Comedians have to be an open book. Even if they don’t share every tiny detail about their lives or their preferences or their shortcomings (or those of the people closest to them), there’s a certain unspoken audience/funny person contract that says, “In exchange for this ticket or my invested time, I get access to your brain.” Some performers guide audiences to the universal. Some shepherd the audiences right into a pool of personal uncertainty, sharing openly about stresses and personal misgivings and deep connections with confidants and family members.
The latest Netflix stand-up special “Patton Oswalt: Annihilation” finds one of the world’s most famous comedian in an attempt to blend those two in a way that few comics can. For anyone else dealing with the global anxiety about various world leaders, that last word in the title might seem like a tongue-in-cheek middle finger to a collective sense of uncertainty about our immediate future. But Oswalt shows how that word has taken on a much more resonant personal tone, following the unexpected passing of his wife Michelle McNamara in April 2016.
Filmed in front of a crowd at Chicago’s Athenaeum Theatre, “Annihilation” doesn’t feature Oswalt approaching this hourlong set as an explicit form of therapy, but instead as more a conversation between folks catching up. He gets around the obvious political commentary that’s become a gruesome necessary appendage to so much small talk these days. He passes time with some more immediate, recent curiosities. And then, he addresses the period of time in his private life that’s passed since he recorded his previous hour “Talking for Clapping.”
“Annihilation” is someone openly wrestling between trying to salvage some normalcy and trying to articulate why things will never be the same. As a result, there’s a slight disconnect in some of the comedy that comes out of this process, but it’s the most sincere, human work Oswalt’s ever captured on stage.
Making comedy about the President is hard for all the reasons that Oswalt outlines here: It’s difficult to find a fresh angle to someone who consumes so many people’s waking anxieties. So instead of digging too deep into how the new administration has warped his daily routine, Oswalt taps into some of the more widespread reaction in different parts of the country with his usual filigree. (I’m not sure that anyone else had gotten to the “white supremasorbet” portmanteau before he did.)
Normally, spending eight minutes on crowdwork in the middle of a high-profile Netflix standup release would feel antithetical to the craft. Usually, audiences come to see their favorite comedians because of their precise observations, crafted in hours and weeks and months of touring. But it’s impossible to watch Oswalt trade quips with Athenaeum attendees and not be impressed by his ability to turn a simple conversation into something that seems refined, a spontaneous outburst of credit policy and construction work details that seem like they’d already been honed in a handful of surprise drop-ins.
And to give so much of this hour over to others feels directly in line with the purpose and crafting of “Annihilation.” When curiosity and sympathy for people in the public eye dovetail like this, it’s uncommon for famous people to get that two-way sense of sharing and understanding, however brief. Even when he’s not talking about people in the room, nearly all of the stories in “Annihilation” are filtered through the experiences of others, often highlighting stories about the weird things that can unite us in uncertain times.
Sure, one such anecdote about some post-midnight shenanigans on the Sunset Strip is horrifying and hilarious in alternate moments, but it’s still about processing inexplicable things that happen outside of one’s control. Whether it’s unquantifiable grief, incredible coincidences, or recognizing that the current occupant of the Oval Office has a strange amount in common with a former lead singer of Van Halen, there’s a particular way that feeling helpless can morph into an odd brand of cosmic humor.
Oswalt could have easily edited out his preface to the latter part of the evening, including a moment where he admits to the audience that making the transition to talking about his daughter and late wife is incredibly difficult. We’re not used to a professional, experienced stand-up comic (even ones whose self-proclaimed area of expertise is high-concept dick jokes) finding it challenging to do something this personal. “Annihilation” is still a show, but it’s from someone not afraid to let some vulnerability seep through, too.
You may not laugh all the way through “Annihilation,” but it’s clear that Oswalt doesn’t want to trade laughs for honesty. In fact, some of the biggest, clearest jokes come during discussions of McNamara and the legacy she leaves behind in her family’s lives. In the midst of one man publicly reliving the worst months of his life, it does feel dissonant to cut to people from the front row laughing hard enough to rock back and forth in their chairs. But even that speaks to a universal desire, of wanting to know that even when unthinkable events happen, there’s still room for that catharsis.
So “Annihilation” isn’t a call for sympathy, it’s a plea for empathy. It’s one man’s search for something that can unite all of us, across our rival ambitions and desperately opposing views on the world. Oswalt’s closing string of jokes would be right at home in any of his previous sets, but his explanation for including it at the very end offers a way forward not just for himself, but anyone who’ll listen. He may be the one with the microphone, but he’s more than ready to share his time.
“Patton Oswalt: Annihilation” is now available to stream on Netflix.