Elizabeth Morris/Netflix
Dan Snierson
October 17, 2017 AT 12:56 PM EDT

Patton down the hatches: Patton Oswalt returns to the stage in the Netflix special Annihilation. The whip-smart comedian (and narrator of The Goldbergs) — whose acclaim is adorned with an Emmy and a Grammy — takes on everything from robocalls to X-rated pitches for G-rated movies in an hour-plus set that was filmed in June at Chicago’s Athanaeum Theatre. Yes, President Donald Trump also draws his colorful, cutting ire (“After eight years of Obama, it was time to elect either a very qualified woman or a racist scrotum dipped in Cheeto dust, and the country said, ‘Ehh, let’s see what the scrotum has to say!”) and he also speaks in the special about the challenge of lambasting someone who outrages at an accelerated pace. “He’s very easy to make fun of in the moment if you’re on stage,” Oswalt tells EW. “If you’re recording something for posterity — or you’re recording something that might be watched weeks or months later —it’s impossible because he’s going to do something sh–tier and dumber than what you just talked about that whole day.”

Annihilation turns truly powerful and personal when the 48-year-old stand-up/actor opens up about coping with the death of his wife, crime writer Michelle McNamara, and raising his young daughter, Alice, in the aftermath. Oswalt has talked and written about McNamara eloquently and honestly over the last year, but bringing this painful subject material into a comedy venue was a challenge that he agonized over. In fact, just holding a mic at all seemed entirely fraught. “I wrestled with the idea of never going onstage again because I just felt there would be this pall over me of like, ‘Why the f— is he up there?'” he says. “But I realized it would be way more tasteless if I did an hour and never mentioned it. That would even more insane and disturbing…. The challenges were the challenge of any writing new joke, but then amplified because I’m talking about something that clearly damaged and wounded me. And then there’s that unspoken thing of: Should you even be up on stage joking about this? There’s nothing funny about this. So to approach that and then execute it was very, very difficult. It just came from numbing repetition and just going onstage a lot of nights, working out that special. There were nights where people just did not want to hear it, and I couldn’t find a way to make it funny. But I just kept at it until it became funny.”

You can watch him expertly navigate the waters of tragedy and comedy in Annihilation, which is now streaming. But before you do, see how Oswalt (who stars in the NBC midseason comedy AP Bio and voices an imaginary horse in Syfy’s upcoming comedy Happy) riffs on the comedy that he’s made over his career — and the comedy that made him.

THE COMEDY OF MY LIFE

The album that inspired me to become a comedian
“Steve Martin’s A Wild and Crazy Guy. That album starts off in a very intimate club and then explodes into the Red Rocks Amphitheatre. It‘s like, ‘Oh, even if I don’t make it to the Red Rocks part, the whole beginning part sounds like a blast.’ That album is very good at showing you how every level of being an entertainer can be fun if you like what you’re doing.”

The joke I’m asked about the most
“I’m asked about the Star Wars filibuster that I did on Parks and Recreation, [in which] I imagine the next three episodes of Star Wars and go waaay into the pop culture abyss. I’m asked about the KFC Famous Bowl [which he termed “a failure pile in a sadness bowl”], only because KFC keeps introducing insane food items. People say, ‘Have you seen this?’ It’s like, ‘I’m not the KFC watchdog!'”

The joke I’m proudest of
“The one about Black Angus Steakhouse [in which he parodies the macho-aggressive gluttony of the chain’s ads], because it’s such a specific thing for me. That moment when you can take something that’s maybe not universal and make it more universal—that feels so good on stage when you can cross over that point.”

The joke I wish I never told
“Even the ones that failed made me become a better comedian. If anything, they guided me toward what I needed to be doing. I’m happy for the jokes that worked and the jokes that bombed.”

The stand-up special I have watched the most
Richard Pryor: Live in Concert. I’ve seen that about 20 times. It’s a guy on stage with one microphone, and he creates a more vivid movie than most movies, just with the way he’s talking and describing things and becoming animals or a tire being deflated. He personifies all these different things, and it’s just incredible.

The best advice another comedian ever gave me
“’Make any crowd your crowd.’”

The comedian who should be a lot more famous than he/she is
“I don’t know why Brian Regan isn’t a household name selling out stadiums. And Dave Attell should be way more famous. Together they totally negate the argument about clean versus dirty comedy. Brian’s clean and Dave’s dirty, and no one cares because they’re equally brilliant.”

The best heckle I’ve heard at one of my shows
“I was in Ireland, opening up for a band that was getting a lot of encores. Every time I would go up to the stage, they’d hand me a Guinness. I went up near the end of the night, during the band’s fourth encore, and I went, ‘This is my 11th Guinness of the night,’ and someone in the crowd went, ‘P—y!'”

The joke I won’t told at my funeral
“The Aristocrats. And I want it done as an exquisite corpse among all my friends, and they just keep adding on to it.”

The funniest word to stay on stage
“Pants.”

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