Patton Oswalt

On Saturday night, I arrived to The Masonic in the hopes that Patton Oswalt would talk about death.

Nobody had a good 2016, but it seems safe to declare that comedian and actor Patton Oswalt had one of the worst 2016s: At age 46, his wife, crime writer Michelle McNamara, died in her sleep, with absolutely no warning. He had to break the news to his seven-year-old. Then he somehow had to find a way to align this with his profession as a comedian.

In the ensuing months, he found himself thrust into a role as a trusted counsel on death and loss, the nation’s Chief Mourning Officer. Yes, the man that improvised the famous Star Wars filibuster on Parks & Rec is now a sage, calming presence to the traumatized masses and a resource on human mortality.

Those masses include myself: Just about three years ago, my mom died after a protracted case of multiple sclerosis. And while I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen Oswalt in, I haven’t followed his career all that closely. But when you lose someone outside the “normal” trajectory of death, you get to join a special club. A secretive, morose club with just about the worst hazing ritual, but one that, to be honest, I kind of like being in. So when I saw that Oswalt had joined the club, I felt a shitty kinship with him. I was there on Saturday because I was curious if he had successfully unearthed the the humor in grieving.

He opened the first of his two Masonic shows on Saturday with the usual stuff — kids, his health, some jabs at Trump for good measure — but nothing groundbreaking. He even, at one point, fell back on playing the “where are you from/what do you do for a living” game with the front row, which usually signifies a comedian with not enough material. But Oswalt’s a comedian whose B+ material is most comedians’ A game, and about two-thirds of the way into the show he paused, took a breath, slapped a hand over his face, and said through a grimace he was getting to the part he didn’t really want to talk about.

And then…he talked about it. It was largely a retreading of some stuff he said on Conan late last year, which, though not all that fresh, was still funny. Being a former San Franciscan, this particular telling of it felt cozy; homey — like he was giving it to us a little straighter because of the years he spent living on Geary. Even if it wasn’t completely new, it never felt scripted or stilted. It still felt like some of the most honest things he’s said in six months.

Nonetheless, there wasn’t a whole lot that was hysterically, gut-bustingly funny, or even all that surprising. There is comedic fodder to be be found in loss — bodily fluids, weird cousins coming out of the woodwork, your dad Googling discount urns because he may be a widower but he’s not gonna be taken for a ride by the funeral industry (true story, as you can probably guess). Oswalt edged toward such with a monologue about trying to visit his wife’s grave, but being drowned out by a fighting family at a neighboring plot and visitors blasting Celine Dion at another, but he doesn’t seem ready to really dig deep into grief in his set. Then again, comedy for grief survivors is quite a niche market. He might not ever want to dig deep, simply from a practical standpoint.

When someone you love dies in a way that doesn’t meet the exceedingly stringent requirements of a “good” death — after a long illness that has given you and your loved ones ample time to prepare, surrounded by family, ideally at home —
it informs everything you do. I know how hard it is to keep a “bad” death out of your work — just look here, here, and here. I wonder if Oswalt is gonna keep working on his death material, or if he will just make a conscious effort to scrub it from his repertoire entirely. He mentioned that his daughter wanted to go back to school right after McNamara passed. He may want to just get back to work in the way he knows it.

At one point, Oswalt expressed disgust at the empty platitudes so often doled out after death: “Everything happens for a reason” or “I wish you strength on your healing journey.” His point was somewhat proven early on, when he announced that he was about to get into some tough stuff, and shouts of “WE LOVE YOU!” erupted from the balcony. He thanked them, but while burying gritted teeth in a palm.

If I’m reading his reaction right, he was grateful, but perhaps more than that, he was uncomfortable. In general, loss survivors aren’t looking for grand proclamations of your sympathy. We’re usually not looking for you to say anything at all. Like he said on Colbert, we’re trying to expose grief to the air and light. Don’t simply shout that you love us; we know that. Don’t tiptoe around us, either. Just show up, listen, and let us laugh when we need to.