“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.”
Citing definitions for “annihilation” as varied as “complete destruction,” “absolute killing” and “nothing is safe,” the special’s first trailer focuses almost entirely on the specter of Donald Trump. And sure enough, Annihilation begins with a discussion of Trump’s daily routine on social media. “Why not? Just come right out,” Oswalt says of Trump, who he tackles with a readiness quite different from Marc Maron’s approach in Too Real. “Charles M. Blow, a New York Times columnist, was talking about how we used to be able to go to lunch and talk with our colleagues. You could trade ideas with each other about what stories were developing at the time, and maybe even try and predict where they would go.”
“And now,” Oswalt continues, “if you walk away from your computer for 10 minutes, you come back to some totally new kind of horror that has come down the pike. So now all these people are running to the kitchen at the office, to microwave something to eat, so they can get back to their computers in time. Otherwise, if you’re late, you’ll miss the next big scoop. I mean, you can’t even think straight anymore. There’s no analysis. There’s no time taken to build a bigger story. It’s all just like, ‘Oh. Jesus. Wait, what?’ There’s no chill. There’s no slack. There’s no hang.”
That news stories no longer have time to conduct proper analyses, or “build” themselves out, isn’t entirely true. (See the New York Times and The New Yorker‘s recent investigative reports on Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, which took months — if not years — to compile.) Yet the so-called “Friday news dump,” which The West Wing lampooned in “Take Out the Trash Day,” no longer exists as the only day of the week on which bad Trump news occurs. Bombshells seem to land by the hour now, and it’s this social media-augmented news cycle that Oswalt specifically refers to when he opens Annihilation with the first of many Trump jokes. “That’s the world we’re living in,” he exclaims. “‘Oh fuck, what did he do?'”
“I mean, you’re going to keep checking Twitter for updates. To see what’s trending. And then you kind of reverse engineer it and visit whichever news sites you typically go to. Whichever places you end up reading the news at, just to make sure what he’s tweeting is real or not,” Oswalt, himself a popular Twitter user, says of his own daily practice. “But there are days when I don’t tweet. Sometimes, there are days where I’ll say to myself, ‘I’m not going to give a take on this yet.’ Especially with Trump, because it doesn’t make sense to do a take on something he says, as soon as he says it because it changes every couple of hours. I’ve just decided to wait and see what he does. Sometimes I don’t, but I keep trying.”
Keep trying he does. Not only does Oswalt succeed in delivering a series of Trump jokes that distinguish themselves from other comedians’ routines, but he also excels well beyond Twitter’s grasp. “I mean, it’s weird how I did a special where there were two huge things hanging over the room,” he recalls. “The first, which was the question, ‘What the fuck do we do now with this maniac as our president?’ And the second, which asked, ‘How are you going to talk about being a recent widower?’ For both of these things, I really just had to face them. It’s like that old expression, run toward whatever scares you the most. Both of these things scared — and still scare — the hell out of me.”
“What am I supposed to say?” adds Oswalt, who prefers not to dwell on the subject. “There was nothing for me to say, really. I just needed to get on that stage.” And as much as the special’s title immediately relates to the fears Trump’s presidency engenders, it also reflects what the comic has to say about his time with McNamara, her passing, and the prospect of raising their young daughter without her. The second half of Annihilation is devoted specifically to this, and while Oswalt is honest about his reluctance to discuss it, the comedy he finds therein produces some of the special’s best moments. Much of this is the direct result of his collaboration with fellow Bobcat Goldthwait, who directed the special.
“He’s always been a huge hero of mine comedically. He was always a kind of a big signpost for me as to what a comedian should and could do. Or for what comics can get away with in certain circumstances. To have him there was very reassuring. He’d tell me, “Hey, go where you have to go. I’ve got your back.” It meant a lot having him there,” Oswalt said of Goldthwait, who previously directed his Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time special. “He’s truly one of the great directors. He’s very unobtrusive. He wants to let the subject be, to let the event happen, and simply record it as best he can. It really makes the comic the focus, instead of having a director try and put his or her stamp on anything.”
Yet the majority of Annihilation‘s success is due to Oswalt, who by now is most assuredly not the guy setting the stage for the next one. By creating what amounts to a love letter to Chicago, the home of McNamara’s extended family, the comedian proves himself tenfold. From the opening shot of the city skyline, and the following downward pan outside the Athenaeum Theatre at dusk, to the concluding scene outside the theatre at dawn, the special more or less serves as an extended thank you. “That’s where Michelle was from,” the comedian tells me, “so I wanted to thank the city for making somebody so amazing.”
Patton Oswalt: Annihilation streams today exclusively on Netflix.