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Patton Oswalt tackles grief at New York Comedy Festival show

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Pop culture failed Patton Oswalt, he said in his set at the New York Comedy Festival Thursday night. It failed him because, after his wife, Michelle McNamara, died this past April, he was left looking at unrealistic portrayals of grief in entertainment. Little Bruce Wayne, for example, saw his parents get murdered, and then turned into… the incredibly fit, heroic Batman. Oswalt? He’s sitting in his underwear watching All the President’s Men all night.

“Grief didn’t lead to sit-ups, weirdly enough,” Oswalt said. Instead, it led to what the 47-year-old called a “numb slog.” He’s talked about these feelings before, in interviews and on TV, but this set — his most high-profile standup outing since McNamara’s death — felt especially poignant, partly because of the medium. Soon after he started talking about his wife, he seemed to sense that the audience wasn’t sure what to do. Laugh? “Aww”? Stay dead silent, which is what happened when Oswalt revealed he was going to segue into the topic after about a half-hour of jokes about the election and holiday season? So he interrupted himself to say that this, standup, is how he’s going to talk about his grief. Because, “this, to me, is the best art form.”

“So I’m going to do it this way,” he added, as if to say, “It’s okay to laugh — please laugh.” The crowd, who earlier gave him a standing ovation when he walked onstage, cheered in response.

From there, he talked about that disappointment in pop culture — or, more specifically, the action movies and comic books that he loves — for not showing the ugly, common parts of grief. But he showed those parts. He talked about going to McNamara’s grave for the first time since her funeral and encountering some unexpected interruptions. He talked about how unfair it is that he, a guy who tells dick jokes, got to stay alive, while his wife, a woman who dedicated her life trying to bring murderers to justice, died. He talked about how the day he told his daughter that her mother was dead was “the worst f—ing day of my life.” He talked about, just weeks later, trying to distract her from the fact that it was Mother’s Day, only to encounter someone who reminded them both just how terrible that day was in the aftermath of McNamara’s death.

All of that sounds pretty awful, right? It is, and Oswalt didn’t try to pretend like it wasn’t. Instead, by telling these stories, by finding a way to make people laugh with them, he said, “this is my life now. This is my life now, and I’m going to acknowledge that it’s hard and bad and sad, but I’m also going to find the humor in it, because that is what I have to do.” So he did find that humor: He pointed out that Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” was one of the cemetery interruptions, and Oswalt turned the “someone” who messed with his daughter’s first motherless Mother’s Day — an anecdote he previewed on Conan previously — into a sweet-but-depressing, Debbie Downer-style character that became one of the hour’s strongest bits.

What Oswalt did Thursday night wasn’t easy. Then again, what he does every day — wake up, realize his wife is gone, take care of himself, take care of his daughter — isn’t easy, either. It’s good, important, even, to remember this, because, as Oswalt pointed out, pop culture so often fails to remind us just how wretched, how unsexy, how long grief is for people. Yet here Oswalt was, still very, very soon (six months and 12 days, to be exact) after McNamara’s death, giving us an unfiltered look at it. Pop culture might have failed him, but by getting on stage and telling these stories about something we’ve all been through or will go through at some point, Oswalt is helping to rectify media’s blindspot on grief. He’s not Batman, CrossFitting his way through the pain; he’s better — vulnerable and real and honest and, yes, very funny.