The stand-up comic talks about navigating doubt and dealing with grief
In September 2015, Patton Oswalt stepped onstage at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles, and, for the first time in a long time in his career as a stand-up comic, a sense of doubt curdled his thoughts.
“I was very nervous. I didn't know if I could still do it or not, and I didn't know how [the material] would go over,” said Oswalt in a mid-February phone interview. “It was like trying out any new material, only it was more intense than that normally is.”
The intensity owed itself largely to the personal trauma Oswalt experienced earlier that year, when his wife, true-crime author Michelle McNamara, died unexpectedly in April, leaving Oswalt as the sole caretaker of the pair's now-7-year-old daughter.
Over the course of Oswalt's stand-up career, his material has grown increasingly introspective, progressing from the KFC “sadness bowl” riffs of Werewolves and Lollipops, from 2007, to deeper explorations of fatherhood on Finest Hour, from 2011. So even when faced with confronting a deeply personal subject few would willingly dissect in front of an audience, Oswalt didn't waver, embracing his most recent material as a means to explore his grief.
“It would have felt very strange having gone through what I went through and being onstage and never mentioning it,” said Oswalt, who performs at the Palace Theatre on Friday, Feb. 24. “Wouldn't that have been really, really weird?”
According to the comedian, there was no “cinematic moment” where the material clicked and his onstage confidence returned. Rather, it happened gradually over weeks and months, mirroring the approach he's adopted as a single parent, where he takes each day as it comes, piling up these “micro-increments,” as he termed them, into something resembling forward momentum.
“I was terrified as a new dad, and now I'm terrified as a single dad. And there will be other things that appear that'll make me feel unconfident or worried and you just sort of have to roll with those,” Oswalt said. “I think you get steady ground on loan. So whatever steady ground you have, try to enjoy it and learn what you can from it. Because new things will always be coming along to shake that steady ground up.”