Home Celebrity Comedians Patton Oswalt brings humor to even the most serious circumstances – cleveland.com

Patton Oswalt brings humor to even the most serious circumstances – cleveland.com

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Patton Oswalt is well known as a TV actor and the voice of the main character in the animated film, “Ratatouille,” but he’s a comedian first. That means he sees humor in pretty much everything, from reality TV to ‘80s metal bands to the wonders of the Kentucky Fried Chicken “Famous Bowl.”

Comedians have a knack for doing that. They mine the mundane and take even the most serious of topics — death, disease, depression — and find what’s funny.

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The fifty-year-old Oswalt, who performs at the KeyBank State Theatre July 13, has done a good bit of that in his stellar career. There are so many examples, but one from his 1990 “Comedy Central Presents” special stands out:

“In the obituaries, no one ever dies of cancer. People always give in after a valiant battle with cancer, or they throw in the towel after a courageous fight, which, statistically, that can’t be possible. There had to have been a couple of cowardly ordeals in there,” he said. “You know what I mean? Like, ‘Bob Smith died today after a craven, cowardly ordeal with cancer during which he wished the disease on his family and friends and attempted a pact with Satan.’”

He’s talked about dealing with depression on stage and about all manner of serious topics. But nothing could be as serious as the tragedy that befell his family in April 2016 when his wife, the true-crime author and researcher Michelle McNamara, died in her sleep at the age of 46. Oswalt has said the coroner’s report revealed an undiagnosed heart condition. She died after taking Xanax, Adderall and the pain medication fentanyl.

Nothing funny about it. And yet, a year later, he brought it on stage with him.

“(Michelle’s death) was just a huge blow to my reality and then I just sort of didn’t know what to do with myself after a while and then I just started going back on stage,” he said in a phone interview. “But, you know, I talk about it in way more detail on the special, it’s covered pretty succinctly right there.”

The special is “Annihilation” on Netflix, and it’s where we learn that the day his wife died was only the second worst day of Oswalt’s life. The worst was the next day, when he had to break the news to their 7-year-old daughter.

Oswalt, always so sure of himself on stage, seemed awkwardly hesitant after he’d finished joking about President Trump and then bantering with folks in the front row. He repositions his microphone stand and took a deep breath.

“I’m just killing time because this next section is really hard to get into,” he said, before opening up about being a widower, working through the pain and dealing with the frustration of people who wish him well in his healing journey.

“It is not a healing journey. And calling it a healing journey makes it harder, by the way,” he said. “If they would call it a ‘numb slog,’ then I could at least go, ‘I’m nailing it. All right. I’m right where I need to be on my numb slog,’”

The rest of the bit exposed what it is like to be in full command of an audience, to share the most honest and intimate details about tragedy and loss, and to connect universally in a way that allows the audience to laugh even as they’re fighting back tears.

“If there is some intelligence up there with a plan, then his or her or its plan sucks if part of the plan was looking at me and Michelle as a couple and go, ‘Well, I gotta take one of them. Now let me see. She investigates cold cases and tries to bring a sense of relief and sense to bereaved families and he talks about his (penis) in front of drunks,” he said.

Perhaps the most emotional part of the show was when he choked back tears to talk about breaking the news to 7-year-old Alice: “I looked at my daughter and destroyed her world. I had to look at this little girl that was everything to me and take everything from her.”

And seconds later, he turned it back to a comedy show, breaking the tension — his own and the audience’s — by talking about taking Alice back to school days later.

“I haven’t slept in four days and I’m bringing my daughter to school, So as we’re walking up, it looked like a junkie had found a kid and was just like, ‘She said the grownups get free apple slices. Is that true?’” he said.

He says he got through that period with a lot of therapy, a grief group and after meeting “amazing woman” to whom he is now married, actress Meredith Salenger. Developing the material and bringing it to the stage was part of the healing, too, but you’ll never hear the story on stage again. Oswalt has a strict rule about retiring material once it’s been on TV. “You can’t charge people to see material that you’ve already put out,” he said.

Still, his act is sure to include other serious topics, some deeply personal, as well as more frivolous observations, and plenty of his political point of view.

Oswalt said it’s cathartic for him to bring weighty issues to the stage and, most importantly, to find laughter.

“I’m always ultimately going for the laugh; that’s my job. It’s not my job to make people pay to watch me do a therapy session, but if there’s something about me that I think might actually be a little more universal and I can form it into a joke that makes these insurmountable things, be it depression or, you know, existential anxiety, if it makes them more manageable, then it just feel like a bonus,” he said.

“Comedy has helped me through a lot of things, just as I’m sure music helps musicians deal with a lot of things and writing helps novelists deal with things.”

He’s leaned heavily on comedy to help him deal with a presidential administration with whom he doesn’t agree. President Trump and his followers are targets in the act and on his Twitter feed.

“I just think that our reality is so warped right now, if you walk out and you don’t address it, I think it makes people uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s like that Andrei Tarkovsky movie, ‘Stalker.’ We’re in this zone where reality just seems to be slipping a little bit and to not address that, I think, would look and feel insane.”

When he addresses those things on Twitter, brace for blowback.

“When you say Trump supporters aren’t happy with what I’m doing, I don’t think Trump supporters are happy, period. They seem to be very miserable,” he said. “They seem to be even more miserable that he’s won. Because I think they thought that he would win, and, ‘Oh, my god, I’m going to be a champion now!’ And then he wins and the next day they’re still themselves, they’re still miserable and they’re racist and they feel awful about everything, so you know that rage has to go somewhere.”

Earlier this year, Oswalt met rage with kindness. After a Trump supporter tweeted insults at him, Oswalt did a little research and discovered the Alabaman was trying to raise money for medical bills to cover a recent hospital stay. Oswalt kicked in $2,000 into his GoFundMe account and implored his followers to do the same. (It’s at $47,500 today.)

The man replied in a tweet: “Patton. You have humbled me to the point where I can barely compose my words. You have caused me to take pause and reflect on how harmful words from my mouth could result in such an outpouring.” The national press fawned. It was a feel-good story.

But that didn’t last.

“Have you read his subsequent tweets?” Oswalt asked. The Trump supporter’s point of view never changed. And his Twitter account is full of harsh words not directed at Oswalt himself but toward issues he cares deeply about and people who share his political views.

“Basically it’s the, ‘All right, let’s see if compassion and empathy work.’” he said. “‘Ope. This time they didn’t. Oh well. I tried.’”

He’s been busy on Twitter with another project he hopes has more success, saving the NBC show “AP Bio” in which he plays Principal Durbin.

He’s got plenty of other things going on, too. He just finished the final season of HBO’s “Veep.” He voices the lead, “Max,” in “The Secret Life of Pets 2” (replacing Louis C.K.), and, of course, he’s busy doing stand-up with gigs in Europe through June and a U.S. leg this month.

The man works hard.

“I just think there’s an awareness that I’m in a business where every day is a rainy day, so if there’s work coming, you take it and you do it. I mean I’m grateful for it. I don’t think of it as a driving work ethic, I think of it as ‘Oh, wow, I’m being invited to be a part of all these really, really fun projects, why would I turn these down? Like the stuff that I do, quote unquote,work wise is stuff that I would do for pleasure anyway, so it all feels fun to me, it doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, now I need some time to myself.’”

Salenger has a tremendous relationship with his daughter, he says, and the three of them voiced roles in a “My Little Pony” episode this year loosely based on real-life events, where his character was the new boyfriend.

“It was amazing, the three of us doing that, and kind of doing a flipped reenactment of what we kind of went through. The fact that the show reached out to me like that, it was pretty amazing,” he said.

Times are much happier, he said, for him and his daughter.

“Things have gotten way better for her,” he said. “She’s dealing with it and things are much improved.”

If you go: Patton Oswalt performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 13 at the Keybank State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave. in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. Tickets are $35-$65. Go to playhousesquare.org or call 216-241-6000.

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