There’s no better standup working today than Patton Oswalt, his observational skills turning anecdotes into painfully funny short stories, and insults into dizzyingly nimble tirades. For the first 35 minutes of his new Netflix special, Patton Oswalt: Annihilation, Oswalt is the comic we expect, even as his elaborately absurdist broadsides against Donald Trump’s America manage the seemingly impossible task of finding new ways to scream. The special was filmed at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago as part of the 4th Annual 26th Annual Comedy Festival back in June of this year (disclaimer: sponsored by The Onion, The A.V. Club, and Clickhole). Taking on the fact that everything in a country run by a “racist scrotum dipped in Cheeto dust” is a never-ending Twitter feed of lunacy, ugliness, and mayhem, Oswalt bemoans the fact that, for comedians, the additional trial is trying to outpace madness.
Unlike, say, late-night hosts, who have to process a full day’s worth of too-broad-for-fiction political reality, Oswalt takes the long view, explaining of the supposed bounty of mockery-ready material from the House Of Trump, “It’s too fucking much. It’s exhausting.” His strategy is to take as a given that Donald Trump is a bigoted, incompetent buffoon and use that as springboard to pieces about the causes, and his confidently profane and inventive wordplay spins his points out into resonantly funny gold. Oswalt is the best in the game at extended analogy, and here his bit about empathizing with Trump’s journey to a job he clearly doesn’t want to do is hilariously compared to a resentfully motivated David Lee Roth cartwheeling triumphantly into the halls of academia and finding out that his new job analyzing German poetry isn’t as much fun as he thought.
Oswalt justly won an Emmy and Grammy for his last special, and this one shows him even more focused, across the board. This confidence is on display in the crowd work segment, where he spends an unusual (for him) amount of time simply asking the standby “Where are you from and what do you do?” questions of a trio of audience members and seamlessly weaving the individual riffs their answers send him on into an overarching narrative about ambition, hope, and loss that’s effortlessly engaged and inventive.
Picking himself up off the ground where he’d flopped in triumphant silliness after coming up with a punning bow to tie on his conversations with the trio in the crowd, Oswalt dusts himself off and chides himself for “killing time, because this next section is very hard for me to get into.” When Oswalt’s wife, true crime writer Michelle McNamara died unexpectedly in April 2016, the comic was left with a young daughter, a life unthinkably transformed, and a mind that he’d trained for decades to transform pain into comedy. Well, he did that. It’s tempting to call what Oswalt does in the second half of Annihilation cathartic, but his material about finding his wife dead, having to tell his young daughter, simmering in impotent rage at well-meaning platitudes, and coping with a mind already and famously prone to depression and despair, is more affecting because of how carefully honed and tended it is. Tying his opening political material to this meditation on encroaching madness in the face of horror works so well because of how Oswalt frames the chaos of Trump’s America as being right at home in a mind occasionally questioning whether he’s, in fact, the one who died. Speculating that perhaps his mind fled to an even worse reality, Oswalt says, “If I invented a hellscape, it would kind of look like this.” This isn’t a howl of rage and sorrow—he’s done all that already. Oswalt, for better or for worse from his point of view, has a comic’s soul, and what emerges onstage here is the raw material of horror shaped into terribly beautiful and hilarious shapes. It’s grief made art.
This half of the show (directed throughout with unobtrusive intimacy by Bobcat Goldthwait) is so dense with peaks and troughs of huge, relieved laughs after unbearable intimacies that it’s simply astounding. The successful Mother’s Day trip being scuttled at the last possible second by a well-intentioned but self-obsessed airport attendant becomes a deliriously funny metaphor for the unexpected resurgence of bottomless grief. The unfiltered questions of Alice’s school friends spur an interior monologue about those kids’ own suspiciously speedy new replacement stepmothers that serves to show how the comic’s mind is never shut off, thankfully. The pair’s annual Halloween haunted house ritual emerges in another anecdote that’s as hilariously told as it is delicately intimate. None of this comes across as manipulative, or mawkish in performance, nor does Oswalt seek sympathy, or attention. There’s nothing unseemly about this material, as it could be in lesser hands. Instead, Annihilation is courageous most as evidence of a master comedian choosing to continue to think, even when thought is the enemy.
The show’s coda takes the form of an extended bit about pitching a children’s movie using only porn references, a long joke that Oswalt claims was never quite there, but that always made McNamara laugh. (Every time Oswalt says his late wife’s name in the show, it’s a gut-punch.) Earlier in the show, Oswalt earnestly wondered at the possible cosmic point there could be of his wife dying while he (who “talks about his dick in front of drunks”) is left alive. That earns him the huge laugh of accusing his wife of winning their long-running argument about a possible organizing logic to the universe “in the shittiest way possible.” Noting that McNamara had spent her life pursuing truth and trying to give comfort to people who’ve been confronted with the unthinkable loss of their own loved ones, and that we’re living in a world ruled by people whose “turn-on” is “to create wounds that will not heal,” Oswalt closes a remarkable set by imparting the advice he’s clearly trying to follow. “It’s chaos. Be kind.”