Patton Oswalt special emotional, outstanding

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With his newest Netflix special “Annihilation,” Patton Oswalt delivers a stand-up set that transcends mere jokes, becoming a narrative journey of emotion, grief, and comedy.

From the opening shot, things feel different.

The usual unfunny opening skit most stand-up specials have is gone. Instead, we are given a silent but beautiful crane shot of the Athenaeum Theater’s neon marquee, followed by a shot of Oswalt walking down a dark hallway, pausing to wait for his introduction.

Most specials use the introduction as either a masturbatory demonstration in a comedian thinking they’re also great skit writers or as a way to show a comedian getting pumped up for a massive crowd of loyal fans.

This one is low, sober.

“Annihilation” is Patton Oswalt’s first comedy special with new material written after the sudden death of his wife Michelle Eileen McNamara in 2016. I bring it up, not simply because there is material in the set about this, but because knowing about it completely changes the opening.

Perhaps I’m projecting, but having watched it multiple times I look at the opening shot of the crowd applauding for him and I see some stony, sad faces. The elephant in the theater feels palpable, will he mention his wife?

Then, thirty minutes into the special he not only brings up his wife, he accomplishes something in his set that I feel has been a decade in the making.

In 2007 when recording what would become the album “Werewolves and Lollipops,” Oswalt began a joke with a long build-up involving him having unprotected sex with a woman and them dealing with the reality of having to go purchase Plan B the morning after.

It’s an emotional moment that brings the audience from rolling laughter down to complete silence. Unfortunately, just before the climax of the story, a drunk audience member heckles Oswalt, ruining the bit.

Every time I hear that album I wonder what would’ve happened if the bit had run to completion. “Annihilation” achieves this dip from comedy into sadness before pulling out of the nosedive beautifully.  

I wouldn’t dare spoil any material from this special but I can share my reaction.

Minute 40: I’m laughing my ass off.

Minute 43-and-some-change: The first tear hits my mustache.

The list of entertainment I’ve cried at now consist of three items: The end of “Serenity” when I was 14 and lamenting the end of “Firefly,” the end of “Logan” (at both screenings I attended) lamenting a dead friend who would’ve loved it, and Patton Oswalt describing the two worst days of his life. Notice the first two come with emotional baggage that amplified the film’s impact.

Yet yesterday, while watching a phone propped up on a car air vent in a parking lot, I completely lost it without any outside interaction or baggage.

Minute 45: I’m laughing my ass off.

“Annihilation” walks a fine line most comedy specials miss by a mile. Invariably a comedian will introduce darker material into their set and it comes off as the comic using the audience as free therapy instead of attempting to entertain.

A recent example of this being Neal Brennan’s recent “3 Mics” special that is almost entirely him telling stories about how his father was a horrible person, occasionally telling tangentially related one-liners to keep the audience from turning on him.

That is to say, sadness and comedy can go together in the same set and work when they’re integrated into each other. Oswalt doesn’t simply bring up his wife’s death for pity points, it’s intrinsically tied to how the rest of the set progresses. His jokes are about his life, and this was a massively important section of his life.

Perhaps I’m biased with having been a fan of Oswalt’s albums for years, but “Annihilation” quickly surpasses any Netflix standup special I’ve seen in the last few years and cements itself as a classic.

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