It took Patton Oswalt 30 minutes into his hour-long standup set to get the courage to talk about his wife’s death six months ago.
Taking the stage at the Beacon Theatre for the New York Comedy Festival Thursday night, the 47-year-old comedian joked about the Cubs victory, taking his 7-year-old daughter Alice to a Halloween haunted house, and the “giant haunted house” that is the 2016 presidential election.
But after admitting to “stalling,” Oswalt launched into a deeply personal and cathartic 16-minute monologue recounting the pain he’s been through since finding Michelle McNamara dead in their home in April.
While he’s performed smaller sets at comedy clubs, open mics, and Sunday’s Festival Supreme in LA — Thursday’s set at the Beacon was his first headliner since her passing.
“Six months and 12 days ago, my wife passed away,” he began. “There’s no way to segue into that. It’s just my life and it’s kind of all-consuming. And it sucks. It sucks.”
He explained how the time since her death has been tough — and how the words used to describe loss like the one he’s going through are often misleading.
“A lot of the terminology that people use when you’re going through something like this is just ridiculous,” he said. “If I hear the term ‘healing journey’ one more time… It is not a ‘healing journey.’ It’s a ‘numb slog.’ It’s just, ‘Well, it’s the end of another day — guess I’ll do that tomorrow.’ It’s just a numb slog until you start feeling s— again.”
“If they would call it a ‘numb slog’ instead of a ‘healing journey,’ it would make it a lot easier,” he continued. “Because if they call it a ‘healing journey’ and it’s just a day of you eating Wheat Thins in your underwear, you’re like, ‘I guess I’m on my healing journey.’ But if they say you’re going to have a ‘numb slog,’ you sit there going ‘I’m nailing it!’ ”
McNamara, the founder of the website True Crime Diary, was a true crime investigator and writer whose focus was investigating cold cases. It was a career that gave her a unique perspective on life — one that Oswalt said was very different from his own.
“I’m very very OCD,” he explained. “I like logic and order and neatness. And sometimes I would fall into that cliché where I would say ‘Well everything happens for a reason I guess.’ And she would go, ‘No it doesn’t. It doesn’t happen for any reason. S— just happens. There’s no closure, there’s no order and there’s no meaning. It’s whatever meaning you try to put on it but nothing happens for any reason. Get that out of your head.’ ”
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Looking back, he called the difference “the sickest irony.”
“Now that’s been proven to me in the s——- way possible,” he said. “She won the argument in the worst way!”
The crowd at the Beacon hung on Oswalt’s every word. There was a feeling in the sold-out room that if they could, the thousands of attendees would give Oswalt one group hug.
But Oswalt worked through the pain by finding the humor. He compared himself to pop culture characters who had suffered great losses, like Batman and the widowers of ’80s sitcoms like Full House and My Two Dads — joking that his life after tragedy hasn’t led to neither a life of crime fighting nor a joke-filled sitcom.
He also spoke about his daughter Alice, who was at school when her mother died. Oswalt told her about the tragedy the following day, because “you can’t go ‘Oh, your mom’s dead — sweet dreams.’ ”
Keeping her home from school during the day, the two had “a daddy/daughter morning” before he broke the news so she could process it. Doing it during the day allowed her to see that there was sunlight out and “that the world won’t be so scary.”
“It was the worst f—–g day of my life,” he said. “I got that out of the way. Send any shit my way — it’s out of the way. Worst day of my life.”
Alice chose to go to school two days later. “She wanted to go right back — she wanted normalcy,” he said. That brought on new challenges, as her friends had all heard the news and didn’t have a filter when they saw him. “Monday was me taking her to school and the kids saying ‘Were you sad when Alice’s mom died?’ ” he said. “And I was like, ‘Yes, I was — what a great question.’ ”
He’s still learning to navigate the trauma and horror of McNamara’s death with Alice. Leading up to Mother’s Day this year, the two flew to Chicago to spend time with family and distract Alice from the holiday. All was going well until an airport attendant told Alice is was Mother’s Day, leading to a tearful flight home.
Ultimately, he said Alice “is handling the trauma amazingly. Way better than I thought she would.”
As he wound his set down, Oswalt shared stories about visiting McNamara’s grave in September — for the first time since her funeral. Once again, it wasn’t anything like the somber scene depicted on film and TV. He said he hoped to tell her, “This world doesn’t need to worry you any more — I got it. I got it. I’m going to do it.” Instead, an arguing family and group of noisy mourners nearby made the experience too chaotic.
In the end, Oswalt is still left wondering why McNamara died.
“If there is a supreme being — whatever it is, and this was part of his plan that she’s gone and I’m not? Then that’s a s—-y f—–g plan or there’s no plan. Because again, I’m very happy with what I do — I tell d–k jokes. And she was trying to bring multiple killers to justice. And God looked down and said, ‘Let’s take her and keep him.’ ”
“That makes no f—–g sense,” he said. “No sense.”