Patton Oswalt on Chaos, Kindness, and ‘Annihilation’
The notion that a Trump presidency would give comedians so much great material to work with has proven to be a tricky road to navigate. Yet comedians press forward by either addressing the issues head-on or by providing the world with a welcome distraction from the horror. This task proved to be immeasurably more difficult for Patton Oswalt, who tragically lost his wife Michelle McNamara mere months before the election. For a while, the question of how he would process all of this comedically wasn’t even applicable. “Here’s what was really scary: I didn’t have any thoughts. I was so numb…I didn’t give a shit about creating anything.” Eventually Oswalt began to slowly dip his toe back into the comedy pool, building his way to the deep end as he worked out some of the most personal and touching material he’s ever produced. That material came together to form Annihilation, his new Netflix special that just dropped today. The special goes deep into the last 18 months of Oswalt’s life and how he made it through the worst year of his existence. I talked with Oswalt about the absurdity of the current presidency, finding his way back to comedy, and the four inspiring words from Michelle that shaped his outlook on the world.
You come out of the gate with some political stuff in the new special. There’s always that thing in standup where you have to ask yourself, “If I talk about what’s going on now, will the material hold up as the years go on?” What were your thoughts about choosing to address something so present and so now with the new special?
I was taking a shot at making it relevant by talking about how it’s impossible to stay relevant with somebody like Trump. I went out of my way not to talk about a specific event and try to talk more about the feeling and the dread that he evokes. That’s what I was trying to get out, and hopefully that will stand up down the road: “Oh, that’s what people must have been feeling in their heads at the time.”
In addressing Trump and his impact on the world you have to worry that you are being a type of prophet in some way. When comics talk about how bad it is and how it will probably get worse you kind of hope that they’re not proven right.
I know. I was talking to Chapo Trap House, this really funny political podcast, and they have a very unsettling track record where they will posit these really crazy…it’s done humorously, but a lot of their wackadoodle humorous shit ends up happening. They don’t say it outright, but you can sense that they are like, “How much should we fucking talk about here? Is any of this other shit going to come true?” There’s nothing you can put beyond Trump.
I think you may have addressed this in the special, or at least I’ve heard you say it somewhere, but satire is being ripped away from the hands of comedians. You couldn’t have written this presidency any crazier.
Yeah, there’s no ironic distance. It would be nice if there was stuff that we couldn’t dream up. What’s scary about Trump is that it’s shit that we dream up as bad jokes and then it becomes a reality. That’s what’s frightening. We couldn’t have dreamed up the Cuban Missile Crisis or Watergate. Trump’s stuff is so petty and babyish. It’s a lizard brain reaction to the world, so you can imagine him doing this shit. You can imagine a lizard brain reaction causing World War III just because he’s in a bad mood. But that shouldn’t be our reality. Political intrigue should be beyond what we can imagine, and right now it’s not.
It’s ridiculous to the point that I often put down my phone and laugh the type of laugh reserved for someone in a padded cell.
When Stanley Kubrick was making Dr. Strangelove he wanted to make a totally straight-up serious movie about nuclear annihilation. The idea of it became so horrifying and so absurd that they couldn’t wrap their heads around it as serious, so they dealt with their fears by making it a comedy. I feel like reality is protecting itself the way our white blood cells in our body protect us against a virus. The virus right now is the unreality and psychosis of Trump, and reality is trying to defend itself. But right now it’s failing. Or maybe it’s winning, but the symptoms are our fear and anxiety. When your body is defeating a cold, that’s why your nose runs and you get a fever and body aches. Your body is doing what it has to do to kill the cold. The cold wants you to feel fine so it can kill you, but your body is like, “No, we’re going to kill this cold. You’re not going to like this, but we will kill it.” Maybe that’s what reality is doing right now to combat Trump. I don’t know.
I want to shift gears to the theme that bookends the special, which is you dealing with the passing of Michelle, the grieving process, and everything that went along with it. It was just a little over a year ago that you got back onstage for the first time since it happened.
Yeah, that’s true. It was August of last year.
Prior to that first night getting back onstage, how were you feeling about comedy and your career in general?
Here’s what was really scary: I didn’t have any thoughts. I was so numb. I could see myself doing comedy to earn money, but I could not see myself enjoying it or being excited about it. There was a moment where I thought about going through all of my old specials and albums and putting together an hour of my best stuff and just going and doing that. I didn’t give a shit about creating anything. I didn’t give a shit about being involved in anyone else’s creative pursuits. There were times where I didn’t know if I was alive. So to say if I had concerns or fears…I didn’t have any feelings.
When you mentioned in the special that you didn’t know if you were alive or not it hit me really hard because I had that feeling once and had completely forgotten about it.
Oh, no. What happened?
My best friend died when we were really young. He had a digestive disorder that got really bad and led to internal bleeding and eventually the gruesome and rapid shutting down of his entire body. I remember getting the call that he might not make it through the night and speeding to the hospital. For being in a hospital bed he had a very violent final minutes. I remember standing there and feeling nothing. I could barely hear people crying. I couldn’t feel anyone when they would touch me. I really thought that I was in some alternate universe, a simulation, or a hellish nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from.
That’s how I felt when I discovered my wife dead. “Please let me wake up. How do I wake up from this? This is not happening.”
You are pretty open about your atheism. As somebody who used to be religious, I had a long period of struggling with death and other tragedies in the absence of my religious belief. I was always just a “God will fix it” guy. What did you do for yourself mentally and emotionally without having one of these prepackaged belief systems to rely on?
What’s weird is that I do have a “belief system,” but that belief system comes down to what Michelle always said, which is, “It’s chaos. Be kind.” If you want to talk to God — or whatever you think God is — go be nice to another person. That is the best way to communicate with the infinite. Be nice to a family member, a loved one, go spread that around. That’s sort of what I was doing, or started to do once I could move. You’re being a superhero when you’re out doing that. You don’t know how it will be spread around, but you know that you’re literally out there doing good.
But we have to battle our own selfishness. Sometimes when our personal worlds — or the literal world — is aflame we want to revert back to that inherent “me first” attitude.
Right, but there is such a thing as self-care, and that’s also important. However, with how fucked up things are now, self-care can easily be manipulated into fear and covering up. I’m aware of self-care, but I have to ask myself, “Is this self-care or is this fear?”
I read somewhere that you were considering taking a break from touring and doing paid shows. Are you going to have a bit of a refractory period after this very personal and cathartic special?
I’ll do the thing I always do after a special, which is I start doing little tiny rooms around LA to work up a new hour of material. I don’t want to ever repeat that stuff again for a paying audience, because it’s not fair. Hopefully in another year I’ll have another special ready. I’ll just keep going.
Photo by Elizabeth Morris.