It’s been a rough 18 months for comedian Patton Oswalt. His wife, crime writer Michelle McNamara, died unexpectedly last April, leaving him as a single father to their 7-year-old daughter, Alice. Oswalt talks at length about the experience in his first stand-up special following the loss, Annihilation, which debuts on Netflix on October 17. Ahead of its premiere, Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz interviewed Oswalt about losing a spouse, the complex relationship between grief and nostalgia, comedy in an age of “chaos,” and why he wasn’t surprised by the social-media reaction to his engagement to actress and legal mediator Meredith Salenger.
Obviously you were going to do new material at some point after your wife’s death. But what was the moment when you said, “I can do this now. I’m ready”?
I can’t really think of a specific moment when I thought, “I can do this.” I remember the night before, getting ready to do the special, I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this.” I had been doing shows and improv in smaller theaters and stuff like that. I had been doing some traveling. But each one always took so much out of me. I was like, “What if I had been fooling myself? What if the reality of me getting in front of the camera hits me and hits the audience, and the whole thing crashes and burns?” Until I stepped out onstage and started talking for like ten minutes, I honestly didn’t know if I could do this.
Actually, even then [I wasn’t sure], because it isn’t until a half an hour into the set that I start talking about what I went through and I start getting dark. I was edging up to that, and I was really terrified the whole time. There was no way to describe it. I didn’t know if it would work or if I could do it. What’s that phrase? “You don’t get the courage to do something until after you do it?” That was exactly what this was for me.
Was there a moment when you thought, “You know, maybe I won’t even go there”?
There were moments early on when I was working on the set, yeah. But once I was taping the special, once I was in front of that Chicago audience and the cameras were going, I was like, “I’ve got to do this no matter what. I have to.”
When you talk about your experience after your wife’s death, it’s not funny ha-ha. There are stretches where it’s not funny at all. It’s just a guy talking about his experience. I’ve seen a lot of your stand-up, but I don’t remember you doing anything quite in this vein before, at this length.
Well, my life didn’t stay quite in the vein that I was used to! My stand-up is always about reflecting what my life is about. There are early stand-up specials where I talked about how I was never getting married and I was never having kids. You see me evolving and changing. And now it’s not so much me evolving but adapting to crisis. So I tried the best I could to brave that, and be honest with it.
But yeah, that was one of the biggest instincts I had to fight: to be onstage and talk for long periods of time where there was no laugh. It wasn’t even the rhythm of a setup. That was really scary. I’m not even reassuring the audience and myself that a joke is coming.
Was there any mental calculus along the lines of “Should I talk about this publicly, in a direct way? Or should I use it in some other, more oblique way in my art”?
I talked about that with my therapist a lot.
What did he say?
He said, “It would probably be weird if you went onstage and didn’t talk about it. That would be just as uncomfortable. You’d be the same kind of uncomfortable if you didn’t talk about it than if you did, so do whatever is most comfortable for you. The audience is not offended that you’re onstage. They have come to a show. They all have their own problems, too, that you can’t even fathom. This might be a good way to both get you and them out of their trauma and problems they’re dealing with.”
What’s the significance of the title Annihilation?
For me, I was trying to find a word for how I felt and what I was going to be talking about. Overall, if there’s a theme to the special, then it is an annihilation. We’re going through an annihilation of reality right now. There’s an annihilation of language. We’re going through an annihilation of structure, and the fact that that got so localized on me just made me feel, That’s the only way I’m thinking about things right now.
The bit where you talk about telling your daughter about your wife’s death the day after it happened, and specifically her telling you that she wanted to go back to school Monday: That seems like an example of a need for structure.
Oh, yeah! She was the one voice that piped up and demanded that structure. I think a lot of us right now — whether or not we’d like to admit it — have that kind of childlike voice inside of us. We see what’s going on with the world and with the presidency and with social relations in this country and wonder, “Can’t things be logical? Can’t adults be running things again?” It’s really scary when you’re a kid and the adults are acting like kids. Nothing is scarier for a kid than when adults are acting like little kids, and I was trying to reflect that.
You touch on that when you describe bringing your daughter to school the Monday after it happened. You’re in such bad shape that you imagine other people looking at you as if an adult drug addict found a child and brought them to school.
Yeah, she was kind of leading me at that point.
How bad was it during the first few weeks?
I describe pretty graphically in the special how awful it was. I’m pretty open about how bad it was.
You deal with death your entire life. You lose grandparents, you lose friends, and so on. But there’s always a big one where the meteor basically hits your house, like it did here, and you see loss and grief differently. How do you see death and loss differently now, after losing Michelle?
When it really hits you close, it’s like C.S. Lewis described in A Grief Observed, that [grief] feels like fear. Dealing with other people’s grief and other people’s loss, it can feel like sadness. You can certainly feel empathy. But you don’t feel this sense of fear like, “Is this world even for me now?” That’s a new feeling. Once you realize that people going through real grief are actually feeling that, you can communicate with them so much better.
Were you taken aback by people issuing opinions on your engagement to Meredith Salenger 14 months after Michelle’s death?
No, I wasn’t surprised at all. Have you heard of this thing called Twitter?
[Laughs.] Did you talk about the probable social-media reaction with Meredith beforehand?
Was the reaction what you anticipated?
It was what I suspected. And then I had my suspicions confirmed.
Why do you think people feel they’re entitled to have an opinion on what other people do with their romantic life after losing a mate?
Because there’s no one listening to them. It’s really sad. You see these anonymous accounts, and you realize no one listens to them on even a one-on-one basis. It’s that thing where you feel like you’re floating in this void and anything you can do to feel alive — even if it hurts you or hurts other people — you’ll do it. It’s like a social-media form of cutting. They want to feel something. It’s really, really sad. You look at these lives and they just don’t feel anything. If they don’t feel anything, then they will try to feel any feeling, good or bad. It’s that whole soft-monkey syndrome.
Yeah, you know, the experiment where they take the mother away and then the baby will cling to anything warm, it doesn’t matter what. It will reject food just so it can hold onto a blanket. It’s the same thing.
You have to ignore outside opinions about it and go, “This is where I am, and I need to move forward. I’m a dad. I have a daughter. I need to give her a good life.”
Do you still have pictures of Michelle and mementos and things around the house?
I have things for myself. Her presence is in my memory, and we’ll leave it at that.
Do you think you might ever write a book about this experience?
I feel like I did with this new special, you know?
That’s the most natural form for you?
For me it is, yeah. I don’t know, writing-wise, where the ideas are going to take me. I don’t know how I would approach it as a book. But the special was just as grueling as writing a book for me.
Were there any bits that you workshopped that ended up not making it in?
Yeah, there were a few.
Why’d you cut them?
Because they were restating what people already knew. I wanted to both help myself and the audience, and a lot of that stuff felt like grinding gears.
You talk about pop culture — not just on the special but elsewhere — as a repository of shared memories, and how difficult it can be to revisit after losing somebody who shared it with you. Are there any things that are emotionally radioactive for you still?
So far, no. There are still feelings of loss and nostalgia and love, though.
I’m reading the latest draft of her new book. It’s coming out in February. Her voice is so right there on the page. That can be difficult to read.
I don’t really know. There’s nothing that I can particularly avoid. A lot of times with grief, it’s not that you can plan what to avoid and what to go to. Memories can ambush you. And you get used to that. The plans and contingencies I make don’t matter. This thing is going to have its way with me one way or another.
There’s a lot of truth to that. I’m further along in this process than you are, but I still have moments where I’m in Duane Reade and some song will come on the PA system — and it’s always some stupid-ass song, it’s not one of the big ones where we said, “This is our song” — and it wipes me out.
Yeah, it’s really weird! The cheesiest love songs can really, really hit you. It’s stuff that you thought you were so above. And then you realize you’re not!
Are there any things in popular culture that have comforted you during this period?
Just pure absurdity: Tim and Eric, Eric Andre, LiarTownUSA, Tumblr. Sheer absurdity is what gives me comfort and hope. The one thing that seems to make sense to me is absurdity.
Chaos, yeah. Which we’re all living in now.
How far along are you?
Eleven and a half years.
Remind me, how did she pass away?
She had an undiagnosed flaw in her heart. She had a massive coronary attack when she was 35.
Yeah, it was crazy. That’s why I had such affinity for the part of the special where you talk about how mad you got when people told you, “It’s all part of God’s plan.”
Exactly! You know? Don’t say, “God’s plan” to me when she got taken and I’m still here! Try not to say, “God’s plan” to me, because I’m evidence that the plan sucks.
[Laughs.] So it’s all chaos, as Michelle said.
It’s chaos, be kind. That was her mantra: “It’s chaos, be kind.”
Are there people who you’ve talked to who have gone through this, who have been helpful to you?
Absolutely, yeah. I had a whole network of people that stepped up.
Do new widowers or widows ask you for advice?
I get a lot of Facebook messages from people who are going through it, and [I’m like], “What can I do?” I’ll try my best, but I’m not a grief counselor. I shouldn’t be giving people advice. It should be professionals who guide them toward better resources, or stuff they can do that will actually help them. The best I can say is “Just keep going” and “I know what you’re going through.” I’m not a qualified guide for the bereaved, I can say that right now.
Do you feel at least that you have gotten to the point where you know what you’re doing, and you can look at yourself and go, “Yeah, I’ve got this under control, things are fine”?
I know I can live day-to-day. But I also know that can change. An 8-year-old and a teenager are two very different things, so who knows what will happen. I’m trying to be optimistic and also be aware that there are other challenges on the way. Just because we deal with one phase of grief or take one step doesn’t mean there aren’t other obstacles ahead.
How are you feeling right now, at this moment?
It’s a year and six months on. I’m feeling way better now. When you deal with grief, you deal with it every second of the day, so you tend to move on a little quicker than people on the outside might expect, because they don’t deal with it every single day.
That idea of the grieving process being “a healing journey” is something that you attack pretty hard in the special, though.
Yes, I do. I’m waking up every day and living. It’s hard to describe it as “healing.” It’s more like you’re evolving.
You know, you never truly heal. But you do evolve into someone different, someone who can still live life and experience joy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.