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Patton Oswalt: Falling In Love Again Was Like 'Getting Hit By Lightning Twice'

After the sudden death of his wife, Michelle McNamara, in April 2016, comedian Patton Oswalt felt himself falling apart. He began drinking and eating bad food and he struggled with insomnia.

"I was beginning to kind of kiss the edge during those months," he says. "I felt like I was fading out of the world ... just sort of treating myself like I had already died."

But Oswalt also knew that he had to pull himself together — if not for his own sake, then for the sake of his young daughter, Alice. He turned to the one place where he could express his grief in a constructive manner: the stage.

"I started going back onstage in August of that year, completely not ready and completely feeling incapable," he says. "But also I went onstage out of that feeling of, 'I don't know what else to do. This is what I've always done about everything else, and I don't have another outlet to express and work out my grief.' "

Over the past year, Oswalt's life has taken a new turn. He met, fell in love and married actress Meredith Salenger, and he has a new Netflix special, Patton Oswalt: Annihilation, where he talks about the Trump era and the time he has spent processing his grief.

Interview Highlights

On his conflicted feelings around returning to stand-up after his wife died

The first time I went onstage was at the UCB Theater on Sunset Boulevard [in Los Angeles] and I went onstage and immediately started talking about my wife passing away and me being in grief. ...

Internally I had voices saying, "You're being exploitative. You're being shallow and selfish and solipsistic." ... Because it didn't feel like the focus should be on me, because my focus was, "How is this planet still revolving without Michelle McNamara in it?" Existence felt like an insult to me — to be in the world without her. ...

The beauty of this format is that you give people and yourself the opportunity to hold up something that's unspeakable and not only speak about it, but to laugh about it and see that it's manageable and survivable and that you can evolve and adapt beyond it.

On how Michelle's health was impacted by her work on the forthcoming true-crime book, I'll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search For The Golden State Killer

[Michelle] didn't have chronic pain issues, but she definitely had anxiety and sleep issues, because she would interview the survivors of [the Golden State Killer's] victims; she would interview family members who had lost loved ones to this guy. ...

I think over time she really carried it directly on herself, [she wanted] to give these people something like an answer. Even though she didn't believe in closure, she did understand that the physical act of knowing that a cell door was slamming on this guy would be really, really helpful to these people. ...

I think that is what led her down this road of using Xanax, and I know she was taking Adderall in the mornings to get up. The three days before she died she really didn't sleep, because there was all this new breaking stuff on the case, and I believe the FBI was about to reopen it again. ...

I think ... sometimes she had a lethal level of empathy in her. I'm not going to be glib and say that's the cause of death — the cause of death was a lot of things — but that certainly held the door open for the other causes.

On meeting his second wife

I was lucky enough to meet and fall in love and have someone as extraordinary as Michelle McNamara fall in love with me. And then — it's almost like getting hit by lightning twice, that the statistical odds are so insane — I met someone just as, if not even more, extraordinary in this woman Meredith Salenger and fell in love with her and got her to fall in love with me and to fall in love with Alice.

This is going to sound so facile, but she's Mary Poppins. There's that line in the movie Saving Mr. Banks: "She's not there to save the children. She's there to save the husband." That's what Mary Poppins is there to do. That is what Meredith has done for me and for Alice. Because she is such a life force, it almost feels like she was put here to see if her level of life force could revive this death vibe that I was living in and pull me out of it. And she did. She did, seemingly effortlessly.

On the revelations about sexual assault and harassment in comedy

A lot of the stuff that women were talking about — what they deal with on a daily basis — I was like, "I've never seen that, so I think this might be a little inflated." But I was so completely wrong. ...

So it is a real gut check. And I savor the moments in my life when stuff that I was comfortably sure of gets completely shaken up and I have to re-look at everything, because that stripping down is what leads to growth and evolution.

Even if it's painful for yourself. I've had to sit down these last few weeks and I'm going through my head — and I hope every other guy is doing this, of not even, like, physical acts — but, "Was there a remark that I made? Was there a way that I put things?" You're just constantly now thinking of that.

I see a lot of people saying, "Oh what, men are now supposed to triple-, quadruple-, quintuple-think everything that they say and do?" And you go, "Well, clearly women have had to double-, triple-, quintuple- ... think and say everything that they do, and look at all that they can achieve and do with that load on them! Can we maybe take a little bit of the slack? Will that be OK, Mr. Alpha Male?"

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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