Review: Patton Oswalt – Annihilation, Netflix

When something life-changingly dramatic happens in your life and you want to mention it in your comedy set how do you go about it? Tig Notaro famously opened by saying "Good evening. Hello. I have cancer." Patton Oswalt waits until he is halfway through his latest Netflix special to bring up the subject of his wife's death in 2016. Writer Michelle McNamara died suddenly in bed aged 46. Now go away and find the funny in that.

Maybe Oswalt does the right thing building up to it. How could he open with it? Instead the first part of his Chicago show is made up of exceptionally well-told routines about familiar subjects. Discussing Twitter he says he is afraid to look at it these days because a single word such as Korea can send shock waves through him. And don't get him started on Trump. There is some very strong material here on a topic that became low-hanging fruit about 20 minutes after the last US election results were announced.

Oswalt also does plenty of crowdwork. It takes a bit of time before he hits paydirt, but when he does it is worth the wait. In fact in some ways this was the most striking part of his opening salvos. I don't often see Americans doing banter like this, they are more used to delivering well-polished TV-ready routines. But Oswalt is very good at freestyling, patiently taking his time and waiting for the right moment to pounce.

All of which means that when he starts talking about his wife's death he has well and truly won the audience over. Which is good, because what comes next is not always hilarious. How do you make telling your young daughter that they will never see their mother again hilarious?

Yet somehow there is humour in this darkest of places. Oswalt recalls that he used to argue with his wife about whether the world was random or part of some plan. She used to argue that it was all chaos – and was proved right in the worst of ways.

There is further humour here too, in his annoyance at touchy-feely types who talk about a " healing journey, or a story about Oswalt taking his daughter out of school for Mother's Day only to be reminded of it at the airport by someone who meant well but kept saying the wrong thing. 

You'd think if he didn't start with this subject he might end with it, but Annihilation ends with an odd routine, about pitching an idea by comparing it to moments from classic porn films. Not being a porn film buff I'll have to trust Oswalt on this one. But he says the routine was one of his wife's favourites, so that reason alone justifies the rousing – or should that be arousing – applause he gets for it. 

Watch on Netflix.com

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