Patton Oswalt made his first public comments about the untimely death of his wife, Michelle McNamara, one week after she passed away in her sleep. The comedian known for his insightful and hilarious tweets about everything from politics to nerd culture to the nature of the universe, delivered this somber message. It was way too soon for jokes.
But now, just over six months later, Oswalt has begun to find a way to work grief and loss into his deeply personal stand-up material, culminating in a heartbreaking and cathartically funny new set on Thursday night at the Beacon Theatre as part of the New York Comedy Festival.
Oswalt understandably struggled to find his way into the new material, not broaching the subject of McNamara’s death until he was more than 30 minutes into his hour-long set. He began with some jokes about the Cubs’ World Series victory and visiting a haunted house with his daughter Alice this past weekend. Before long, he had moved on to the “giant haunted house” that is the 2016 election.
After a few minutes of anti-Trump material, Oswalt got his first and only heckle of the night. “Maybe you should send him an email,” a man in the orchestra shouted. “Oh man, you got me. The emails! An old person didn’t know how emails work, fuck, lock her up, man,” Oswalt replied to one of his biggest ovations of the night. “You and I just literally encapsulated the entire election, do you realize that?”
Midway through the show, Oswalt admitted that he was “stalling” by doing crowd work with the front row of the large theater, before getting to the moment many members of the audience knew was coming. “There’s no easy way to segue into this,” he said before informing the crowd that it has been exactly six months and 12 days since his wife passed.
“It’s just my life. It’s all-consuming and it sucks,” he added, saying that he feared this portion of the set would turn into some sort of sappy one-man show when he really wanted to keep it in the context of stand-up comedy, because to him it is the “best art form” through which he knows how to express himself.
The first hints of Oswalt’s evolution towards being able to joke about his grief could be seen in his talk show appearances, first with Conan O’Brien in September and then this week with Jimmy Fallon. On Conan, Oswalt compared his life to “every bad ‘80s sitcom” where he has to raise his daughter by himself. “Except my ‘80s sitcom sucks. There’s no punchlines. There’s a lot of insomnia. There’s a lot of me eating Cheetos for dinner.”
In an extended story about trying to distract his seven-year-old on the week leading up Mother’s Day with a trip to Chicago, Oswalt commended himself for how well he did… until they got to the airport at the end of the week and the older Polish woman taking their tickets leaned down and told her, “My mother died when I was your age, I never got over it. It broke my father. It was horrible. You’ll be sad for so long. I’m sad every day.” It was an incredibly dark and upsetting story that still managed to make O’Brien and the audience laugh uncontrollably.
By the time he got to The Tonight Show this week, Oswalt had moved on to getting laughs by talking about the seemingly random things that will make him cry out of nowhere. For instance, he recently started to cry as he watched the apps on his phone update because he realized there are apps on his wife’s phone that will never get the chance to update themselves. “I’m like the Hulk of crying,” he told Fallon.
But none of this could compare to the wealth of material Oswalt managed to mine from his grief on stage at the Beacon. As promised in his recent New York Times profile, just about half of Oswalt’s new hour revolves around his grief and attempts to move on after his wife’s death. He described getting to stand-up as “a rebuke to grief, an acceptance of the messiness of life.”
Some of that talk show material was refashioned and extended into longer bits Thursday night, particularly the story about the old Polish woman, who he now imagined popping up to ruin other holidays for his daughter—such as Halloween, Christmas, and even Arbor Day. But then there was the new section on how he’s sick of people telling him he’s on a “healing journey” when he knows it’s nothing but a “numb slog.”
“If they would call it a numb slog instead of a healing journey, it would make it a lot fucking easier!” Oswalt said. “Because when they call it a healing journey and it’s just a day of you eating Wheat Thins for breakfast in your underwear, it’s like, ‘I guess I’m fucking up my healing journey.’ But if they would say you’re going to have a numb slog, instead you’d go, ‘I’m nailing it!’”
He went on to say that when he would sometimes tell his wife that “everything happens for a reason,” she would tell him, “No it doesn’t.” Ironically, he said, she ended up proving her point to him “in the shittiest way possible.” He added, “She won the argument in the worst way!”
During the 20-minute portion of the set about his grief, Oswalt spent more time referring to his notes than elsewhere in the show, because, as he said, his “brain blanks out.” As part of the Comedians of Comedy tour, which also featured Zach Galifianakis, Brian Posehn and Maria Bamford, Oswalt has always been willing to let the audience in on his process—but never quite like this.
If there was one moment in the gig that started to stray into one-man show territory, when you could almost feel people stifling tears in the audience, it came when Oswalt slowed down and talked about the day he took his Alice to her first day of first grade this fall.
“I had not visited my wife’s grave at all since we had the funeral, and I could not go back to the cemetery,” he said, getting quieter. “But I’m like, I’m going to take her to school and I’m going to go to the cemetery and sit and talk with her and say, ‘This world doesn’t need to worry you anymore. I’ve got it. I’ve got it. I can do this.’”
Oswalt imagined this “nice moment,” evoking the scenes from movies he’s watched where the person is sitting by the gravestone: it’s “peaceful,” maybe there’s a bird chirping in the background. Just when you thought there was no way he could make this story funny, he found his way.
On one side of his wife’s headstone, he said, there was an Armenian family “having a screaming argument.” On the other was an “adorable” Chinese family in beach chairs eating pizza around another grave with a boombox that was “blaring” Celine Dion’s “My Heart with Go On.” The laughs and applause that came as he acted out what the combination of those two things sounded like were glorious.
Oswalt may “never be 100 percent again,” as he said last month, but as a comedian his work has never been more powerful.