When I was a junior in college, I thought I owned the world. I was a shy boy from small-town Indiana living in Los Angeles. I had just taken off time from school to work as a writer's assistant on a short-lived sitcom. I was doing stand-up at night and had met the woman I thought I was going to spend my life with. Susan wasn't just my girlfriend, she was the thing that made me a better person. She encouraged me to do stand-up, she introduced me to a world I had only seen in newspapers. And when she was murdered, that dream and our life together ended.
The next year was a blur to me. I hated the world and I loathed the people who kept trying to convince me to find closure. Fuck closure. I was sad and erratic and I ended up walking away from everything I loved. I moved to Chicago and it took nearly five years before I stepped on a comedy club stage again. And it was much longer before I was anything more than a moody, sometimes lovable bastard who couldn't figure out how to move on.
I mention all of this as a way of explaining why I approached Patton Oswalt's new Netflix comedy special with equal parts of dread and anticipation. My loss might be thirty years in the rear view mirror but that doesn't mean I have any great urge to reopen that wound. And yet, I admire Oswalt's skills as a comedian and wanted to see how he managed to deal with the death of his wife Michelle McNamara last year in the context of a stand-up performance. Is it possible to be entertaining while discussing the worst thing that ever happened to you?
I really shouldn't have worried.
"Patton Oswalt: Annihilation" is an apt name for a special that is - at its heart - a painful love letter to his late wife. Oswalt talks about her death and the effect her passing had on not just his life, but the life of their daughter. There are moments when you will cry, as he talks about the moment ("the worst day in my life"), when he had to tell his daughter her mother had died. And yet that pain and honestly is interspersed with some very funny moments, including a hilariously awkward encounter with a well-meaning old polish lady.
It's a reflection of Oswalt's skills as a stand-up that the pacing of the hour-long special is just right. He begins with an extended riff on being a comedian in the age of Donald Trump. That's followed by some back-and-forth with the audience, which he eventually admits is his way of working up the strength to talk about the death of his wife. The special ends with a colorfully insane series of dick jokes and then an apology that he isn't ending the performance on a laugh. It ends with one last recitation of the phrase his late wife considered to be her philosophy towards life: "It's chaos. Be Kind."
It's been a long time since I've stood on a stage, although I still write and tell jokes in my head every day. But the next time I think about going back to stand-up, I'll remind myself of this special. Watching Patton Oswalt work through all of this onstage is not unlike what it must feel like to be a Division 3 college quarterback watching Tom Brady play. It's hard to realize you'll never play at that level. But I have some small sense of how hard it was for Patton Oswalt to pull off this nuanced and heartfelt performance.
"Patton Oswalt: Annihilation" is now streaming on Netflix.