You know him as Remy, the rodent sous chef from Ratatouille, as Charlize Theron’s weird emotional punching bag in Young Adult, or from that one Star Wars scene in Parks and Recreation that nearly broke the internet. But Patton Oswalt is first and foremost a stand-up comic. Give him a mic and he owns the joint. Don’t give him a mic and he’ll bring his own, which is exactly what he did as the Covid-19 lockdown forced the workers out of America’s laugh factories. He streamed a stand-up set back in March from his front lawn.
“Humor is pretty crucial especially right now to deal with the daily ongoing insanity,” he says. “This is how I deal with things.”
There has been plenty to deal with. Three years ago, Oswalt was visibly reeling from the unexpected death of his wife Michelle McNamara, legendary true crime author of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, in his painfully raw Netflix special Annihilation. He described raising his daughter Alice while mourning as a “numb slog.” The bits were funny, but it was a hard watch. Oswalt stripped the varnish.
Even as the pandemic loomed, Oswalt was just getting back to a place of normalcy. But once you’ve gotten accustomed to not-normal, you become effective in those uncomfortable spaces. Since lockdown hit Los Angeles, Oswalt has been using his time to raise funds for nurses and laid-off waiters, build pop-up paper monsters, and teach his daughter, now 11, how to round decimals to the nearest tenth.
On May 17, Oswalt’s latest Netflix special I Love Everything will become an instant success. Why? It’s upbeat — cautiously hopeful at a time when that’s the perfect tip. Taped long before the coronavirus took over the news cycle, it’s a sweet paean to his second wife, actress Meredith Salenger, and, of course, a vociferous defense of Star Wars.
“My last special was about dealing with death,” he says. “This is me being goofy in the face of the blow that I suffered and embracing being in love again and finding someone amazing.”
Oswalt spoke to Fatherly about love, loss, and staying sane during crazy times.
In your previous special, you were insanely candid about the loss of your wife. What inspired you to go so deep?
When you lose a partner you trust that much, you’re constantly paranoid that you’re missing something and you’re not covering something. Does Alice have enough clean socks? I just remember the terror of it.
I read that book, On Grief and Grieving and the first line is: ‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.’ There’s this weird undercurrent of terror to everything you do. But you don’t want your child to have this memory of being raised by someone who’s terrified all the time.
Indeed. Single parenthood is scary. Very scary. It’s all on you.
That special, it was me telling — I don’t have any other way through this. If I was a painter I would paint. But I’m not. Words are what I have. This is how I cope with the world and now I have to cope with the worst thing possible. That’s why this new one feels like a happy sequel to that.
It’s so hopeful to see that you found love again, hokey and cliched as that sounds. You found someone worthy of your daughter.
That’s exactly it. I found such an amazing wife and mom in Meredith and that’s definitely helping. Meredith wants to be a mom first and not the cool best friend. That’s made such a difference. That’s such a big factor. She’s worthy of Alice. It’s stunning to see. It’s amazing and I take the time to pause and think about it. How is this possible?
Alice is 11 now. What is the most meaningful thing about fatherhood for you?
Really being shown in a real way what matters and what doesn’t. As you get older that’s so crucial. You’re not wrapped up in old battles or hurts or resentments. This stuff does not matter. You can move on. Being a dad is such a great shortcut to getting to that and getting beyond the stuff that does not matter.
I assume that because you were in one of the most beloved kids’ movies ever you get cool dad points.
Alice first saw Ratatouille when she was three or four and really loved it. But, at the end of the day, she sees me in dad mode. The coolness only lasts so long. You have to be a parent. You still have to tell them to do their homework and do chores.
These times aren’t normal for anyone, so is there something you do to stay connected throughout the day?
We get together after dinner. We go over the day. We do the rose and thorn where we talk about our day. We play a boardgame. I schedule everything around that. That really helps. Just a family meeting. It helps more than you know.
We also try to do something physical every day even if it’s just a long walk to look at the neighborhood. It’s about giving her structure. She has an hour of reading you have to do every day and if she watches a TV show, she reviews the episode she’s watching using a little printout we give her. So we give her structure and also goof-around time. Part of being a kid is running around and being silly. When she’s on Roblox with her friends, we try not to structure that. But Alice is a very social kid and she wants to be around her friends and she’s very frustrated. We schedule playdates, quote unquote. It is helping because she needs to be around other kids.
That’s all good, but it doesn’t replace actual human contact. What else are you doing?
Some of the parents have started a movie club. The kids get on a Zoom call and discuss the movie. We’ve watched Groundhog Day, which is a helpful thing to watch if you want to learn about living in quarantine and repeating the same day every day. We just watched The Truman Show, which was amazing and she loved that. She’s gotten into the American version of The Office which is a great show about everyday monotony and drudgery.
Man, it’s hard not to feel hopeless. And for kids to not feel hopeless given the sameness of every day, and the endless bad news.
I would completely acknowledge those feelings. It’s actually scary when you deny the obvious hopelessness in the air. There are things I’m scared about right now. But this is grasping at straws, so I will gladly grasp at straws and say, we’ve been closer to the brink in this country and gotten through it. Believe it or not, we’ve had worse presidents and we’ve survived them. Andrew Jackson was pretty horrible. Buchanan was a nightmare. We’ve had some terrible leaders. We’ve pulled through.
There’s a last days at the Waco compound feel and it’s very weird and scary right now. I’m not watching the news. I’m focusing on raising my daughter and keeping my family safe and boosting any charity I can. Any kind of emergency funds, that’s what I should be signal-boosting.
So which ones do you want to signal boost?
The biggest one is Alice’s Kids. They provide supplies anonymously for needy kids. Kids get to keep their dignity, which is such a big deal. They combat stigma and social shaming. That’s beyond empathetic. There’s a group called Disposable Warriors that helps needy veterans. Whatever your city that you’re living in, whatever the local food bank is, send what you can. They’re there, they’re open, they’ll take it.
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