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With ‘Annihilation’, Patton Oswalt Finds the Humor Hiding in Grief

In his latest special, the comedian wrings laughs from the tragic loss of his wife and the grieving process. It's brilliantly executed.

In his new Netflix stand-up special, Annihilation, comedian Patton Oswalt covers living in the age of Trump, avoiding fights at all costs, and sending his 8-year-old daughter Alice to a “painfully progressive school.” It’s all predictably great, with each line dosed in Oswalt’s signature quick wit and wry observations. But the comedian is truly his best when he’s discussing how he’s dealt with the tragic death of his wife.

On April 21, 2016, Oswalt’s wife and true crime author Michelle McNamara unexpectedly passed away in her sleep at the age of 46. Considering it hasn’t even been 18 months since Michelle’s death, nobody would have blamed Oswalt if he felt the pain of losing the love of his life and mother to his daughter was too much to discuss onstage. But Oswalt has always been an alchemist of sorts, transforming the tragic into something that’s distinctively hilarious and heartbreaking without ever losing its initial gravity. And so, here, he dives into Michelle’s death and even the unthinkable moment when he had to let Alice know that her mom had died. Somehow, he makes it all extremely funny.

Patton Oswalt and Michelle McNamara

In Annihilation, Oswalt shows the many sides of his grieving process starting with the anger and frustration that comes with the seeming randomness of life and life lost. Recalling a long-running philosophical debate between him and his wife, Oswalt bitterly explains that he would always insist that there was some semblance of order and logic to the universe, while his wife insisted that we live in an indifferent world ruled by chaos and chance. For the punchline, Oswalt notes that his wife’s senseless death doubled as “the worst way ever to lose an argument.”

Along with anger, Oswalt, of course, discloses a whole lot of sadness. He notes that the toughest thing he has ever done is telling Alice that her mother died, knowing that he “had to destroy my daughter’s world.” As strongly as Oswalt feels the acute and incomparable agony of losing his wife, he says it is nothing compared to the desolation of knowing there is little to nothing he can do to make his daughter’s sadness any easier to deal with.

But grief doesn’t just manifest itself through anger or sadness, it can also get really fucking weird. Oswalt admits that there are times where he has honestly wondered if he was actually the one who died and his current life could be a projection of his mind or he could just secretly be in some weird version of hell. Because with Trump getting elected in the same year he lost Michelle, Oswalt admits “if my mind invented a hellscape, it would kind of be like this.”

One of the funniest recurring themes through the special is how terrible people are at trying to comfort someone who’s grieving. Whether it’s his daughter’s classmates asking him invasive questions about when he will find a new wife or friends spouting well-intentioned, but ultimately useless clichés to try to make him feel better, Oswalt makes it clear that the overwhelming majority of us have no idea how to comfort someone grieving.

Part of what makes Annihilation so effective is Oswalt’s ability to never pretend like he’s not in pain. He isn’t afraid to let the audience see the vulnerability of a man trying to hold it all together for his daughter while dealing with his own constant sense of sorrow. When he shares visiting Michelle’s grave for the first time since her funeral, you can hear him start to choke up. But even in a moment this devastating, he finds a brilliant way to channel the absurd power of humor. As he is updating his wife on Alice starting school, Oswalt keeps getting interrupted by a family having an argument way too loud for a cemetery. He tries to push through it but it proves to be too much and he leaves, rationalizing to his wife’s potentially existent spirit: “you’re a ghost, I’ll talk to you in the car.”

Oswalt closes out his show by remembering something his wife used to say when she was talking about her outlook on life. “It’s chaos. Be nice.” It’s a simple observation, but that doesn’t make her insight any less profound. Oswalt has experienced the chaos of the universe firsthand over the past couple of years and it would have been easy for him to shut himself off and slowly become a cynical, angry shadow of his former self. But instead, he faces his grief head-on. In doing so, he’s become a voice for anyone dealing with loss as well as a shining example of a father moving forward, one laugh and step at a time. And while it might end up making you cry as much as you laugh, Annihilation is a special you don’t want to miss.