Patton Oswalt Wants You to Laugh While He Grieves
We talk with the comedian about moving on, political humor, and his painfully funny new Netflix special.
Patton Oswalt is the comedian who you might know from his role in The King of Queens, and he's also accustomed to battling Trump voters on Twitter, while also riffing on grocery store robots and children's birthday party clowns. At 48, he's established a clever way of documenting his life in jokes, from bitching about everything he hated in his 20s to falling in love and having a daughter in his 30s.
For his new Netflix special Annihilation (out today), he focuses on a more grim aspect of life: grieving. On April 21 of last year, Oswalt woke up beside his wife, crime writer Michelle McNamara, to find she died in her sleep from a combination of prescribed drugs and a then unknown heart condition. Oswalt warned his fans on his Facebook page that this new stand-up special "won't be easy to watch," but that he takes joy in sharing his story because he's helping other people grieve.
Filmed at the Chicago Athenaeum, Annihilation represents Oswalt's return to stand-up after his wife's passing. Over the phone from his home in LA, we chatted about finding new love and Joan Rivers.
VICE: Your late wife, Michelle, was from Chicago, which is where this comedy special was recorded. Did that resonate?
Patton Oswalt: Just being in that city, I felt surrounded by her energy. I was doing this as a living tribute to her. I didn't want it to be a funeral. I wanted it to be a celebration. I started to get back on-stage in August, months after my wife passed away. I felt like I was dead. I went on-stage and thought, How the fuck do I make jokes about this?
You've helped people get through their own grief. Is that what keeps you to being open to talk about it?
I was getting responses from people on social media saying it helped them—but, and this is going to sound really selfish, people have then helped me and asked if I've tried checking out this or that. It's the shittiest club to be a member of, so you help each other out.
Did it help prepare you for your relationship to your new fiancée, Meredith Salenger?
I would never have deserved someone as extraordinary as Meredith if I hadn't been changed by someone as unique and miraculous as Michelle. I've said that a few times, and sometimes people say, "That's so disrespectful to Michelle." But it's the truth. I don't think it's disrespectful at all. I am not saying that was her destiny—I'm saying it's one good thing out of this horrific tragedy that I went through.
You didn't talk about Meredith in this stand-up special. Is there a reason why?
Meredith and I have tons of friends in common. That previous February, we were both invited to a dinner party; at the last minute, I couldn't go because of a travel fuck-up, and I wasn't in the city. The next day, she sent me a message that said: "You missed some amazing lasagna last night." We never met, never spoke, but we started chatting every night for hours about everything: politics, books, life and philosophy and Michelle. We didn't meet face to face until May 20. By the time I did Annihilation, I only knew her in-person for two weeks. It was fantastic, and it was love, but it was so new that I couldn't process it.
This special is a lot about politics, as well: You refer to Trump as "a racist scrotum dipped in Cheeto dust." Has there been any backlash?
Are you kidding me? With Trump's followers, there has been backlash since day one. It's not that he's making their lives any better or making them happier. It's the most nihilistic fanbase I've ever seen in my life. Imagine there was a heavy-metal band and all they did was piss on their fans and call them fucking assholes, but also did lyrics that pissed off music critics and people who would make fun of these fans. And they love that band even more, even though they're openly abusive. Trump is so abusive to his followers; he all but mocks them at rallies. But they see him pissing off these elites, even though he is a Hollywood elite, and they love it. It's so fucking tragic.
What's your hope for America's future?
This is going to sound really grim, but maybe all of these racist assholes who are in paradise right now because Trump enables them to say the awful shit that's clanging around in their heads—maybe they'll see after four years of being hateful that it's not making their lives any better and improving their situation. Maybe some of those people will evolve.
I've done stand-up, and it's really hard to do. It's not an easy thing—
Can we stop for a second? Thank you for saying that. Really. It's a huge epidemic, especially with the alt-right. There are all these failed, wannabe comics. They're the ones who say, "Stand-up is for fucking idiots, anyone can do stand-up," and they put that in the hatred of the left because showbiz let them down. So many people who have done stand-up go on the defensive. For you to say, it's really hard, wow! Here's a rare unicorn! Thank you!
What advice would you give to young comedians today who are struggling, broke, and in their 30s and 40s and doubting if they'll ever make it?
The one hopeful thing I can say is that audiences who go and see comedy these days are connoisseurs. If you have a unique voice and something to say, you have a way better chance of being heard and seen than when I was starting out in 1988, when it was a dying industry. Today, the industry is so revived and so fucking vital, I would definitely say, stick with it. Since there's so much goddamn content, the strength of your content is what will carry you through. Age and experience resonates way harder with people, even with younger audiences.
It seems you put women on a pedestal in your latest stand-up special.
I don't put women on a pedestal, you freeze them and dehumanize them if you do that. I try to talk to people on their level and learn from them, rather than "This person can do no wrong." Women are just as valuable when they fuck up and make mistakes. That's why Joan Rivers was so valuable: She was the first female comedian who would go onstage when she was pissed off. That was so revolutionary much more feminist. She was like, "Don't put me on a pedestal because I don't want to be there. I want to be down here yelling at you."