Patton Oswalt recently made a scary choice.
He was processing ― or trying to, at least ― the unexpected death of his wife, Michelle McNamara, and facing life as a widowed parent of a young daughter when the country elected Donald Trump as president. As Oswalt described it on the phone with HuffPost, he transitioned from a period of “hyper-deadness” after the personal tragedy to a “weird hyper-aliveness, because you can’t relax” following Trump’s victory.
“Sometimes I’m worried I am like a water glass that’s been sitting in a freezer and now you’re taking it out and you’re pouring hot water into it,” Oswalt said with a laugh. “One extreme to the other like that ― it’s very unnerving.”
Amid this tumult, Oswalt inadvertently chose to talk through his feelings onstage in front of a crowd. He did this every night he could. Out of these sessions came his new Netflix comedy special, “Annihilation,” which premieres Tuesday and focuses heavily on Trump and the loss of Michelle. Those two topics bookend the show, respectively.
A line he repeats throughout the set is something his wife used to say: the world is “chaos” and all you can do is “be kind.” Oswalt jokes in the special that he used to argue that the universe must have some plan, but then Michelle ultimately won that argument, in the worst way imaginable. It’s funny but extremely harrowing material.
“I didn’t know what else to do, man,” Oswalt explained of his choice to get personal onstage. “It’s the only process I’ve ever known.”
After his emotional display on the stage, Oswalt’s fame rose considerably. He was already a well-known comedian, but his most popular prior roles were voicing the lead rat of Pixar’s “Ratatouille” and playing Spence on the sitcom “King of Queens.”
In 2016, Oswalt released a special ultimately dedicated to Michelle around the time of her death, “Talking for Clapping,” which won him both an Emmy and a Grammy. He gained many new fans as his story of heartbreak resonated, and his social media presence skyrocketed.
A strange phenomenon began where media outlets would aggregate his tweets as news stories when he weighed in on the politics of the day. In 2016, that increasingly meant voicing his criticism of Trump.
Just as his celebrity profile rose along with the raw, emotional art he produced, Oswalt became known for another role in our culture ― opposition. Now, he’s trying to not let it go to his head.
“I mean, it’s very flattering, but I try not to make it affect what it is I write and what it is I think,” Oswalt said of the immense attention to his Twitter. “Because ― posterity, reputation and cool are traps. So I try to avoid those.” Much like his method for creating his new stand-up routines, his popular tweets result from airing out ideas without much thought beforehand of the consequences.
“If anything, if you want to reach more people, you do it by not worrying about reaching a lot of people,” Oswalt said. “That makes you infinitely more attractive.”
But, of course, it doesn’t quite always work out for the best.
“Then I’ll apologize later if it fucks up,” Oswalt added with a laugh.
Oswalt is well aware of the artistic limits to his approach.
“It does feel selfish for me to talk about whatever pain I’m going through even as localized and traumatic as it is,” Oswalt said of self-examining his new spotlight. “Especially as a straight white male, I can be upset by Trump, but I’m not being directly attacked and mocked by him. By the president! I’ll never know what that feels like. Obviously, I’m dealing with my own pain, but to try and put myself in the minds of other people, especially people of color or someone who’s an immigrant or someone who’s gay or transgender or someone or ... a woman! Just the way women must feel.”
Oswalt also spoke about how awful it must be to be a woman in this world after reading the news of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual assaults and misconduct. He wasn’t afraid to point out how someone with similar accusations against them is now the president of the United States.
“You flash back to last year and go, we literally heard this exact same shit about our president and we elected him anyway,” Oswalt said.
Other times in history have certainly been worse, but the present situation with Trump is in many ways a “nightmare,” as Oswalt put it.
Although he can only speak to his own experiences, Oswalt is a voice who knows real pain in a time many need to feel they’re not alone. But even as he’s emerged as this figure, bright spots are popping up in Oswalt’s personal life. He’s getting married again in just a couple weeks. “It’s official,” Meredith Salenger wrote on Twitter. “I’m the luckiest happiest girl in the universe!!!!I love you @pattonoswalt I love you Alice Oswalt!” The family is also moving into a new house.
“Things are definitely much improved in my life,” Oswalt said. “I’m just kind of trying to deal with the chaos. It’s good chaos.”
As Michelle used to say, it’s always “chaos” regardless.
“Chaos is still chaos even if it’s good,” Oswalt added. “We’re just trying to laugh about it and go, ’If we can just make it through November, we’ll be OK.’”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that the comedy special “Talking for Clapping” did not contain material about the death of Michelle McNamara. Oswalt later dedicated the project to her.