There are many ways you could describe the life of Patton Oswalt over the past year and a half. “Normal” is not one of them.
Consider: On April 21, 2016, Oswalt, an award-winning stand-up comedian and actor known for, among many other things, his nine years on the CBS sitcom The King of Queens and for voicing Remy in the animated hit Ratatouille, found that his wife of nearly 11 years had died in her sleep in their Los Angeles home. The sudden passing of crime writer Michelle McNamara, 46, sparked outpourings of support for Oswalt and his and McNamara’s then seven-year-old daughter, Alice, from fans, celebrities and total strangers the world over.
On August 1, 2016, Oswalt, who for years has touched on his struggles with depression and anxiety in his stand-up routines, took to social media to grieve. He wrote on Facebook about how “102 days at the mercy of grief and loss feels like 102 years and you have shit to show for it.” But even then he was able to offer a glimmer of hope: “I’m going to start telling jokes again soon. And writing. And acting in stuff and making things I like and working with friends on projects and do all the stuff I was always so privileged to get to do before the air caught fire around me and the sun died. It’s all I knew how to do before I met Michelle. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do now without her.”
On February 3, 2017, Oswalt revealed in a statement released to the Associated Press that, according to a report from the coroner’s office, Michelle McNamara’s death was caused by an undiagnosed artery-blocking heart condition, “combined with her taking the medications Adderall, Xanax and the pain medication fentanyl.” Nine days later, when he won a Grammy for best comedy album for Talking for Clapping (he had won an Emmy for the same special the previous September), he called the award “bittersweet” but added, “I’m hoping to move beyond the bitterness.”
On July 6, 2017, Oswalt announced his engagement to actress Meredith Salenger, 47, having recently tweeted, “Every time you choose love it delays the apocalypse.” The couple’s nerdy, charming social media repartee awakened even some cynics’ faith in the restorative power of love. For the haters—Oswalt called them out as “grub worms”—the news of the relationship provided a nasty field day. Both Oswalt and Salenger reposted young widow and blogger Erica Roman’s defense of their relationship and engagement. “You don’t get to comment on the choices of a widower while you sit happily next to your own living spouse,” Roman wrote. “You didn’t have to stand and watch your mundane morning turn into your absolute worst nightmare.” It went viral.
These days, Oswalt sounds a bit more optimistic. In addition to a characteristically full dance card—the upcoming dramatic film Nostalgia, the edgy new NBC comedy series A.P. Bio, possible returns to Veep and Mystery Science Theater 3000—he will confront the trials of his recent life in a new comedy special, taped by Netflix and never to be repeated onstage. If there is salvation and renewal in work, Oswalt just may find it.
Born Patton Peter Oswalt on January 27, 1969 in Portsmouth, Virginia, Oswalt, along with his younger brother, Matt, was raised a well-traveled military brat. Obsessed with comic books, records, films and Dungeons & Dragons paraphernalia, Oswalt grew up in Sterling, Virginia and obtained an English degree from the College of William and Mary, where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity. Either in the late 1980s or early 1990s, according to his own foggy memory, he began performing stand-up. Influenced by Jonathan Winters, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Steve Martin and others, he immediately knew where he was going.
Oswalt’s quick-spreading reputation as a cranky, shrewdly observational comic speedball helped win him a gig writing for MADtv from 1995 to 1997. That in turn led to a 1997 episode of HBO’s Comedy Half-Hour, in which he muses on looking like a lesbian, obsesses over little people and waxes ecstatic about Xena: Warrior Princess. His career-making gig on The King of Queens started in 1998 and was followed by supporting roles in projects ranging from the arty (Magnolia) to the asinine (A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas). He has penned comic books (Batman 600) and memoirs (Zombie Spaceship Wasteland in 2011 and Silver Screen Fiend in 2015); he has doctored screenplays for DreamWorks Animation; and he’s served as off-screen narrator for ABC’s The Goldbergs. You get the sense that work became his salvation long before the horrors of 2016.
We sent writer Stephen Rebello, who interviewed Christopher Nolan for our last issue—and Oswalt himself for a 2014 20Q—to Soho House West Hollywood on the Sunset Strip, where he and Oswalt talked for hours over Clean Green smoothies and rice porridge, before detouring toward strong cups of coffee and fattening breads and spreads. Rebello reports: “It didn’t surprise me that the Patton Oswalt I met four years ago has evolved. Brought to his knees by personal tragedy, he has emerged stronger and every bit as irreverent, authoritative and entertaining on virtually any topic, from the 19th century’s gloomiest Russian literature to the arcane comic genius of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. The pain in his eyes is unmistakable, and he may laugh less frequently these days, but when he does, it’s infectious. His withering scorn for politicians on both sides of the aisle is intact, and his lashing deconstructions of pop culture and his celebrity grudges are tempered by a different sort of reflection; you could even call it balance. If you ask me, Oswalt’s greatest work lies ahead.”
When people approach you these days, do they want to meet the stand-up comedian, the voice from Ratatouille, the social media wit or someone else?
If I had to make a pie chart, a big part of it is still The King of Queens. That show is on all the time, and it really holds up. I remember the creators, Michael Weithorn and David Litt, and the writers saying they wanted each episode to be a solid, funny stand-alone short film about life. None of the characters really learns anything. There’s a reason shows like MASH, Cheers, Friends and Seinfeld have this afterlife. Each one is a little nugget—there’s no better word for it—of entertainment. People can just kick back and recharge. I loved doing that show.
You’re currently shooting a co-starring role as a school principal on A.P. Bio, a new NBC comedy series created by Seth Meyers, Michael O’Brien and Lorne Michaels. When you do a new series, do you tend to compare it to your nine years on The King of Queens?
I hope it turns out to be the same kind of environment we had on King of Queens. All the writers and executive producers on that show were hilarious fucking stoners and goofballs. They were trying to do funny little stories; they weren’t out to change the goddamn world. For sweeps week one year early on in the series, they did an arc where Carrie [played by Leah Remini] might have a baby, and then they lose the baby. Kevin James and the writers were all going, “This is not why we did this fucking show.” So the three-episode arc for the next sweeps week was the characters finding mold in the basement, hiring a guy to get the mold out and then finding out it’s going to cost too much. That was a way of saying, “Fuck, that’s our sweeps-week story: mold in the basement.”
We would hide all kinds of in-jokes on King of Queens that people are just now starting to discover. It reminds me of what The Book of Mormon did for Broadway musicals. Structurally, that show is completely not subversive; it’s traditional. On King of Queens, they used a standard sitcom structure to slip in all kinds of weird stuff. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does the same thing: It covers deep life stuff but in ways you don’t realize.
On King of Queens there was this great story where Jerry Stiller’s character, Arthur, reads about reparations, so he gives $200 to the character Deacon, played by Victor Williams, who is black. Arthur says, “I just need to say that I contributed to my reparations,” and Deacon says, “Oh wow, thanks, man.” Arthur finds out later that his family were immigrants—no money, never owned slaves. He goes to Deacon and says, “Going to need that $200 back,” and Deacon goes, “Well, I spent it on new speakers.” Then Arthur says, “Eh, that’s typical.” On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the character played by Donna Lynne Champlin is in a bake-off, and she’s sure this unbeatable baker has some secret ingredient. She’s determined to find out what it is but realizes it’s just butter and the woman is just a better baker than she is. That applies to so much in life. Sometimes half-hour shows like these and Veep tackle issues with goofiness and slapstick. That’s better than the hour-long shows that announce they’re doing it and it’s like they’re patting themselves on the back.
So you’re saying viewers want to be entertained first. If a statement or “message” is going to be imparted, it’s better when it’s smuggled in.
Go back to the Westerns of the late 1940s and 1950s like Red River, 3:10 to Yuma and The Tall T and you’ll see gay themes. They were smuggling these themes in, and seeing these movies now we’re like, “Are you kidding? How dumb were people back then?” 3:10 to Yuma has Glenn Ford lying on a bed in a bridal suite, and there’s Van Heflin, and Ford says something like “You seem real strong. You’d be real helpful in our gang. I don’t why you’re stuck on that boring old farm with that woman.” The Tall T is about a failed romance between Randolph Scott and Richard Boone, who aren’t brave enough to come out of the closet. Scott goes and marries a woman and even says something like “She ain’t much to look at, but oh well,” which is like saying ,“I guess I’ll just put on this fucking beard.”
When you watch those movies, do you ever wonder which actors were and which weren’t in the know?
The way Glenn Ford plays it, he had to have known. Van Heflin might not have. Randolph Scott may have known, because I think he was bi.
You’re referring to the fact that Scott and Cary Grant shared a Santa Monica beach house and a house in Los Feliz in the 1930s and how it has been widely written about and speculated that they were lovers hiding in plain sight, some say for well over 11 years.
And by the way, even if I wasn’t gay but I was living with Cary Grant and he wanted me to fuck him, I would. I could be married and I would still say to my wife, “It’s Cary Grant. I mean, Jesus, sweetie.” And my wife would go, “Oh, you get over there right now and fuck Cary Grant. Hell yeah, go ahead. Have fun, guys.”
It’s good to hear you laugh. You’ve been very up-front about the time you’ve had since April of last year.
I’m quoting the first line of C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” It’s terrifying. It’s fucking terrifying.
Aside from terror, what have you experienced about grief?
Dude, the thing you know once you go through real chronic grief—in fact, my very first instinct was to think, I don’t want anyone to go through what I’m going through right now. I wouldn’t even want Donald Trump to go through what I’m feeling right now. That’s how awful it is.
Grief is like, “Hey depression, I taught you everything you know, but I didn’t teach you everything I know.”
How have you and your daughter helped each other over the past year and a half?
This is going to sound selfish, but I’m forever glad that I have Alice. If I hadn’t had a daughter and my wife died, we wouldn’t be talking right now. I’m not saying I would be dead, but I would be a shut-in alcoholic. Everything would have shut down. I wouldn’t have been about anything. But with Alice, it was and is “You got to get up.” There are mornings when we’re late to school because I’m sad, but I’ve still fucking got to get up. A night when I’ve had maybe one scotch with some friends, I’ll say, “That’s it. I’ve got to take her to school tomorrow.” If there were no reason to wake up, I would be morbidly obese. I’d be rewatching movies I’ve seen a million times, and I would have wallowed and sealed myself off in a falsely comforting bath of despair. Depression is not terrifying. Depression is seductive and comforting. It sticks around so long because it creates this false sense of “Oh, here’s where I’m safe.” Grief is like depression’s drill sergeant. It knows the tricks that depression doesn’t know. Grief is like, “Hey, depression, I taught you everything you know, but I didn’t teach you everything I know. Here, watch what I can do.”
What’s tougher to deal with, your own sadness or your daughter’s?
The first few weeks were a little rough. There was crying at night, but she bounced back. She’s a really happy little kid, and she goes to this thing called Our House, a fantastic grief group for kids. But there were times when I got really worried, like what if she’s just putting on a show for me, trying to be brave but inside she’s dying? There were times when she was a little kid in a house with a father who was sort of shut down and having trouble talking. There were times when I had to get her to play a game on her iPad or start a little project, and then I would say, “Oh, let me go upstairs,” and I would go put my head in a pillow and just scream and cry because I didn’t want to break down in front of her. She wanted to go back to school the Monday after Michelle died, and there were a lot of times those first few months when I would take her to school, pull around the block and just park and have my coffee. I’d have some books, and I would just sit there all day. I’d tell the teacher, “If anything goes wrong, call me or text me and I’ll just run right over.” I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to sit out there and wait. I know that kids go through sad stuff and scary stuff, so I called in favors like you wouldn’t believe just to give her little special moments. Yes, that was a bit of show-biz privilege, but fuck it. If you’ve got it, use it.
Was it ever worse for you when you were alone?
I would seriously have these existential moments—not to get too dramatic—when I was like, “What if I’m the one who has died and my brain can’t deal with the body horror of it, so it has created this whole other life where Trump is president, where reality doesn’t make sense? What if I’m imagining my daughter here right now and I have to protect her but she’s not really here? All this could be something that I created.” It was freaking me out. There were moments when I truly was like, “I have plenty of evidence that I’m dead right now. Should I test this? Should I try to Matrix myself out of this and step in front of a bus or stab myself or something to see if this is real?”
Did you and Alice move to another house?
I redecorated a little, but I just thought, I’m going to need to get through the trauma of the grief and then I’ll go through the trauma of moving. Moving out of the house would have been more painful than staying in it. It would have been like running away from Michelle’s ghost rather than giving her ghost time to leave at its own pace.
If you could imagine an avatar for grief, what would it be?
An avatar of despair would be like a flavor packet you get with a Cup O’ Noodles. On the packet is generic lettering that reads, “This is life,” but when you taste it, it’s just a flavor of life. You can’t live on it and it has a weird flavor. All it does is make you hungrier, and that drives you crazy because it tastes like life, but it isn’t life. When I won my Emmy, it was great, but it was like, “This is the flavor of joy, but I’m not digesting anything.”
Could anything or anybody help you punch through the despair?
You know what really helped me break through? Sheer fucking absurdity, because life was absurd. I was obsessed with The Eric Andre Show, and when I would laugh until I started crying, it was like, “At least I’m laughing. Maybe there’s a way out of this.” What else? Tim and Eric. A lot of Mitchell and Webb—there’s a sketch of theirs called “Numberwang” that I would watch over and over. I wanted sheer absurdity and nonsensicalness. I’d watch Billy Eichner over and over. I watched all of Steve Martin’s old TV specials, because that was just surrealism in prime time in the late 1970s, and it’s hard to believe that was on TV. I remember very clearly when I was a kid, my friend had Another Monty Python Record on LP, and we started listening to it. I was like, “This is stupid. This isn’t funny.” I went home and listened to A Wild and Crazy Guy, and in the middle of it, I thought, Oh, I get Monty Python now. It’s just sheer absurdity.
How has your life been changed by falling in love with Meredith Salenger, who is now your fiancée? Many movie fans have also fallen in love with her, going as far back as the 1985 movie The Journey of Natty Gann.
Here’s the thing. I’ve been through such extremes of despair and now such extremes of joy that I think, Is that unhealthy? My fiancée and I started talking February 28, through Facebook. We have friends in common and we were messaging, and it just turned into every night for three months—February through May. We would talk about everything, writing these short novels to each other every night. It wasn’t like I met this person and there was some thunderbolt. During that time, we never even spoke, never met face-to-face. We had conversations about books and philosophies and what love means and what loyalty and death are. We talked all about Michelle and what I was going through and the stuff that Meredith has gone through. We didn’t meet face-to-face until May 20.
I’d like people to have this joy without that despair. This joy would have been just as sweet without the horror.
What was it like when you two finally met?
It was as if I had known this person since we were teenagers and we both had unrequited crushes since we were 14 and now it was finally crashing together. Even though I’m at this level of joy I didn’t think I would ever feel again, I still wouldn’t recommend those extremes to anybody. I’d like people to have this joy without that despair. And this is not a case of “Yeah, but see, it makes joy so much sweeter.” No, this joy would have been just as sweet without the horror.
To repeat the old Hollywood cliché, if Ginger Rogers gave Fred Astaire sex appeal and Astaire gave Ginger Rogers class, what’s the dynamic between you and Meredith?
If I really boil it down, she brings me—and I’ve rarely experienced this with someone—excitement and calm, which sounds contradictory. I’m excited, but because she gives me something that is so secure and calming, I don’t have to question and worry about it. There are no mind games. I’m calm enough to let the excitement really grow, you know?
One of the things I missed the most about Michelle is like the old Elvis Costello lyric: “I miss talking in the dark.” Meredith and I talk in the dark, at night. One of us has some half-formed thought, like “I’ve been thinking about…” and then we just go off and off and off. Of course, she’s beautiful before she even opens her mouth. I mean, you just look at her across the room and you think, Oh my God, beautiful woman. But then you sit and talk with her, and you write back and forth, and you also see her not just in action. It means only so much if someone is nice to me; it’s how you see her treat other people. She can teach me things about being kind that I thought I maybe had nailed down. Michelle was the last person I met like that, but this is another level of it, an even more intense version of that. But if I hadn’t met Michelle and been changed by her the way that I was, and if she hadn’t helped me grow the way that I did, I would never have deserved Meredith. With Meredith, I have a mind I can play with again.
How did you react when some people went nuts on the internet, criticizing you for moving too fast into a new relationship?
Oh fuck. A friend of mine who went through this exact same thing and got married nine months afterward said, “You are living with and dealing with this grief every second of your life and in therapy all the time. So you’re going to get over it quicker, because you have to. For others to go, ‘I don’t think I’m comfortable with this,’ it’s like, ‘Too fucking bad. Live with it every day like I did, and if you’re still uncomfortable, then we can talk. But until then you’ve got to be quiet.’ ”
How have your parents, your brother and your late wife’s family taken the news of your engagement?
When I told Michelle’s sisters they were like, “Oh my God, we were so worried. We thought you were going to be alone forever.” If I had passed away, no fucking way would I want someone as dynamic and unique as Michelle to be pining for me. My family was terrific. My dad served in Vietnam for three years, so he’s very pragmatic, like, “Why would you make yourself miserable if you don’t need to be?” He was really happy, and my mom was excited too. My mom had that classic 1950s upbringing, though, so she had one question: “Why has Meredith never been married?” I’m like, “Because she didn’t want to be. You understand, if she went that long without getting married, it’s because she dodged some bullets, so that’s actually a really good thing.” My brother was really happy, like, “Oh my God. She’s smart. She’s sane. It’s wonderful.”
You and your brother traveled a lot because of your father’s military career. Have the two of you always been close?
Growing up, my relationship with my brother was tense only in that I liked books and movies and if I had my way I could spend hours just reading. He would say, “Well, you never played catch with me,” and I would say, “Yeah, but you never discussed Dostoyevsky’s ‘White Nights’ with me. So there.” But now he’s awesome. I love him.
Does being the son of a military man, a man who named that son Patton, mean there was pressure on you or your brother to serve in the military?
I think my dad named me Patton partially out of irony, because at that point he had been in the military for three years; he’d been wounded and seen three years of unending horror. He was always, “You and your brother will join the military over my dead body, and you will never go to war.” I remember I was always very down on George W. Bush. I was like, “That fucking draft dodger,” and my dad would say, “Hold up. The fact that he dodged the Vietnam draft is a positive. He saw it was going to be terrible and he found a way out of it. I couldn’t figure out a way out of it. He did.”
How do you most vividly remember yourself as a kid?
I was a fucking loudmouth. I got beaten up a few times, but if I’m going to look back on it honestly, maybe I needed to get my ass kicked because I was running my mouth at someone I shouldn’t have been running it at. There were times in middle school when I was really nervous and terrified that I would become that thing I hate the most, because I was the bully’s little friend. If I could get in good with the bully and help him by using my comedic skills to feed him vicious lines to say to kids, then I wouldn’t get my ass kicked. It’s something that really has stayed with me, and I will overreact when I see it. But then, by the time I got to high school, it just made me fucking ill, and I stopped. I’m embarrassed that it took me that long to realize it. As much as I hate people like Karl Rove, if you look at his background and the way he grew up, he was always getting picked on and bullied, so he was like, “I will get in with the bullies.” Some of us work to move past that.
Have you gone to school reunions?
Yes, and it reminds me of that great moment at the end of The King of Comedy when the main character has clearly gone nuts, and the high school principal comes out and says something like “We were wrong about you, and we’re sorry.” Everyone has this thing in their mind that anyone who was ever shitty to them is going to have to eat their words. Whereas what you realize later in life is that those people who were shitty to you when you were younger? They don’t remember you, or if they were to meet you again, they would go, “Oh, good for you.” I’ve gone to my high school reunions and seen people I was shitty to, and I’ll say, “Aw, man, hey, I’m sorry,” and they’re like, “What are you talking about?” You were never the target; it was whatever shit they were going through.
Were you one of the kings of comedy at your high school?
It was me and about five other friends who could recite Monty Python, Pryor and Cosby—and in this group, they were all funnier than me. I just decided to make it into a vocation. But it was a really good preview for my circle of friends now—all the comedians I hang out with are way funnier than I am. I don’t believe in false humility. I think I’m an excellent comedian, but the reason I’m as good as I am is because I hang out with way funnier people. So in my mind, I have their voices going, “Maybe don’t go with the first joke you came up with. Go further. What’s the next twist we can do here?” And there’s nothing worse for a comedian than being the funniest one in the circle.
What feels more rewarding when you’re doing stand-up: getting a big response from the crowd or getting a response from that one comedian friend you know is a tough critic?
What has become the biggest reward for me is finding a way to get a response from a crowd with something about which my friends have said, “I don’t know if you can make that work.” That’s what comedians appreciate: “Wow. I didn’t think that was going to work.” It’s thrilling when Sarah Silverman, Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. are so funny, because for comedians it’s like, “They got laughs with that? Wow!” Dave Attell starts with the filthiest premise or with something that you’re like “The fuck are you doing?” and then spins it into something that even people who are offended will go, “Fuck, that is funny.” Brian Regan will start off with the most picked-to-death, hacky subjects where you’re like, “Come on, dude.” And then he finds this new angle, and you think, Oh my fucking.… Everyone else thought of that same premise, but no one went where he did, and the crowd literally can’t get their breath watching him. Two comedian friends went to see him, and they said, “We were punching each other, we were so happy.” Brian Regan is like a reminder of when people say, “Oh, not another fucking zombie movie,” but the fucking zombie movie turns out to be Shaun of the Dead. Or it’s like Anthony Bourdain making haddock. “Just look at what I can do with nothing. Can you do this?” It’s very intimidating.
What would you say was your nadir as a stand-up?
It was after 9/11 and during the lead-up to the Iraq war. I’d been on King of Queens four years. The show was very popular, and I was selling out clubs, just coasting on that. I was in Pittsburgh doing a comedy club and the audience booed me off the stage for talking about the war and doing jokes about George Bush. People were dumping drinks on me and throwing shit. They had to lock me in the office while they cleared the crowd. People were down at the bar, screaming, “Send his ass down here! Motherfucker!” I wasn’t some liberal flamethrower, and what I said wasn’t that controversial. The nadir was that I got lazy. I allowed King of Queens to bring my crowd without asserting who I was. Success brings you the privileges, but you don’t get to be yourself. Your nadir is when you’re taking success for granted and becoming this automaton who doesn’t give a shit about what you’re doing.
Getting back to your childhood, what was your parents’ attitude toward sexuality and porn?
I looked at any porn I could get my hands on, trust me. They found some playboys under my bed, and that was my fault because I had hidden them so badly, and I should have been punished. I was more into finding porn in places I didn’t even realize I was finding it, like illustrations in Heavy Metal by Richard Corben and movies like Village of the Giants. I had fantasies of giantesses. There was also weird sexual stuff in places that I don’t think many people realized. That scene in The Big Sleep with Dorothy Malone in the bookstore with Humphrey Bogart was maybe one of the most erotic things ever shown on TV. I mean, in Written on the Wind she’s ridiculously and contemporarily sexy and beautiful. Look, Lauren Bacall is beautiful, though in The Big Sleep she’s actually sexy, like you can see fucking her and everything else is, “Eh, okay.” But Dorothy Malone, Ella Raines, Bettie Page, I could see fucking them—like erotic fucking them, because they’re alive on that screen. Same with Simone Simon in Cat People, except that she’s less sexy and it’s more like you just want to protect her. I’m being creepy, but I want to have her under a glass dome and just look at her.
Was being funny an entrée to girls when you were growing up?
An entrée? Trying to be funny was the entrée—the only one I had. I have to come to terms with the fact that I do not have those looks for women. I doubt I would be engaged to my fiancée if she had just glanced at me across a room. It was us talking. I mean, it can be very frustrating when you’re like, “Grrrr, these fucking good-looking assholes.” They’ve probably racked up 10 times the number of women you’re going to sleep with, and the woman you end up with has probably hooked up with one of them in the past.
Who would be the right movie director to shoot the screen version of you losing your virginity?
Unfortunately, it would be either Lina Wertmüller or John Waters. Here’s why: I was 18. It was Beach Week in Ocean City, Maryland, at the Islander Motel, with my high school girlfriend since junior year. Later, we went all through college and it was one of those tumultuous on-and-off things. Anyway, back to the Islander Motel. We had done everything but, and it was just, “We gotta do this.” Both sunburned. Fucking. We had the TV on because the walls were thin. It was MTV and the songs were fucking great—like Cheap Trick’s “Tonight It’s You.” Then, when I’m like, “My God, I’m going to come,” George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” comes on. I’m like, “I don’t want to lose my virginity to this song!” But I was so fucking turned on, I was going to come anyway, even if they had started playing “Deutschland Über Alles.” So it was a great Wertmüller or Waters moment. Of course there’s going to be a bit of comedy in the irony of it.
Anyone who has seen you in concert or read your Facebook page or Twitter feeds knows how passionate you are about politics. How has Trump’s presidency made an impact on your grieving and on your state of mind?
One thing about grieving is I don’t totally trust a lot of my emotions and perceptions about the world we’re in right now. I see a lot of it through the funnel of loss and damage and covering up. I’m trying to understand people rather than just write them off.
If you look at how Trump was raised, what we’re seeing is the tail end of his having been hurt his whole life.
Even those people in positions of authority and influence who can do and are doing great harm?
Take someone like Ann Coulter, who is so hateful. If you just take three steps back, you can see trauma, loss, frustration. It’s not that she’s mean; it’s that she’s hurt. If you look at how Trump and his siblings were raised, what we’re seeing is the tail end of his having been hurt his whole life. His whole life since his childhood has been about vengeance and lashing out. He also came along during a time when a lot of the neoliberal experiment had kind of turned on the people it pretended to be helping.
You’re not saying Trump should have been elected president?
No. But what if you’re an American and you’re watching your job go away and you’re watching this professional chattering class just talking blah, blah, blah about theories? Then you see this guy Trump, and he says, “Fuck them! You’re great!” Even if you suspect he’s lying, if it will upset someone powerful, even for a minute——
You mean that person might vote for Trump?
I understand doing shit out of vengeance. I understand kicking at the world out of a feeling of powerlessness. If we don’t start addressing that in this country, we’re going to get someone way worse than Trump way quicker than we think. I had opportunities to do some pretty shitty stuff in my grief that would have been very easy to justify, like “Well, look what life did to me, so fuck it. I’m the wronged hero here.” I could have done shit out of fear and frustration.
Shitty things I could have written. Mean things I could have said. Using my platform in that way. Some dark roads I could have gone down drinking-wise that I saw starting to happen before I said to myself, Okay, that was a mistake. Some relationships I could have had that would have been out of a sheer feeling of “I just want a warm body here. I don’t give a shit.” And that would have been very shitty of me to do to another person.
So you’re calling for a more honest and nuanced examination of why so many Americans voted the way they did.
The thing about Trump is that he’s someone who will leave decades of destruction behind him. Trump is a trauma victim. When he’s lashing out, he’s going through some serious psychological trauma, and no one has addressed it. I retweeted something someone wrote: “I don’t want evil people to die. I want evil people to get good.” A lot of people who are hurt are like, “I’m just going to spread hurt. I’ve earned it. I get to do that.” What is the motivation of every villain? Someone hurt them. It’s like the line Michael Penn always said to me that was then used in Magnolia: “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” For all the things I can point out about people like Trump, Ann Coulter and these alt-right MRA douchebags, I see that same jealousy, resentment and trauma in myself. I’m trying to deal with that. I no longer want to control other people; I want to control myself. If I can control myself, then I can actually do better in the world.
Have you stopped trying to talk to any conservative or alt-right people?
I’ve dealt with those people before, all my life—these frustrated failed comedians. There’s no changing them. All they want to hear is “I’m funny too, right?” And you’re like, “Well, no, I can’t say that, because you’re not.” I know plenty of right-wing people who are genuinely funny, but they’re professional comedians. You know how I can instantly tell if someone’s a failed comedian? They’ll say, “I’m a provocateur.” Oh, I’ve got it. You couldn’t make it as a comedian.
Has your anxiety level spiked since Trump and company have been at the helm?
The thing I was always terrified about with George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, the one thing they really had in common was they both sincerely believed their god had selected them. For a while, the fate of the world was being decided by resentful sons of wealth who hated their dads and had gone to extremes because of personal trauma in their lives. They believed God was saying, “You have a score to settle. I’ve got your back, buddy.” As scary as the Trump years are, that Bush–Bin Laden shit was cranked up to Tolkien-level evil and chaos. Bush was a mediocrity being controlled by an evil genius. Trump is a mediocrity surrounded by other mediocrities. There’s no evil genius in the mix. We don’t have a Palpatine or a Tarkin in there. We just have cave trolls.
What about the Putin connection?
This wasn’t a 40-year plan by Putin. Putin quickly saw an opportunity and ran with it, but there was no plan. Trump doesn’t have any plans. Whatever was the last thing someone said to him, he’ll parrot. He was talking about the wall between California and Mexico being transparent. That’s because he was in a meeting and someone said, “Financially, we have to have transparency.” He isn’t even a Chauncey Gardiner [protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski’s novella Being There] because Chauncey Gardiner at least had an ethos: You plant trees, then they die, and then you plant them again. Trump is like Chauncey Gardiner but with no training. He doesn’t even know how to plant shit. In Trump’s mind finally America has a good president, a truly historical president who is changing things.
When people say, “Trump is so infantile. Look at the goddamn food he eats,” I think, No, he’s eating the way I eat when I’m depressed. He wants comfort. He wants a rush of carbs, salt, sugar and something fried that will take him back to his childhood, because he’s miserable. If you took him to a truly fine, expensive restaurant, he would just fucking hate it. If you took him to a really good barbecue joint, it would kill him watching these guys being happy while they make their beef brisket, sweating and toiling but saying, “This is what I want to do.” But to be brought KFC on his jet and to show everyone, that’s his little moment of happiness, because he can shove it in people’s faces. Look at all the gold and jets; for him it’s “I’m fucking miserable.” That’s why he talks about losers, “sad” and winning: There have to be moments when he looks over at someone making a sandwich and sees a peace in their eyes that he has never felt. It must enrage him.
Where is the resistance from Democrats, let alone the self-examination that should have happened after losing the election?
Oh, I don’t see any looking into a deep, dark, truthful mirror on the part of the Democrats right now. That might be because of some entrenched older-generation people who need to make way. There’s a great podcast, Chapo Trap House—they call themselves the Dirtbag Left—that talks about this. Right now, there are too many other Democrats who are entrenched and comfortable. I see them as World War I generals saying, “Send another wave of machine guns.” Or they’re the advisors left over from the Korean War. They don’t understand that there’s a new enemy. They don’t get it. Look, in a sick way, there will be some very concerned and committed leftists who will be sad to see Trump go because then their daily outrage is taken away. And you know what? I might even end up being guilty of that. We’ll see. I hope not, because a lot of people are really hurting and afraid right now because of him—specifically because of him—so it would be good if he were gone. But there’s money to be made in the disaster that is Trump, even for people on the left.
Where do you spend your political money?
My plan once Trump got in was to put money not into so-called “political organizations” but to signal-boost smaller charities that we’re going to need—social organizations like NARAL and the American Indian College Fund. I got on the President’s Circle of Planned Parenthood. And Alice’s Kids, which anonymously pays off school-lunch debt at high-risk schools. Go to a little independent bookstore, go see a little independent film, do things that our administration doesn’t value, the kind of entrepreneurship in the arts that, to them, is like “Fuck all that shit. Why run a little bike shop and make just enough to pay your rent, you fucking losers? You should turn it into a giant chain and blight the landscape.”
What happens when the Rock and Kid Rock and—why not?—Scott Baio and Tila Tequila run and maybe win?
We’re fucked. I love the Rock. It’s a brutally hard job to be an action hero. Look at all the guys who tried to do it and it was unwatchable. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good president. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an amazing actor and businessman and a terrible governor. He fucked our state up. Now he’s a very effective critic. If you notice, all his critiques come from, “Hey, look, I know. I tried doing this, and I fucked it up.” One of the most moral men alive, Jimmy Carter, was a terrible president, but he’s an amazing ex-president who takes people to task. If he had gotten his way as president, our country would be so fucking better right now. He was saying, “We’ve got to get off oil for the environment and because it would cut the knees out from under the Middle East, and then they won’t be able to fund terrorism.” He saw all this, and people said, “Get out of here, you dumb hippie.” In a sick way, you could say George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were amazing politicians, because as horrible as they were, they pretty much passed all the evil shit they wanted.
It’s called Annihilation, and it’s about just that. It gets really dark, and I hope I end it on a hopeful note.
Before we wrap, let’s talk about your upcoming special.
It’s called Annihilation, and it’s about just that. In it, I don’t back away from the fact that here I am doing some comedy, and now I gotta do a hard segue into the year I just went through. It gets really dark, and I hope I end it on a hopeful note. I tell this insane, unnecessarily dirty, going-out-of-my-way-to-be-really-gross joke that Michelle and I would always riff on—it’s about pitching movies. Michelle thought it was hilarious. She liked it when things were, to quote Liz Phair, “obnoxious, funny, true and mean,” and so that’s where I went with it.
People were saying, “You should do a one-man show.” I’m like, “No, I’m a stand-up comedian. I don’t want to exploit Michelle and Alice for some bigger piece.” And also, I wrote very specifically about what I went through grief-wise, and it seems to have helped a lot of people. In talking specifically, I accidentally tripped into something universal. People who are going through this have been writing me, and they’ve helped me. There’s this horrific club we’re in, and we’re all about “I want to make sure that person’s okay.” That’s your first instinct, just to go, “Hey, let me reach out.”
Your new movie, Nostalgia, is about characters dealing with loss and grief. Did you have any ambivalence about doing it?
I trusted the director, Mark Pellington. I am, literally, in only one scene, but in that scene I’m grieving over a child. I got a little angry with Mark and kind of had a breakdown on the set, like, “What the fuck? For real, dude, why the fuck are you making me do this right now? I’m not ready for this. I understand you have the best intentions in your heart”— because he went through the same thing I did. [Pellington’s wife died in 2004, leaving him with a two-year-old daughter.] “But goddamn, dude, would you have wanted to do this?” I think he meant well, like he thought it would be a catharsis, but it’s kind of not.
So, despite everything, is it getting better for you at all?
It’s no slam on Meredith, but I’ve been conditioned to believe this level of joy always gets yanked away from you. So I’m cautiously hopeful. Cautiously happy. Does that make sense?