18 months as he’s learned to deal with this unexpected, horrific turn in his family’s life—a takeaway he’s now passing on to his audience. In her work as a true crime writer who investigated cold cases, Oswalt explains, McNamara always hated the cliché that everything happens for a reason and coined her own expression to counteract it: “It’s chaos. Be kind.” What she meant is that the world is random, just as likely to senselessly take away a loved one as offer success or happiness. The only way to live with that terrifying randomness is to act with basic decency toward others, no matter what may happen. “It’s chaos, be kind” is how Oswalt closes the special, a perfect motto for both this highly specific story and whoever might be listening. It’s not exactly revolutionary, but that’s what makes it so profound.