Most comedians mine their personal lives for material. It’s become something of an expectation for folks who head out to comedy clubs on the weekends, or who head to big theaters in big cities to see marquee names perform. Audiences want to see these folks bleed for their art. The challenge for comedians is to know how many wounds they should open up, how much blood to spill and how to make it something worth listening to and laughing about. It’s a fluid line to cross. Laurie Kilmartin gleefully jumped over it with her 2016 special 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad, which was a cathartic and, true to her style of humor, mean-spirited affair about the decline and passing of her father.
Patton Oswalt, on the other hand, toes the line more gingerly—at first—with his new special Annihilation. It’s clear from his face and body language that he doesn’t necessarily want to get this personal. But not to acknowledge what happened to him in 2016 wouldn’t be true to who he is as a person and as a stand-up. In April of last year, Oswalt’s wife Michelle McNamara passed away unexpectedly from an undiagnosed heart condition. In the year and a half since, he’s been slowly crawling back into the light with the help of a new relationship and his comfort zone: the stages of comedy clubs and theaters.
In defiance of the pain and anguish he is clearly still feeling, and as a mode of catharsis, he makes the discussion of his wife’s death the centerpiece of this hour. To watch him wrestle boldly with the emotions of that experience and the aftermath of it, while still finding those pockets of joy and strange humor, is affirming and beautiful. But it’s not easy by any stretch. That’s evident when director Bobcat Goldthwait pushes the camera in to focus on Oswalt’s face as he talks about the worst day of his life, which wasn’t the death of his wife, but having to break the news to their young daughter, Alice. We hang on his every word, following him as he takes his brave daughter back to school the next Monday. Then he pulls the ripcord, remembering getting peppered with questions by Alice’s classmates and learning a little too much about their home lives. The laughter that follows is so rich and relieving, like that first gulp of water after an hour on the treadmill.
The same goes with his retelling of visiting his wife’s grave for the first time and trying to have that cliched heart-to-heart with her headstone. He can’t get his message out without being interrupted by a family having an argument nearby, and another family blaring “My Heart Will Go On” from a boom box. Where earlier in the special he carefully toed the line between lightness and darkness, soon he’s pirouetting his way along it with nimble grace.
He constructs the full set perfectly, building to that more heartfelt, deeply personal middle section and then closing it with the more absurdist material from which he’s built his career. It’s marvelous stuff, too, touching on our anxieties about the current administration, an almost unbelievable fight he saw two guys engage in and a brilliant closing piece where he imagines pitching a film for kids to a studio, but only using porn movies as his reference points (“Remember Hungry White Asses Filled With Angry Black Dicks Part 4?”). He even tries out a little crowd work and has a lot of fun ribbing a trio of Chicagoans about their lives and personal foibles. To wrap it all up in one smart, sincere and priceless hour of comedy is nothing short of genius.
Annihilation is streaming on Netflix.