“We’re not the two to do it. Someone’s coming that will do it. It’s not us,” Patton Oswalt tells an off-camera interviewer at the beginning of the 2005 documentary The Comedians of Comedy. The latter had asked if he and fellow comic David Cross were about to explode the “punk rock or indie rock comedy tour” scene of the early 2000s, which also featured the likes of Brian Posehn, Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis and Maria Bamford. “We’re the ugly motherfuckers that are setting it up. Someone’s going to spike it. It’s not going to be us. Sorry,” a tired Oswalt explains. “I’m setting up the next guy. That’s my purpose.”
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I asked Oswalt about these comments while discussing his new Netflix stand-up special, Annihilation. Did he still believe he was “setting up the next guy,” or did the 48-year-old comedian think of himself differently these days? Wasn’t he already, in fact, the “next guy”? “We’ll see,” he laughs. “I don’t know what to say to that. I hope that that’s a blessing and not a curse.” Yet between television appearances (Parks and Recreation and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), a critically acclaimed filmography (Ratatouille and Young Adult), and Grammy- and Emmy-winning stand-up (Talking for Clapping), Oswalt cannot deny the blessing he has bestowed upon comedy and popular culture.
This is especially true in light of what he has publicly (and privately) endured since the passing of his wife, the true crime writer Michelle McNamara, last year. Oswalt didn’t shy away from sharing his grieving process with fans and friends alike, publishing a moving Facebook post — and later, a New York Times essay — about the experience of losing a loved one. Nor did he opt out of comedy altogether, declaring in August 2016 he would “start doing stand-up again” (while citing a Deadwood scene as “the closest I can come to a reason why”). That being said, don’t expect him to talk exclusively about his loss when Annihilation begins streaming. Oswalt doesn’t want any sympathy from his audience. He simply wants to make them laugh.
“I don’t want to have this deal with it. ‘Is it therapeutic? Is it a healing journey?’ It is what I do. It’s what I do with my life, and so I had to just sort of start doing it like I always do,” he explains. “I had to decide if I wanted to do stand-up ever again, and it just came down to… I wish I had a more romantic way to put it, but it just came down to going on stage again, talking, and seeing what you can try out until it works. Until it’s funny. Just over and over and over again.” Hence why, when Oswalt does address McNamara’s death and his grieving process in Annihilation, he prefaces it with a stern-but-funny warning: “If one more person wishes me strength on my healing journey, I’m going to throw a balloon full of piss into every candle store on the planet.”