Photo: Netflix. Graphic: Emi Tolibas.

Patton Oswalt made his name as a stand-up comedian mining absurdity from his life—sharply observed and frequently paired with deft pop culture allusions, cutting self-deprecation, and a zeal for obscenity. That has driven eight stand-up albums and specials, but his flair for the absurd has never been more devastating than on his new, tellingly titled Netflix special, Annihilation. Oswalt manages to wring laughs out of the unexpected death of his wife, true-crime writer and cold-case investigator Michelle McNamara, and the harrowing pain it left in him and their young daughter. Because it’s Oswalt, the laughs come easily, but painfully. It’s absurdity that leaves a bruise, like when Oswalt notes that God chose to take his wife, whose work tried to bring closure to grieving families, instead of he, who “talks about his dick in front of drunks.” Despite its title, Annihilation isn’t all despair, as half the special is typical Oswalt humor—that’s a necessity, as Oswalt told The A.V. Club a few days ahead of Annihilation’s premiere.

The A.V. Club: Was it always your plan to have half of the special be about Michelle and then have more topical stuff up front?

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Patton Oswalt: I actually did not have a plan. I had no idea how I was going to approach it, how I was going to do this, but it just came from going onstage a lot, starting in August of 2016. It’s weird, I flashed back to 1991 at Charlie Goodnight’s in North Carolina. I was opening for Bill Hicks, and I was trying very hard to impress him with how “edgy” and “dangerous” I was by going out with, I mean, the harshest shit I could right out the [gate], because fuck you all, you guys. He was backstage, and he’s like, “You got to walk them to the edge, Oswalt.”

Then I watched his set, and he would open with 15 to 20 minutes of just very accessible, fun [material]—airport travel and dating—and then boom. Then he would drop. Not that I was trying to shake the audience up.

It ended up being prophetic in terms of you, yourself, have got to walk yourself to the edge on this one. It isn’t even the audience. It’s the fact that you are about to go through something very, very harsh, and you’ve got to get yourself ready for that.

AVC: In 2007, when you had Ratatouille and Werewolves And Lollipops coming out, we joked about it being the “summer of Patton” because so much was happening. It feels like the “fall of Patton” now with the special coming out—and if you want to get really symbolic, its subject matter. This is your official return. What did you want it to say?

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PO: Well, grammatically, “The Fall Of Patton” has a very ominous ring to it. Especially after this past year and a half, where there wasn’t just a fall but a flattening, I think I’m gonna go with “Patton’s Working Again.” I was never a big subscriber to the “myth of myself” that I see some artists get into. Especially after seeing, this past year, what people of color and women and transgender and disabled and gay and lesbian people have been going through, wading through this assaultive reality, it really puts any tragedy or dread you’re going through in perspective. I lost the love of my life and it nearly destroyed me, but life kept going on around me. There are people alive now who feel that life itself, that reality as we know it is attacking them. I never felt that terrified—I was devastated, and then lonely and depressed, and then I got back together. I forced myself back onstage. I woke up every morning for my daughter and then, just recently, I fell even deeper in love than I’ve ever experienced. But that’s one teensy human timeline in this massive fabric that seems to be fraying.

AVC: You did warm-up shows for this set, but did you ever do two of them in one night, like you did at the taping? How taxing was it to go through that material again an hour later?

PO: I did a couple of shows back-to-back at venues that sold out the first show and offered me the second one. And I needed the money, so I took it. The first few times I did it, [I] went through that emotional shredding and stripping away onstage, I felt like a hollowed-out carcass going into the second set. But like anything else, you’ve just gotta work and build up to it. So, over and over again, I did it, until I was ready when the time came around in June to tape the special.

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AVC: Did you ever consider going the one-man-show route with this? Because it’s such a big topic.

PO: No, no, no. Here’s the thing: A one-man show then makes it way more about, this is my thing, and she’s just a function of my life—whereas if I do it in the set, I think I’m much more of a function of her memory, and you see way more starkly, a more active and living effect that she had on me and on the people around her, rather than, “Let me tell you about my journey and my healing.”

I haven’t changed the format of what I do. I still do stand-up. It’d be like a guy, let’s say he’s a bricklayer. He lays beautiful brick walls. He’s an artist, and he’s a craftsman. He cares about it, and then he goes, “Guess what, guys? I’m going to bake a cake.” So, you’re making this more about your change rather than wanting to build a memory of her, because the way that you do this was affected by this extraordinary person that you got to share a huge part of your life with.

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AVC: There’s this tension that hangs over Annihilation. If a person knows anything about your life, they know what’s coming. You even mentioned it onstage, that you were talking about other things because you knew the Michelle material would be so difficult. Once you were there, was the anticipation of getting into that stuff harder than actually doing it ? 

PO: Exactly. It was almost like, “Oh, if I could just fucking get onstage, I’d be fine. I’d be fucking fine.” Once I got up onstage, then I was okay. It’s that classic—what’s the line? “You don’t get the courage to do the thing that you’re scared of doing until after you do it.” So once I got onstage and once it got going, it was like, “Well, now it’s going. I’ve got to do this.” It, weirdly, was a relief.

It’s just this whole new phase of—I was in extreme despair, and now I’m in extreme joy, and there’s moments when I wonder, “Am I like a glass that’s in the freezer for a while and then you take it out and put boiling water in it and it just shatters? Should I not be going from these extremes? Is that dangerous?”

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AVC: The special is bookended with these sweeping shots, first, coming into the Athenaeum Theatre, and then exiting the building, rising up in the air, and gazing at the Chicago cityscape. The closing, in particular, is a lovely moment and ripe with symbolism. How did you and director Bobcat Goldthwait settle on that?

PO: Oh man, I so wish I could say I had any hand in that, but here’s the truth—it was all Bobcat’s vision. He’s such a terrific director, and he’d watched and read the material, and he came up with this wordless, visual shorthand for what the function and the reality of the show was.

And here’s what it is: It’s a literal descent into a darkness that almost killed me. The opening color palette is stygian blacks and corpse green, and it’s all rot and entropy and hopelessness. And then a blast of light when I walk out onstage. And then that final shot, and I’m up on the roof now, I’ve ascended up through the building and above whatever was there to destroy me, and the sun’s coming up, but then the camera continues on, up past me, because this ultimately isn’t even about me. It’s about this life that ended, and she’s gone, but there’s the city she grew and formed in, and we’re looking at the lights and she’s still there, somewhere, in her effect on the people she loved and who loved her. One of her favorite songs starts playing, and Michelle’s off to wherever she needs to be. And I’m gonna stay here and hold things down, and be in love, and try to love other people, and teach our daughter to do the same. It’s exhausted, weary hope, but it’s hope.

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AVC: Going back to your first album, Michelle was in your material. On 222, you have that bit about how she loved true-crime shows, but couldn’t watch Westerns because they were too violent. The texting bit from My Weakness Is Strong. The parking ticket story on Finest Hour. It goes on. Annihilation feels full circle in that way. Were you cognizant of that?

PO: Well, I wasn’t cognizant of all of this until after I had done three or four specials and I realized, because somebody pointed out online, “So, you do this whole bit about how you’re never going to get married and have kids, and here’s your new special where you’re all excited to be married and be a dad.”

What I realized was each of these is a snapshot of the person that I was at that time. You’ve gone through this, too. There are moments in your life where you are just a completely different person. It’s almost like you’re a gallery of strangers hanging out with each other.

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So I’m actually kind of glad that I have this record of myself in my 20s where I’m still so nervous and unconfident about myself that I got to do that classic twentysomething thing where you just hate everything and dismiss everything. That’s the safest stance to take, and then as you see me getting older and becoming more actualized and more evolved, especially because of Michelle’s effect on me, you see me taking risks and going, “No, this is about something that I love,” you know?

AVC: You have that bit about Nickelback, where in your 20s, you would have railed against them, and now you’re just like, “You like Nickelback? Cool. Whatever.”

PO: You get to that point where you’re like, “Oh, no, I don’t hate any music anymore.” If someone likes something, I’m like, “Okay, good.” They don’t need to hear my bullshit lecture.

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AVC: Speaking of the performative change, there’s the part of the special where you talk about telling your daughter what happened. There’s no quick joke, no wackity-smackity-doo kind of thing. You just let this painful moment hang there. How much did you have to restrain yourself from easing that tension with a quick quip or something?

PO: That was one of the biggest things I had to overcome. My biggest instinct was “Put a joke in there. Oh, my god, this is so much silence. This is so much fucking silence.” That is a really scary thing for a comedian to do. Getting over that was a huge, huge leap.

AVC: Right now you’re doing the occasional “Patton Oswalt And Friends” show in LA. You’re going to take a break from the bigger theater and touring shows?

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PO: Oh, indeed. Yes. Last Sunday, I did a whole new Patton Oswalt And Friends Show, and I’m going to do them once a month, but after the whole summer, I didn’t do any sets. I just decided to take a little break for the summer and try to get my life together, and now I’m starting to, tentatively, get some sets out there.

AVC: What comes after this? The press around Annihilation noted that you won’t perform any of this material again.

PO: What comes next is—and again, I don’t have anything really romantic or amazing to say about it in that. What I mean is that, like I always do, I’m going to go up onstage and start working on new stuff. Life goes on, and art and creativity go on, I hope. We’ll see. Even in my specials where I didn’t go as deep and dark as I did in Annihilation, the minute they come out, the minute they are released as albums or specials, I never do that material again. But this feels like not only am I not going to be doing that material again, I’m going to be a different person now, and we’re going to see if that person can still do stand-up.

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AVC: Because you could think about some old, silly bit you’ve done and be like, “None of that shit matters now. We have to talk about important things!”

PO: Well, I do think that there is something very hopeful and human in… even when people go through these horrible tragedies and upheavals, then you do begin joking about goofy stuff. That’s a big thing about being human, is just frivolity and fun in the face of [sadness]. Because the forces, whether they are sentient or not, that are trying to grind you down, they want you to be humorless and quiet and head down and forever beaten down. If you can still get up and keep joking and laughing with your friends and getting wrapped up in silly shit, that’s the life force affirming itself in a lot of ways.

I hate to sound cliché, but it’s Gilbert Gottfried doing the aristocrats joke after 9/11. “We’re still going to be filthy and stupid and funny, and we’re going to laugh, and so fuck you.”

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I don’t want to use the term “If we don’t do that, the terrorists win,” but these kind of extremists, they want humor and mockery and irony to go away forever, and so you’ve got to bring them back defiantly.

AVC: You mentioned sounding clichéd, but that’s what’s so infuriating. You discover that life is pretty clichéd at times.

PO: A lot of things start off as possible clichés, and a lot of them die off because they don’t apply. But, a lot of them, they become clichés because a lot of life, it’s the same thing over and over again, and that’s why that cliché is there. They did unveil an actuality at one point or another, so there’s a reason that they’re there.

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AVC: And sometimes if you’re a smartass, you’re just like, “Really? This just all feels very on the nose.” 

PO: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. But, man, sometimes saying that is a way to avoid emotion, instead of saying, “I’m here, and I’m present, and I’m committed, even if it makes me look kind of silly. I know it makes me look strident, but I care. I give a shit. I’m not trying to look cool.” Cool is the enemy of comedy, and I think, ultimately, that cool is the enemy of life.