It's been a nearly impossible 18 months for comedian and writer Patton Oswalt following the unexpected death of his wife Michelle McNamara, but his latest comedy special shows that he's still on his feet, and able to draw humor and hope from the darkest of places.
"If one more person wishes me 'strength' on my 'healing journey,' I'm gonna throw a balloon full of piss into every candle store on the planet," he jokes in "Annihilation," now available on Netflix.
The special is his first televised performance since he became a widower and single father to his eight-year-old daughter Alice. "I'm moving along as best I can," he tells his audience at Chicago's Athenaeum Theatre. "I can get up and I can do my job, I can be a dad. But it's still... the wound is there. It is healing, it's not shut yet."
His previous hour-long special "Talking for Clapping," also streaming on Netflix, won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album and an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Special.
Oswalt spends the first half of "Annihilation" on relatively lighter subjects, like checking Twitter every morning to see what fresh hell President Trump is up to. He takes a few minutes to tease people in the front row, including a hipster comedy writer from "The Onion." "How does the whiplash feel, watching reality just pissing all over satire every day?" he asks.
But when he finally approaches the subject of his wife's death, the monologue is at times visibly difficult for him to get through.
Oswalt describes the crushing experience of telling his little girl that her mother died, and somehow finding the strength to carry on with daily life in the months afterward. He's blunt and honest about the "numb slog" of grief, saying that it sometimes feels like he's the one who died and the exhausting, Trump-addled world around him is a hallucination.
"If my mind were to invent a hellscape," he remarks, "it would kind of look like this."
For every heartbreaking moment, however, Oswalt manages to draw enough genuine laughs to make it a cathartic and (dare we say it) healing experience -- like his story about a visit to his wife's grave interrupted by an Armenian family having a screaming argument and a Chinese family blaring Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" from a boom box, or his attempt to keep his daughter's mind off Mother's Day with a trip to Chicago, only to be horribly, hilariously thwarted by a well-meaning gate lady at the airport.
The heart of his performance is a philosophical argument he often had with Michelle, who was a true crime writer, about whether there's any sense or meaning to the universe -- a debate she won "in the shittiest way possible" when she died. "It's chaos, it's all random and it's horrifying," she'd say. "And if you want to try to reduce the horror and reduce the chaos, be kind. That's all you can do."
Being Patton Oswalt, he also discusses how his tragic backstory compares to that of his favorite comic book heroes. "Batman can go fuck himself. He's nine years old, his parents are gunned down in front of him, and he travels the world becoming this super-powered ninja? At best, at BEST, Bruce Wayne would have grown up to be Gotham City's most annoying slam poet."
He closes out the special with a hysterical bit about children's movies and hardcore porn, because those were the kind of dirty jokes his wife loved the most.