Image via Elizabeth Morris

A Grieving Patton Oswalt Returns to the Stage, With or Without Laughs

In his new Netflix special, the first since his wife’s death, the beloved comic is just trying to hang on

During the 2011 HBO special Talking Funny, Jerry Seinfeld acknowledged a core component of every stand-up show: Fear. “I think we deal with fear more viscerally than almost anyone,” he said. “You feel the audience’s fear, your own fear. The whole show is about quelling fear. … When you have a bit that you really are confident in, and you know the end of it’s really strong, the audience feels your fear level go down and they relax.”

And so, for an audience to laugh, first they have to feel comfortable — they have to believe in the performer’s swagger and their material. It’s one of the reasons comics use such violent language to describe their performance: If it goes well, they’ll declare, “I killed out there,” whereas if it’s a tough room, you might hear them say, “I bombed.” The nakedness of a comic alone on stage is an inherently terrifying sight, and the more they can remove that anxiety, the better it is for them and us.

For most of his life, Patton Oswalt has been doing stand-up, but his newest special is his oddest, for obvious reasons. In interviews, Oswalt has said that he named his Netflix special Annihilation in reference to the common refrain of comedians “killing,” but I suspect the title also alludes to the trauma he experienced in April 2016 when his wife of 10 years, writer Michelle McNamara, died in her sleep.

If stand-up sets are meant to exude confidence and comic mastery, then Annihilation is an acknowledgment that sometimes life strips away the illusion of control. Fear and pain dominate Oswalt’s special. He and we know what’s coming — and what he’s eventually going to talk about — and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it. We just have to get through it together.

Filmed in Chicago in June, Annihilation acknowledges the uncertainty hanging in the air from the start, as we see Oswalt walk down a lonely hallway from his dressing room before hesitantly going on stage once the theater announcer introduces him. Is he going to perform or face a firing squad? “Until I stepped out onstage and started talking for like 10 minutes, I honestly didn’t know if I could do this,” Oswalt recently admitted to Vulture about the one-hour special, and he’s not exaggerating. When the crowd greets him warmly with a standing ovation, there’s a look of appreciation but also reluctance across his face — almost as if he’s not sure he’s ready for this.

Oswalt then proceeds to dive into a series of jokes about how Trump’s inauguration ruined his plans to get fit in 2017 and why the country wasn’t ready for a female president after electing a black man. These bits are solidly executed, and the crowd laughs at all the right spots, but there’s an unmistakable cloud hanging over the proceedings. Nobody in that Chicago crowd, nor anybody watching on Netflix, is tuning in to hear what Oswalt thinks of our terrible year. We want to know about his specifically terrible year, which was even worse than ours.

Annihilation isn’t the first time that a stand-up film’s energy was partly derived from our and the comic’s acknowledgment of offstage traumas. 1982’s Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip was his first special after he made headlines by setting himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Sunset Strip captured Pryor’s anxious buildup to finally talking about what everyone at the show was there to hear. Similarly, there’s an air of anticipation in Annihilation’s first half, as Oswalt doesn’t so much deliver punchlines as he seems to be making comedic small talk, flitting around what’s really troubling him until he feels comfortable enough to go there.

But even if Annihilation’s early material isn’t among Oswalt’s best, there’s a poignancy to his hemming and hawing. At one point, he tells a story of something that he witnessed in 2000 — a fight that broke out on the Sunset Strip — that’s meant to suggest how un-macho he is. But while the anecdote is amusing, it’s also sweetly pointless. And what makes it so touching is that it’s clear he’s telling us this story so that he can delay as long as possible what he fears telling us.

After engaging in a so-so interaction with audience members in the front row where he asks them questions and then riffs on their answers, Oswalt finally admits, “I’m just killing time. This next section is very hard for me to get into.” And then, after rubbing his hands together and looking down, he begins: “Just over a year ago, I became a widower.”

It would be inaccurate to say that anything that follows is revelatory or hysterically funny. But for the last 30 minutes or so, Annihilation is fascinating for how it offers a rare glimpse into a stand-up who’s not fighting off fear but, rather, surrendering to it. In fact, that’s part of what the material concerning his wife’s passing and its aftermath is about — the realization that Oswalt’s old comforts can’t protect him from the anguish of her death. As a longtime pop-culture geek, Oswalt informs us that dark superhero origin stories are really just dumb. “It’s always a widower,” he says, exasperated. “Someone who has lost a wife or a child or their whole family. And they do that thing that everyone does the minute you lose a loved one … CrossFit and martial arts.”

He also now knows that the classic brooding-hero image of a comic-book character standing over his wife’s grave at night in the rain doesn’t work in the real world: “Cemeteries close at 6,” he says. “I know this. That’s bullshit.”

Throughout his observations, Oswalt chuckles and occasionally cracks a smile, but I couldn’t get past the overwhelming sadness on his face — the perpetual look that suggested this was all still too fresh and he wasn’t quite ready to polish this material to where it could be great.

Overall, Annihilation has a rambling quality to it, but it’s in keeping with anyone still absorbing a shock. And it makes the set’s moments of clarity even more striking. Oswalt relates having to tell his young daughter that her mother had died — or, as he puts it so memorably, “I looked at my daughter and destroyed her world. I had to look at this little girl that was everything to me and take everything from her.” He struggles a bit to stay focused and then adds, “That’s gonna be longer for me to recover from than my wife passing away.”

Tears are probably more likely to be triggered than laughs in Annihilation, but after years as one of alt-comedy’s most beloved stand-ups, Oswalt has earned the right to just talk to his audience, unburdening himself of an emotional weight he doesn’t expect to let go of any time soon. There are jokes in Annihilation, but not a ton, with the promise that more will come later when Oswalt has more perspective on the tragedy he’s experienced.

During the special, I thought a lot about Werewolves and Lollipops, his 2007 comedy album that I consider his best. That was a long time ago: Back then, he had only recently gotten married, and in his stand-up, he was wrestling with domesticity and the frightening possibility of maybe having a kid. (“She’s gonna trick me into doing it,” he said of his wife. “She’s going to leave a trail of comic books going into her vagina or something.”)

But he also told a story of a one-night stand with a woman he was sure he got pregnant, prompting a trip to the pharmacy for a morning-after pill. Oswalt tells the bit with a lot of comic anxiety, but he allows for this quiet moment in which he and the woman begin to express regret about what they’re about to do. It’s unexpectedly tender and sweet — and then the quiet is punctured by some jerk in the audience yelling “Wooooo!!!” really loudly. And Oswalt went off:

“I love the guy who’s terrified at any kind of silence,” Oswalt said, irritated, later telling the guy, “Fuck me for building a moment. I’d hate to see you at a funeral.” Finally, when the drunk asshole keeps whooping it up, Oswalt caustically informs him, “You are going to miss everything cool and die angry.”

About 10 years later, Annihilation is that funeral, and it speaks to Oswalt’s talent and humanity that he’s confident enough to keep building those quiet minutes, unconcerned if a random jerk won’t be able to handle a thoughtful silence. That’s the kind of courage that outweighs any fear. So in Annihilation, he doesn’t kill, but he does survive.