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How Patton Oswalt Did the Unimaginable: Write Stand-up About Being a Widower

Patton Oswalt. Photo: Vulture/Getty Images

With a new special, Talking for Clapping, about to premiere on Netflix (which would eventually win a Grammy for Best Comedy Album and an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special), Patton Oswalt was planning on taking a break from stand-up. Then his wife, true-crime writer Michelle McNamara, surprisingly died in her sleep and everything changed.

Time passed and Oswalt decided that he needed to get back onstage. “There are bricklayers who I’m sure went through trauma and tragedy that then, one day, said, ‘I’ve gotta build a wall today. I’ve gotta go do what I do,’” he tells me. “This is what I know how to do.” The result was his special, Annihilation. It includes a section about McNamara’s passing that is like nothing I’ve ever seen in stand-up and like nothing Oswalt has ever done.

The climatic joke of this section, about a Polish woman of doom who spoils all holidays for Oswalt’s daughter by bringing up her mom, is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about jokes and the people who write them. Listen to the episode and read an short excerpt of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

I wanted to back up to the week before Michelle passed away. Your next special, Talking for Clapping, was about to come out. As a comic who turns over material after it’s out there, were you thinking about doing stand-up again? Were you already developing anything?
You know what? No, not really. My wife was so deep into writing her book at that point and was so neck-deep in this looming deadline and the increasing intensity of the investigation that I was looking forward to just being a househusband for a while and not going on the road, and just waiting to see if I could get any work in town, acting on TV or films that shot in town, so that I could get up, take our daughter to school, do the dishes, and let her really work on her stuff for once. She had always been very supportive of me, so now it was my turn to let her go do what she needed to do. So, I wasn’t even thinking in terms that I was going to be going out on the road anytime soon once the special came out. I was very content and happy about that. So, then, suddenly, two days before the special was supposed to come out, she passes away. I’m suddenly a single dad. I was very lucky that I had some acting roles here and there, some voice-over roles here and there, but I always had that buffer, at least in my head, of Oh, I can always go out and do stand-up and make money and pay the bills that way. Now, suddenly, I’m a single dad — I’m not sure if I could ever do the thing that I had there for financial security again. I honestly didn’t know if I could do it again.

It would be four months before you went onstage in August. How did your feelings about it evolve, so that you could finally try?
I actually toyed with the idea of What if I just go up and do jokes? Why do I have to talk about this? I realized very quickly that that would seem so demented and uncomfortable to go onstage and do an hour of “Oh, parking’s crazy.” People are like, “Your wife passed away. What are you doing?” I knew that I’d have to address it. I just didn’t know how. I couldn’t even talk about it to my therapist and my friends — how was I going to go up in front of a bunch of strangers and do this? Especially with taking care of a daughter and keeping house. It just was beyond what I could imagine. It was not in my skill set to deal with that level of jeopardy and error. So I shut down for a long time. At first it was about Okay, I gotta get through the day-to-day. Get Alice up, get her to sleep at night while she’s crying. Deal with her nightmares. Deal with my nightmares. And then, four months down the road, I said, “Well, I gotta.” It didn’t even feel like I gotta go. I just didn’t know what else to do. So, it had this sense of “I’m just gonna walk forward into the dark just windmilling my arms around. Just flailing like I’m about to go into a fight, but I’m blindfolded. So, I’m just gonna swing my arms around everywhere.”

So, it was more like, “This is the thing that I do,” less than “I need to do this.” It was not like, “I need to do this emotionally or creatively,” but “I’m a comedian. This is what a comedian does.”
Yes, exactly. In fact, that was the way that I was able to get back onstage. Once I had the distance and the time with my therapist and my friends to make it not seem like a desperate move and more like “this is what I do,” I approached it more like a carpenter or a bricklayer or somebody that is in the vocational trades, which are also an art. There are bricklayers who I’m sure went through trauma and tragedy that then, one day, said, “I’ve gotta build a wall today. I’ve gotta go do what I do.” This is what I know how to do.

I read that you don’t remember what you talked about the first time. Do you remember if you went up with any plan, or was it just going up blank and seeing what happened?
It’s weird. I have the piece of paper that I wrote down my set list for the night that I went back onstage both at the UCB and then the Palace on Hillhurst. It seems like atonal avant-garde music when I look at it. It doesn’t really make any sense. It was more bullet points. Ultimately, those first two sets were just about me physically getting onstage and getting that part over with: Can I actually do it again? I didn’t even know if I could. I thought I would go onstage and start crying. There were nights when I was … I never really cried onstage, but I did what I think is even worse and more uncomfortable, which is, I just shut down emotionally. I look back on some of the sets that I was recording and think, Wow, I got really kind of metallic and robotic in my talking. You can see that I just have to get back inside this safe tank or whatever and then just plow through the words that now have no meaning to me and no meaning to the audience. It was really, really uncomfortable those nights. That whole first year was such a gray blur that I wish I could say the moment that I felt like something had turned into material. I just can’t remember the exact moment. I don’t have it in my head.

Maybe even without the moment, do you have a memory of the feeling “This is a thing that is doable onstage”?
There was a show that I did, and it was either October or November of that year at the New York Comedy Festival, and I did a set at — I forgot what the theater was. It was a big theater.

I was there. It was at the Beacon.
Oh, the Beacon! That felt like this could actually be — not so much maybe entertainment, but something that’s fascinating and funny and can connect with people. It’s not for me to say, “Oh, this is entertaining, or not.” That’s ultimately the audience’s decision, but that was the first time that it felt like, Oh, I’ve turned this into material.

You had a lot of the material, or a version of the material, that you did in the special. It’s interesting that you had this much, but even two months in you’re like, “I don’t know if I can keep on doing this.”
Look, I honestly didn’t know if I could keep on doing this up until the moment that I recorded the special. I was very, very open to and accepting of the idea of me going out to do that special and the audience just going, “No, this is not right. You shouldn’t be doing this.” It’s like that line from the movie The Three Kings: “You don’t get the courage to do the thing that you’re afraid of until after you do it.” I didn’t get the courage to go on writing until after I filmed those sets and put the special together. Then, after, it was like, Okay, good, now I can do this, the thing that I was terrified of doing.

You filmed the material for the special in June 2017, which is less than a year from when you started working on it. You are very prolific, but that is an incredibly fast turnaround. How did you come to the decision to do it then?
I didn’t want to sit with this material and this hour for too long. I thought it would curdle or either get maudlin or ghoulish. The fact that it’s still a little bit raw and not completely refined was very much a part of what I was feeling, and I wanted to get that on film and get that recorded. I was afraid that if I toured another year on this, it would get refined to the point where it wasn’t personal anymore and it would feel too rehearsed. I thought that would be disrespectful to her. I wanted them to see me maybe not at my best. Because I think of each of my albums and specials as an issue of a magazine: “Here’s how I’m doing right now, for better or for worse.” You see me early on like, “I’m never getting married,” “I’m never having kids — fuck that.” And then I’m in love. And then, “Oh my God, I’m actually getting married,” “Oh my God, we’re gonna have a baby.” “I have a kid.” You see this development. I put the camera on me, warts and all, and this was part of warts and all. This was an extreme version of that.

Also, for my daughter, I wanted to have some sort of act of moving on and moving forward into something more like life and less like death and mourning. So, it was a year and two months after my wife passed that I recorded this.

Why film it? Is it for you? Is it for your audience?
It’s a combination of things. It’s very life-affirming for me to do comedy. I don’t wanna sound all New Agey about it, but it’s really fun to make people laugh from something that you created out of nothing. It’s a very, very hard thing to do, so when you can connect with that many people like you’re just talking to one person — imagine just going into a party and walking up to a complete stranger and just chatting with him, and then suddenly connecting about everything. On that level, it’s a really big adrenaline rush, and I’m kind of addicted to that rush, I guess. So, there’s a selfish aspect to it in that I like the feeling of it. I like being loved and understood. But then I also like entertaining people. I like making people laugh. Outside of the theater, outside of the show, there’s a lot of silence and sadness and tension, and if you can make people laugh for an hour, that’s something.

How Patton Oswalt Got Back Onstage After His Wife’s Death