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Patton Oswalt and the Place Where Grief and Humor Meet

By Riley Silverman | Think Pieces | September 27, 2016 |

By Riley Silverman | Think Pieces | September 27, 2016 |

Grief is a motherfucker. When loss enters your life, the lingering presence of grief is an unshakable companion. It steals moments, it hijacks other emotions, and it has a cunning ability to hide just out of sight, to make you think you’re finally free and then striking at you with surgical precision. It’s easy to imagine grief as a shadowy, cloak that wraps itself around you, consuming all of your systems and pushing you just out of reach of the world.

And yet it is this very insidious, all encompassing nature of grief that gives us the ability to overcome it, because as it uses your own brain against you, it lets those little bits of you inside of it as well. If you’re an angry person you might use rage to fight it off, if you’re a compassionate person, you may find that putting that compassion into the world will help you deal with your loss. But if you’re a funny person, if you’re someone who has made it a point in your life to seek out the joke in all things, you can in your grief stumble upon some truly hilarious ideas.

Comedy is all about the release of tension. That’s the nature of the setup and punchline format, it artificially creates tension and then releases it. When that tension is there of its own accord, it may be much more difficult to find the valve, but when it can be found, it can truly save you. It’s why some of the most prevalent memories I have of the week of my brother’s funeral are the laughs I shared with my parents, sitting around their kitchen table the night before the first showing, digging through decades of photographs and swapping stories about him. I remember how much his coworkers laughed when they saw that a lot of us were wearing flip flops with our suits in honor of his predilection for them. I remember laughing through my tears as I delivered a eulogy that I had only been able to write by scribbling it into the notebook I used for comedy material, delivered in my onstage stand-up cadence, laughing and crying at the same time. And I laughed so hard upon finding a porn DVD in the television set of his that my parents had shipped out to me in California, that I ended up turning it into stage material.

Patton Oswalt is of course not the only comedian to deal with grief, I immediately think of Jackie Kashian’s thoughts on her mother’s death, or Laurie Kilmartin’s upcoming SeeSo comedy special, 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad, which was born in her days of tweeting while her father was in hospice. Seeing how a unique comedian’s voice lends itself to one of the most challenging, both outwardly and spiritually, ordeals a human can face, and one that everyone inevitably will, really can be something incredible. Seeing the traces of Patton’s grief in the loss of his wife, Michelle McNamara, the glances inward that he’s allowed the public to see, have shown us a little of how his own particular blend of cranky absurdist comedy has helped him go through the unimaginable.

His appearance on Conan last night was as funny as it was moving. With Patton discussing the ‘flavor of happiness’ in the wake of Michelle’s death, discussing the realities of raising a young daughter without her mother and the inability of her young friends to comprehend the loss they’ve experienced, and of trying to protect her in the weeks following the tragedy, we can see the way his grief has bonded with his humor to allow him to cope, and to inspire others to deal with loss in their own ways as well. By the end of it, through a story I won’t reveal any details of because I think it should be heard fresh, I was laughing hard, out loud, smacking my desk, fighting to breathe, and struck by his ability to see just how much humor can be found even in this darkest of tragedies, and his need to share that with the world. Were he to shelter himself off entirely, cloister away from the world, I don’t think anyone would fault him for it, but he hasn’t done that, and I don’t think a man with his sense of humor could have done that.

(Clips courtesy of