While there is no stone in the world of comedy that has gone unturned, there have always been a string of topics comics tend to shy away from, namely: depression, grief, death, and pain. The stand-up scene, in particular, is no stranger to harsh realities; Mitch Hedberg, Chris Farley, and John Belushi all died due to drug overdoses at young ages, and Robin Williams lost his battle to depression and addiction only three years ago.
Luckily, attention has gradually shifted towards these issues over time. These wounds, borne with greater transparency as the conversation on mental health has evolved, have not only become more apparent off stage but on stage as well. In her self-titled documentary Tig (2016), comedian Tig Notaro tackled deeply personal stories about her battle with breast cancer and turned them into uplifting material that had her audience rolling.
This process of delving into vulnerable subjects and placing them in a comedic context has a healing effect that is two-fold: the comic has managed to transform something painful into a kind of inside joke, and people in the audience who have experienced similar tragedies find comfort in this. It is nearly alchemy-like, this direct conversion of personal demons into tales that literally spark joy. Re-contextualizing pain does not make it vanish, or even necessarily diminish its wear on the person who bares it. But it does something admirable; it puts the pain to use.
In his new Netflix special “Annihilation,” Patton Oswalt makes his return to stand-up comedy after the loss of his wife Michelle McNamara in early 2016. Now a widower as well as the single father of a young daughter, Oswalt is certainly changed by his experience. He seems exhausted by the past year; the grief of losing a partner coupled with the general dread brought on by turbulent political times, natural disasters the world over, and the increasingly present threat of global nuclear war. If Oswalt appears burdened it is less a failing on his part and more so a human reality most people have been shouldering together, looking for a voice to sort out the confusion. Fortunately, Oswalt is that voice.
He opens his set making direct reference to the chaotic news cycle that has been endlessly looping for months like a snake eating its own tail. Sure, he pokes fun at Trump, but he also admits that Trump jokes have descended even beyond the status of low hanging fruit. The trouble with making fun of someone who does increasingly outrageous things is that the sheer act of whatever they do will also overshadow the jokes that come out of it. But even in admittance of this, Oswalt finds levity in troubling circumstances. He manages to cut through the absurdity, his wit as sharp as a cleaver as he moves through the beats of his set.
Oswalt’s strength lies in his observational humor. In many ways he is a surrogate for the audience, taking the weird moments he has witnessed and translating them into fantastic stories. Seemingly banal events like split second tiffs in a California parking lot and a child lost in a haunted maze are punched up into minutes of solid material. Jokes produce laughs without overstaying their welcome.
Oswalt then leads not some light crowd work, entering a conversational pause in his act. But there’s a slightly foreboding energy overshadowing his set as audience members and viewers alike hold a collective breath waiting for the pin to drop. And he knows it too. Oswalt takes a step away from the mic and holds the stand steady as he pauses and says, very sincerely:
“I’m just killing time. This next section is very hard for me to get into.”
He proceeds to describe his wife’s passing and the days, weeks, months, that followed as he and his daughter navigated a world without her. It’s not funny. It’s simply the truth.
There are instances that lead the crowd gently back to the observational humor that shined in the first half, but Oswalt takes his time dwelling in the harder moments. It’s important that he lay the groundwork of what his family has been through so that we feel a sort of triumph in the lighter moments he’s carefully held onto. As the special nears its end, Oswalt shares a phrase that his wife thoroughly believed in, “The world is chaos. Be kind.” At a time when these words hold a particular power, its a reminder that even when we can’t find meaning in the things that harm us, we can find solace in the acts that heal.