There is no comedian whose material is as darkly personal as that of Patton Oswalt. Over the past couple decades as an established comic, he has tackled bold topics that are off putting, strange and often bleak. The magic of his material, however, is that he does it in such a personal and confessional way that it feels like his sets are therapeutic. He confides in us, and we listen and support him as he vents through stories, jokes and commentary on the world we live in. Of course, his latest special, Annihilation, is no different, because in the year and a half leading up to it, his wife, Michelle McNamara, unexpectedly passed away. He uses a lot of his time on stage to widely open up about the grieving process and being there for his daughter, while also trying to find humour in such a tragic situation. What comes out of it is Patton’s most heartbreaking, hilarious and powerful set to date.
It takes him some time to finally acknowledge the elephant in the room, because he takes the first half hour of his set to talk about the current state of America. He quickly talks about Trump for roughly five minutes before finally confessing how hard it is for comedians to be constantly tearing him apart because “it’s exhausting” to cover. He also tackles racism, and calls out the bullshit of people claiming that “white genocide” exists. On its own, this certainly isn’t his finest material, but considering how talented he is, it’s still incredibly smart, funny, and engaging.
What’s really noticeable about the first section, however, is that it feels a bit unfocused this time around. He often abruptly jumps around from one topic to the other, but it makes us feel more sympathetic for Oswalt instead of detracting from the special overall. It really seems like he anxiously has the second half of his set lingering through his mind, and it’s hard to blame him. This is even more clear as he takes a few minutes to riff off of the audience, focusing on three in particular. Each interaction is insightful, funny and a little dark at times, but he finds it to be a relief, and thanks them for their time and participation. However, we know, and he knows as well, that he’s just trying to mentally prepare himself for the inevitable, and later admits, “I’m just killing time, this next section is very hard for me to get into.”
From the point of that admission until the special comes to its end, we watch as Patton relives every painful moment of Michelle’s death and the weeks that followed; it’s justifiably tough to watch. Moments like him vividly describing the day he told his daughter that her mother was gone, are just as absolutely devastating for us to hear as they are for him to discuss, but in this moment, the stage is his safe haven and we are his support system. He also always returns to his daughter when he discusses everything as a constant reminder that this isn’t just his battle. He puts her first because she means the world to him and her happiness is his happiness, something he has more than proven in his earlier specials, namely Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time and Talking for Clapping. It’s difficult, but beautiful, to watch him pour his heart and soul out to the audience, but watching him make sense of everything, while selflessly putting his daughter first, will certainly help someone cope with their own grief as it is currently helping him with his own.
With that said, there are bits of relief throughout as he tries to find humour in such a bleak situation. He balances everything really well, going from devastation to pure hilarity effortlessly without feeling tonally jarring. The places he finds even the slightest glimmer of joy often vary, as he goes from pointing out the little absurdities that he noticed in his mourning, such as a series of distractions when he visits her grave, to making fun of the kids at his daughter’s school who ask way too many questions about their loss. He then ends the special on an insanely vulgar joke about pitching a movie by using comparisons to porn. It seems like a weird way to end a highly distressing yet cathartic set, but he admits that it’s the kind of joke that Michelle would have loved hearing, and therefore honours her in the only way he knows how–through comedy. It gives the set an overall sense of relief, while also helping Patton cope with everything him and his daughter have been going through.
The best word to describe Annihilation is “powerful.” Through sharing his living hell with such a huge audience, Patton Oswalt works through his wife’s passing, and tries to find something to laugh about. When he does, it’s often hilarious, and it feels even better knowing that this is helping him close the wound that opened up over a year ago. The stage is his therapy and we are his support. He is unlike any other stand up comic today.
(Featured Image: Patton Oswalt: Annihilation, Netflix)