Patton Oswalt’s ‘Annihilation’ Shows the Comedian at His Most Vulnerable

Definitely a go-to utility player for Netflix, Patton Oswalt has never suffered from a shortage of funny. In fact, the streaming titan has been able to count on Oswalt for a new special pretty regularly, and every one has managed to deliver in its own side-splitting way. But last year, when news broke that Oswalt had become a widower after losing wife Michelle McNamara, it was easy to accept that the funny man would be taking some time off; it was even expected. But Oswalt has always been one for proving people wrong, and his latest special, the sometimes hilarious and sometimes incredibly vulnerable “Annihilation,” does just that while the veteran comedian wears his heart on his sleeve.

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once wrote about a social contract that exists between government and the society at large. That contract specifies responsibilities expected of society — certain taxes, abstinence from crime, etc. — while certain other things were expected of the government itself — transparency, for one. In a strange way, a similarly unspoken contract exists between the comedian and his audience, where the price of admission gets the audience a look into a funny person’s inner-machinations, which aren’t always the stuff of frivolity.

Devastated beyond belief, Oswalt still honors this contract, whether that was his intention or not. He approaches his latest hour special not with the aim of unburdening himself of the past year’s trauma, but of bringing a group of close friends up to speed. But even though the special itself deals with an unthinkable amount of heartache, Oswalt manages to keep the small talk light. He, of course, skewers modern politics like only he can, sharing his new fear of checking Twitter for fear of what Trump’s going to tweet next. He even regales with a story about watching a power lifter slam a tall, cowboy hat-wearing embodiment of machismo, and an idea of how to make robotic telemarketing phone calls more interesting. It’s vintage Oswalt, down to his magnificent crowd work, a bit he lets roll on for a little too long on purpose, because, as he’ll tell you, the next segment is quite tough for him.

The most impressive thing about Oswalt taking what he calls the second worst day of his life and spotlighting it as part of a comedy set is his ability to go from heartbreaking vulnerability one second to gut-busting hilarity the next. By the set’s end it’s hard to tell if this reviewer was crying from laughter or from sadness, though it’s probably fair to call it a mixture of both. And if that was the second worst day of his life, what was the first? That, he reveals, was the following day, when he had to break the news to his young daughter, effectively “destroying her world.” That story helps rip down the curtain between public personality and private citizen, showing that as prolific of a comedian he may be, Oswalt will always be an even better father.

“Annihilation” feels masterful in its construction, a testament to Oswalt’s seasoned writing chops and pacing ability. Even watching at home viewers can feel the atmosphere get heavier, then lighter, then suffocatingly unbearable before the punchlines start flying again. Oswalt jokes about trying to talk to his wife at her graveside, only for loud neighboring families to send him scurrying back to his car, calling to his ghost wife to just follow him. “No wonder all the superheroes go to cemeteries at night,” he quips. He also rebukes those who try and extend an olive branch of sympathy, mocking them for calling his grieving process a “healing journey.” Most standup specials this year have either been a wall of laughs or a mixed bag of best, but “Annihilation” is a true roller coaster of emotions. Oswalt is very clearly still hurting, still grappling with the weight of such a sudden loss, but on this night, he had an audience full of friends who helped him bear that burden. And that, ultimately, is what makes comedy such a beautiful genre. To quote Oswalt who quoted his wife to close out the show, “It’s chaos. Be kind.”

Annihilation” premieres on Netflix Oct. 17.