Patton Oswalt Explains How Pop Culture Gets Grieving All Wrong | KUOW News and Information

Patton Oswalt Explains How Pop Culture Gets Grieving All Wrong

Mar 10, 2017
Originally published on March 10, 2017 5:34 pm

When it comes to depictions of grief, comedian Patton Oswalt says pop culture failed him. Just look at super heroes, he says — their motivation is often rooted in loss that "leads them to travel the world learning martial arts and doing CrossFit and getting really cut," Oswalt says. "And that's not been my experience."

Oswalt experienced his own tragic loss on April 21, 2016, when his wife, writer Michelle McNamara, died unexpectedly, leaving behind Oswalt, and their young daughter, Alice.

"When you lose someone you tend to eat Wheat Thins for breakfast and rewatch The Princess Bride about 80 times and not sleep all that well," Oswalt says. "So I don't know when the push-ups are going to show up in my grieving process."

Less than a year after McNamara's death, Oswalt won a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album and his first Emmy award for his Netflix standup special Talking for Clapping. In his acceptance speech, he said he wanted to share his award with two people: "One of them, my daughter, Alice, is waiting at home. The other one is waiting somewhere else — I hope."

Oswalt — who also starred in the sitcom The King of Queens and the animated movie Ratatouille -- has now returned to the stand-up stage. He recently headlined two shows in Washington, D.C., and he sat down to talk about how he handled a year that was professionally one of his best and personally his absolute worst.


Interview Highlights

On never knowing how much other people are going through

One thing that I've learned since what happened to me happened is: You don't know the kind of pain and loss other people may have gone through — even close friends and acquaintances. ... In really awful science fiction terms it is like putting on the sunglasses in They Live and then seeing the world for what it really is. Do you know what I mean? Obviously I knew there was loss and death and depression, but you can only sympathize so far until it directly happens to you.

On why he's gone back to stand-up

I think the reason that I'm still doing stand-up is because — before the movies and television and before the books — stand-up is what brought me into this world where I get to link up with way more creative, way more intelligent people than I am ever going to be. And to cut that off, it felt like an insult to Michelle.

Especially because the person that I was before I met Michelle was very, you know, I think I was an OK comedian — I don't think I was very deep and vulnerable. And then after falling in love with her, she led me to being secure enough to open myself up on stage. So then to completely reject that would have felt very, very insulting to her.

On how it's cathartic for him to know he's helping other people

When I initially started talking about it on Facebook people reached out to me and said, Oh that really, really helped me. And it really helped me to get over my grief — like I take part in a grief group. Helping other people out who are going through this — this is a very selfish thing — but it helps me out. ...

My goal, as always, is I want to be funny and I want to get laughs. But laughter I think can loosen up a lot of poison that has kind of settled into your muscles and your soul — not to get too Oprah about it. And maybe incidentally I'm helping someone out with their grief. But I'm not going onstage and sitting in a chair and going: Let's talk, everyone. I'm wandering around, and griping about Trump, and movies, and life, and getting older.

On not buying Batman's backstory

Bruce Wayne saw his parents gunned down in front of him when he was 9 and he travels the world and becomes this amazing [crime fighter]. ... That's ridiculous — he would have grown up to have been Gotham City's most annoying slam poet. That's what Bruce Wayne would have been. He would have been up there reading his horrible poems.

On why the second year after a loss may be even harder than the first

At least in 2016 I had three months and 21 days of Michelle being in there. And now this is a year where there is no Michelle — and, like, that's it. So when January first dawned it felt like a cell door slamming behind me like: You are now in this awful world where you don't even have a memory of her being a part of this year. ...

There's that famous line from Magnolia ... I'm through with the past. ... Well, the past isn't through with you. And that is exactly what this is. You know, you can say you're through with grief all you want, but grief will let you know when it's done.

On whether he's disappointed people who expected him to be funny

Sorry for bumming you out. I'm very sorry. Go walk for half an hour; it will flood you with endorphins. ... What am I saying?! You're NPR listeners. You're used to being bummed out. Now let's cut to some sad jazz. Stay tuned: We're going to talk about things to do with sorghum. It's sorghum season!

Radio producer Jinae West and digital producer Beth Novey contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The comedian Patton Oswalt has starred in TV and movies like the sitcom "The King of Queens" and the animated film "Ratatouille." He got his start in standup comedy. And he told me he always thinks of that work as issues of a magazine.

PATTON OSWALT: My first album I'm - and I talk about, I'm single. I'm going to stay single. No way am I getting married. No way am I having kids. Then on my second one, I'm in love. I'm thinking of getting engaged. Then I'm talking about - we're about to have a baby. Then in the next one I'm - my fatherhood. Unfortunately, then the special that I'm working on for the summer is going to be about me being a widower and dealing with grieving and different, OK, here is where I am now.

SHAPIRO: Last April 21, one day before his standup special "Talking For Clapping" was released on Netflix, Patton Oswalt's wife, Michelle McNamara, died unexpectedly. The two have a daughter together. Alice is now 7 years old. Months after his wife's death, Oswalt won a Grammy Award for best comedy album and his first Emmy award for that Netflix special. This was from his acceptance speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OSWALT: And I want to share this with two people. One of them, my daughter Alice is waiting at home. The other one is waiting somewhere else, I hope. So...

SHAPIRO: Oswalt has now returned to the standup stage. Last week, he headlined two shows here in Washington, D.C. And I asked him, in a year that was professionally one of his best and personally his absolute worst, how was he doing?

OSWALT: I had a friend who, especially since November, his standard greeting to people is a, so otherwise, how are you doing?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

OSWALT: 'Cause there's just this overall gloom, political, psychological, emotional tension and gloom. So it was interesting for him to put it that way. I'm like, oh, yeah, actually makes a lot of sense.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I have a friend who answered that question every time - no worse than anyone else.

OSWALT: Yeah. Yeah. One thing that I've learned since what happened to me happened is you don't know the kind of pain and loss other people may have gone through, even close friends and acquaintances.

SHAPIRO: It almost feels like a secret society that you were always surrounded by, that your friends were part of, that you didn't learn...

OSWALT: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...They were a part of, it existed, until suddenly you were against your will inducted into the secret society.

OSWALT: Yeah. In really awful science fiction terms, it is like putting on the sunglasses in "They Live" and then seeing the world for what it really is. Do you know what I mean? Obviously I knew there was loss and death and depression, but you can only sympathize so far until it directly happens to you.

SHAPIRO: You easily could have kept doing movies and TV after Michelle's death and put yourself into a character that has nothing to do with your own life and stayed in Los Angeles. And instead, you've chosen to go out and bare yourself on a stage and talk about your life and yourself in front of a bunch of strangers. Why?

OSWALT: I think the reason that I'm still doing standup is because before the movies and television, and before the books, standup is what brought me into this role where I get to link up with way more creative, way more intelligent people than I am ever going to be. And to cut that off, it felt like an insult to Michelle. Especially because the person that I was before I met Michelle was very, you know, I think I was an OK comedian. I don't think I was very deep and vulnerable.

And then after, you know, falling in love with her, she led me to being secure enough to open myself up on stage. So then to completely reject that would have felt very, very insulting to her. And also, I remember when I initially started talking about it on Facebook, people reached out to me and said, oh, that really, really helped me. And it really helped me to get over my grief. Like, I take part in a grief group, helping other people out who are going through this. This is a very selfish thing. But it helps me out.

SHAPIRO: And so are you consciously pursuing that in your comedy sets these days? Are you getting onstage with the goal of helping someone who's going through grief? It doesn't sound like a comedy goal.

OSWALT: No. I'm not going - my goal, as always, is I want to be funny. And I want to get laughs. But laughter I think can loosen up a lot of poison that has kind of settled into your muscles and your soul, not to get too Oprah about it. And maybe incidentally I'm helping someone out with their grief. But I'm not going onstage and sitting in a chair and go, let's talk, everyone. I'm wandering around and griping about Trump and movies and life and getting older.

I mean, the thing that I talk about is how much pop culture failed me. I could reference movies, comic books to make sense of a situation. And this is the one thing where I absolutely cannot because so much of - especially the comic book heroes and people that I like - Daredevil, Batman, John Wick - part of their motivation is based on losing someone that they love. Which then of course leads them to travel the world learning martial arts and doing CrossFit and getting really cut.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

OSWALT: And that's not been my experience. When you lose someone, you tend to eat Wheat Thins for breakfast and rewatch "The Princess Bride" about 80 times and not sleep all that well. So my - I don't know when the push-ups are going to show up in my grieving process.

But I just think like if Bruce Wayne - Bruce Wayne saw his parents gunned down in front of him when he was 9. And he travels the world and becomes this amazing hand-to-hand - that's ridiculous. He would have grown up to have been Gotham City's most annoying slam poet. That's what Bruce Wayne would have been.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

OSWALT: And he would have been up there reading his horrible poems.

SHAPIRO: You know, maybe Alice will become the superhero.

OSWALT: Hopefully, yes. 'Cause I - that's not happening with me.

SHAPIRO: She died in April.

OSWALT: April 21.

SHAPIRO: And so we're almost at the point where it will no longer be the first Christmas without her...

OSWALT: I know. I know.

SHAPIRO: ...The first Mother's Day without her, the first birthday without her. Does that make it easier to reach a level of normalcy? Or does it make it harder to acknowledge that you're moving farther and farther away from the time that she was around?

OSWALT: God, that's - yes, that's exactly the conundrum. That's the conundrum because I'm - you know, I've talked to my friends who've gone through this. And they say, yeah, it is easier once you get to the one-year mark because the first - all these firsts are - I was told flat-out, yeah, Christmas is going to be horrible. And so will New Year's, so will - and especially overall, 2017 is awful.

Because at least in 2016, I had three months and 21 days of Michelle being in there. And now this is a year where there's no Michelle, like, that's it. So when January 1 dawned, it felt like a cell door slamming behind me, like, you are now in this awful world where you don't even have a memory of her being a part of this year.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

OSWALT: What's the line from, you know, there's that famous line from "Magnolia" which was a quote from Michael Penn originally which was - well, I'm through with the past. And the guy says, well, the past isn't through with you. And that is exactly what this is. You know, you can say you're through with grief all you want. But grief will let you know when it's done.

SHAPIRO: Patton Oswalt, thanks so much.

OSWALT: Hey, thanks for having me. And listeners, sorry for bumming you out. I'm very sorry. Go walk for half an hour. It'll flood you with endorphins.

SHAPIRO: Do you think listeners who tune into this expecting you to make them laugh are going to be disappointed?

OSWALT: Yeah, what am I saying? You're NPR listeners. You're used to being bummed out. Now let's cut to some sad jazz.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

OSWALT: Stay tuned. We're going to talk about things to do is sorghum. It's sorghum season. And then we'll be reading from Knut Hamsun's new 800-page book about a bowl of cornflakes that he ate.

SHAPIRO: I can tell you're an avid listener.

OSWALT: Oh, boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LED ZEPPELIN SONG, "D'YER MAKER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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