TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to continue our holiday week series, featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year - today, our interview with Patton Oswalt, recorded in November a few weeks after the release of his latest Netflix stand-up comedy special. In the special, he starts off talking about life in the Trump era. But later, he heads to a much more personal place and reflects on the sudden death last year of his wife, Michelle McNamara, and how he tried to help his 7-year-old daughter through her grief while he was overcome by grief himself. Not exactly funny subject matter - but in describing some of the more absurd things that happened in the aftermath, he manages to get laughs without making light of the pain.
His life has taken a new turn. In early November, about three weeks before our interview, he remarried. His new wife is the actress Meredith Salenger. Oswalt has appeared in many movies and TV shows. He voiced the main character in the Pixar film "Ratatouille," which led to a lot of work voicing animated characters. He voices one of the characters in the new sci-fi channel series "Happy." Let's start with the opening of his latest Netflix comedy special, which is called "Patton Oswalt: Annihilation."
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "PATTON OSWALT: ANNIHILATION")
PATTON OSWALT: I'm genuinely - I'm genuinely surprised that you're in such a good mood, especially with what - I'm sure you guys saw what just went down on Twitter like five minutes ago. Did you - you didn't see? No? I'm kidding. Nothing happened. But that's...
OSWALT: That's the world we're living in right now, basically - is every - oh, (expletive). What did he do? What? Wait. What do you mean?
OSWALT: I almost feel like I could get out of a mugging using that for the next couple of years...
OSWALT: ...Like if someone put a gun in my face. Give me your wallet. You know what? Just take my keys, man. It's over. Go check Twitter. What? And I just bolt. Like I could...
OSWALT: ...Make it to survive.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Patton Oswalt, welcome to FRESH AIR. So how is the Trump era treating you as a comic?
OSWALT: The Trump era is treating - you know what it reminds me of? There's a line in the 1974 "Murder On The Orient Express" when Hercule Poirot says, has it occurred to you there are too many clues in this room? There are too many unprecedented moments of unpresidential, just jaw-dropping moments of psychotic behavior by our leader that after a while as a comedian you go, well, do I hop onto this thing that he just said now? Or in an hour, is he going to say something else that actually is going to be way more important?
If comedians are canaries in a coal mine, we are canaries in a coal mine that is nothing but poisonous gases. Like, I don't know what to do anymore. I can't die any more for you guys to tell you to scramble out of this coal mine at this point.
GROSS: You know, I know a lot of people say to you, oh, this is such a great time for comedy because President Trump provides so much material. But I mean, really everybody - every comic is working off of the same material right now, which is President Trump. And so I hear some of the same jokes told by different comics. And it must be really hard to stay competitive and have an edge when everybody is looking to the same person as a source of material.
OSWALT: Yeah. It is a horrible time to be a comedian for that specific reason you just said. We have this very - it's a very pungent and livid pool. But we're all scooping the same cup into - and it's the same awful broth. I can only do so many variations on, wow, this stinks. And the other thing, too, is that any material that you write about him instantly is stale the next day because he will do - I describe him in the special. He's sour cream in a sauna. He immediately goes bad.
GROSS: So this new Netflix comedy special, "Annihilation," is your first comedy special since your wife Michelle McNamara's death. At what point did you feel, like, ready - capable of returning to the stage?
OSWALT: You know, I never really felt ready or capable because, you know, when she passed away in April of 2016, I started going back onstage in August of that year completely not ready and completely feeling incapable. 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. I don't have another outlet to express and work out my grief. And there's a - I forget who said this. It's such a great phrase. You either talk it out or you act it out. And I was beginning to kind of kiss the edge during those months of acting it out in very bad ways, in terms of drinking and insomnia and really bad food. And I could see the beginnings of that going down a very, very ugly road.
And, you know, luckily, I had my daughter there to - little kids are way more resilient than adults. And so she was just this - she was this glowing core of life force that I could see living in the world every day while I felt like I was fading out of the world. So then I started saying, well, what was a healthy way that I always dealt with things my life? Well, OK - stand-up comedy - so that's when - so when I went onstage, it was, I am incapable. I am unprepared and not ready. But I don't know any other healthy options right now, so I'm just going to go up and do it.
GROSS: Did you make any mistakes when you first returned to the stage and were trying to figure out what to talk about and how to talk about it?
OSWALT: Yeah. I mean, I - the first time that I went onstage was at the UCB Theatre on Sunset Boulevard. And I went onstage and immediately started talking about my wife passing away and me being in grief. And I was throwing the audience right into this wall of spikes. But I was throwing myself into a wall of spikes in front of them. And it was - it just - I went on stage and immediately froze up feeling - internally, I had voices saying you're being exploitative. You're being shallow and selfish and solipsistic. And every bad thing that people do to put the - because it didn't feel like the focus should be on me. It felt like - because what my focus was, how is this planet still revolving without Michelle McNamara in it? The whole - life - existence felt like an insult to me to be in the world without her.
So having to work that out on stage but be funny about it - but, you know, I think that personal, confessional comedy sometimes goes way too far into, hey, we don't need - we got to get beyond jokes here and really talk about what's real. It's like, well, no. 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. I mean, I think that's the...
GROSS: I have to remember that. That's such a good way of putting it.
OSWALT: Yeah. So, you know - and there were moments after I started in - doing stand-up in August where there were a couple of shows where I treated the audience like, no. You are - this is a therapy session, and you're going to listen to how dark things get. It's like, well, no, that's not your - they're also fighting their own battles and going through their own struggles. How do you know what they're going through? You still have to - it doesn't mean you've got to go on stage and not address it and just be goofy. But you've got to do both. A musician can't go on stage and go, guys, no guitar and drums tonight.
OSWALT: I'll tell you about what I'm going - no, we're totally cool with you singing about your pain, but sing about it. That's why we came here. And also we need help. So, you know, it took me a while to start getting towards that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Patton Oswalt. And he has a new comedy special that's in part about his wife's death. And he manages to find a way to talk about that. And it's called "Annihilation." It's on Netflix. We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SONG "PEACOCKS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor Patton Oswalt. He has a new Netflix comedy special called "Annihilation." He covers a lot of material in it. But some of the subject matter in it is the death of his wife and what it was like to carry on afterwards and to make sure that not only he survived but that his 7-year-old daughter survived.
I want to play an example of how you succeed in being funny and just really sad and upsetting at the same time from your comedy special on Netflix. And so this is a part where you're talking about, like, two weeks after your wife died. It was Mother's Day. And you're grieving, and your daughter, who's, like, 7 at the time, is grieving. And you wanted to do something special for her to take her mind off the fact that her mother isn't there on Mother's Day. So you figure you're going to take her to Chicago where she'd be surrounded by, like, her aunts and uncles and cousins, people who really loved her. And she loved them. So you and your daughter go on that trip to Chicago. Everything's worked out well. But then this picks up on the way back.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "PATTON OSWALT: ANNIHILATION")
OSWALT: I'm going to spend Mother's Day - we'll be at the airport, and we'll travel. And I'll make that day really fun. And I'll fill that with adventure. And I'll keep her mind off it all day. And we'll be home. And we'll deal with this all again next year, step by step. So now we're at the airport. We're walking up to the security gate. I'm like, I think I pulled this off. Here, sweetie - - here's your ticket. Give your - she loves to hand up her ticket. Here it is. So I go here's your ticket. She gives the gate lady her ticket. I give the gate lady my ticket. She's a very old, sweet, Polish woman.
And we're walking onto the plane. Just as we're about to go down the tunnel, her hand falls on my shoulder. And she says, I hear what happened to your wife - she looks at Alice - to your mother. To be without your mother on Mother's Day, I - I - my mother died when I was your age. I never get over it.
OSWALT: I never - I'm still so sad. My father never get over it. It broke him. He died alone. And - but when you are sad, what I tell myself is that, also, there are so many other sad people.
OSWALT: OK. Have nice flight.
GROSS: That's Patton Oswalt from his comedy special "Annihilation."
OSWALT: Oh, God.
GROSS: Yeah. So when you experienced that story in real time, how did it feel?
OSWALT: Oh, when I experienced it in real time there was not a comedy routine there. There was - my spine turned to ice and my stomach dropped to my feet. And I did not - you know, all I - I immediately began looking at Alice to make sure that she didn't start crying. But then I realized - because then when she looked up at me, I could see, by the way her face was changing, that I was starting to cry. So I had to then turn back to the gate attendant and go, well, thank you very - I'm doing that - I must have looked horrific. I put on one of those rictus smiles to stop yourself from sobbing, and then took her down the jetway and sat in the seat with her.
And we just were, like - she was, like, pressed against me crying. And I'm trying to comfort her, but then I had my head down. And I'm just silently - because I don't want to start bawling on the plane because it looks - and it was one of those moments of, oh, there's actually no pushing beyond this.
GROSS: Were you worried at that moment in the airport and then on the plane that you would be kind of crying, your daughter would be crying, and someone would recognize you and say, oh, Patton Oswalt, love your comedy or so sorry about your wife? You probably didn't really want to deal with anybody at that moment.
OSWALT: No. I was very worried. But luckily, when you're hunched over on a plane crying, I think people are OK. Unless they are the most desensitized person on the planet, they get the keep-away vibe of, oh, give this guy and his daughter their moment. There were - I remember going to the funeral. I was - I didn't talk about this in the act because there's something - it just felt so - I didn't know how to make this funny - but I was waiting at the hotel with all the relatives. And I was waiting to get in the car. And a couple of people came up and said, oh, my god, "King Of Queens" man. Hey, can we get a selfie? And I didn't want to go - like, be mean to them. I was like, oh, OK. But somewhere there's a selfie of me with two very happy people, and my face is just ashen and looks like - I'm sure they're looking and going oh, something was wrong with him that day. And it was literally the day of my wife's funeral.
GROSS: Oh, really? God.
OSWALT: Two people in front of a hotel wanted to get a selfie with me. And I didn't know what to do.
GROSS: Yeah. I mean, you can't really necessarily - like, my wife was just buried today. I can't do it. I mean, that wouldn't...
OSWALT: Why would I put - I can't put that on them. It's not their fault, but I...
GROSS: No, exactly right.
OSWALT: And so I just - and maybe, also, I - now that I - wow - now that I tell you this story, it just occurred to me that maybe it was a very desperate grasping at straws of, hey, maybe if I'm nice to two other people, that'll help me. Like, it was that, you know, something that really pulls you out of grief is helping other people, is getting outside of yourself and - hey, let me help you with this. Let me go do this. Let me volunteer here or whatever. It just - anything to get you outside of your head you'll take.
GROSS: I thought we could spend a few minutes kind of celebrating your wife's work - Michelle McNamara's work.
OSWALT: Yes, absolutely.
GROSS: She has a book that's coming out in February. And I want you to explain the context of this. This is a book that she was - we should back up and say she was a true crime writer. And she had a true crime website. And she was working on this book about a cold case because she liked to solve cold cases. Do you want to explain the case she was writing about?
OSWALT: Yeah. My wife, Michelle McNamara, was writing about a cold case that began in the '70s in California in Sacramento and then stretched out over the decades. And then the trail went cold down in Irvine and Goleta. It was a killer that she dubbed the Golden State killer. So she had a blog called "True Crime Diary," where she would write about these ongoing cases.
And an editor at Los Angeles Magazine read about the writing that she did at the time and said, hey, could you turn this into an article? So she wrote a much bigger, even more deeply researched article about this case. And they published it. And then HarperCollins read that article and said, oh, this is a book, and had her write the book. And, you know, in writing the book, she began to recruit retired homicide detectives and cops from all these different jurisdictions and precincts and cities. And she got them to pool information, which is very, very hard to do.
But her research was so meticulous and so complete that they would contact each other and say, talk to Michelle. She knows. This person is actually not some weird, you know, overenthusiastic amateur. She wants to put the bracelets on this guy, as cop speak for arresting. You put the bracelets on them.
GROSS: So we should say that this guy, who Michelle named the Golden State killer, committed 50 sexual assaults in Northern California and 10 sadistic murders in Southern California over a period of - what? - about 10 years. And, apparently, DNA linked those two sets of crimes. But they don't know who the individual is. And her - she wanted to find out, like, who is this guy? But she died before she was able to do that. So you were trying - you tried and succeeded to finish the book. But it didn't have - obviously didn't have the ending that she hoped to have.
GROSS: And you wrote the epilogue for the book, too. I thought I'd ask you to read from the opening paragraph that she wrote for the book.
OSWALT: Oh, sure. This is the prologue to Michelle McNamara's book "I'll Be Gone In The Dark."
(Reading) That summer, I hunted the serial killer at night from my daughter's playroom. For the most part, I mimicked the bedtime routine of a normal person - teeth brushed, pajamas on. But after my husband and daughter fell asleep, I'd retreat to my makeshift workspace and boot up my laptop, that 15-inch-wide hatch of endless possibilities. Our neighborhood, northwest of downtown Los Angeles, is remarkably quiet at night. Sometimes, the only sound was the click as I tapped ever closer down the driveways of men I didn't know using Google Street View. I rarely moved, but I leapt decades with a few keystrokes - yearbooks, marriage certificates, mugshots. I scoured thousands of pages of 1970s-era police files. I pored over autopsy reports. That I should do this surrounded by a half-dozen stuffed animals and a set of miniature, pink bongos didn't strike me as unusual. I'd found my searching place as private as a rat's maze. Every obsession needs a room of its own. Mine was strewn with coloring paper on which I'd scribble down California penal codes in crayon.
GROSS: That paragraph really made me think about how, as she said, when you were sleeping, and your daughter was sleeping, she'd be looking at autopsy reports and all this stuff. And so, like, she was living in a seemingly normal home (laughter).
GROSS: But she'd be lost in all these places of just really demonic kind of crime. What was it like for you to know that she'd go to these really dark places when you were asleep?
OSWALT: I would try to, you know, talk about it with her as much as I could. There was a lot of times that she would - like, if I came home late from a gig or if she fell asleep and, like, Alice came in, she would, like, wake up and start screaming because she would be having nightmares about the stuff she had seen and the recreating the - because she would recreate the crimes in her head, what it must have felt like. And you see this a lot in the book - the sensation of being in your bedroom and suddenly a flashlight's in your face, and you realize that someone else is in your house. And the level of terror that this guy brought to these areas was diabolical. So I was worried about her, you know, sleep and her health.
But at the same time, I was so - it's very intimidating to be with such an amazing person like that and especially to be with someone that - during the day, she was up in the morning. She would make Alice breakfast. She would be fussing about school stuff. And, oh, I got to make this. I volunteered to do this thing for the school library, so I got to put this thing together. And then at night, she was going down these alleyways - these electronic alleyways of the past and the present. So she was, in her own way, like a pop culture crime fighter. Mild-mannered and just a happy housewife during the day - and then at night while the city slept, you know, she wasn't obviously moving around physically but mentally. And on the Internet, she was moving around and tracking everywhere. So I don't know. Sharing a life with somebody that was operating on that level of existence is very humbling and extraordinary. You know, I was with this extraordinary person.
GROSS: My guest is Patton Oswalt. We'll talk more after a break. His new Netflix stand-up comedy special is called "Annihilation." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "RYLAND")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our holiday week series, featuring some our favorite interviews of the year, and hear more of the interview I recorded in November with comic and actor Patton Oswalt. In October, he had a new Netflix stand-up comedy special called "Patton Oswalt: Annihilation." In one part of the special, he talks about the sudden death of his wife, Michelle McNamara, last year. When we left off, we were talking about the true crime book she was working on when she died. It was an investigation of a cold case she was hoping to solve involving a serial rapist and murderer in California, who she gave the name the Golden State killer. The book was unfinished when she died. But Oswalt oversaw its completion, and it's scheduled for publication in February. It's called "I'll Be Gone In The Dark."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: So Michelle died in her sleep. And it was a combination of an undiagnosed problem - I think a heart problem, along with Xanax, Adderall and fentanyl, which is an opioid that was in her system. Did she have issues with anxiety and chronic pain?
OSWALT: She didn't have chronic pain issues, but she definitely had anxiety and sleep issues because she would interview the survivors of this guy's - victims. She would interview family members who had lost loved ones to this guy. And I think over time and over the years of doing that, she could very vividly remember the interviews with these people and what they had talked about - what they lost and how their lives were forever not 100 percent because of what had been taken and what had not been answered. So I think over time, she really carried it directly on herself - that I want 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.
And she was also very, very frustrated - and any cop will tell you this - a lot of times you will follow a lead, and you'll follow the lead for weeks. Or you'll follow the lead for months, and then you get unshakeable evidence that that lead went nowhere. And when you hit that point and realize you just gave this guy another few weeks or another few months' head start on getting away from justice, that can really, really take a toll on you psychologically. It can take a toll on you physically. You know, it can manifest itself physically in sleep problems and digestion problems and whatever. So that's a huge risk in homicide and investigative work. So - and I think that that is what led her down this road of using Xanax. And I know she was taking Adderall in the mornings to get up and some - you know, before she died - 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.
But there were people that were clamoring to get credit that had theories that she knew were going to lead nowhere and just muddy it. So she was all worried about that. So, you know, I think all of that just - she - I think she had - sometimes she had a lethal level of empathy in her. And I don't - 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.
GROSS: You know, for those of us who are watching your comedy special, we're watching you talk about your wife for the first time in your comedy - in your televised comedy. But at the same time, like, I'm glad to say, your life has been able to finally move forward. In fact, you got married - you got remarried a couple weeks ago. I imagine you're still grieving. It sounds like you're still grieving. You know, to still be grieving and to have found love again is - I guess it's lucky.
OSWALT: It is very lucky and acknowledging that you're lucky can be very, very scary because I think that a lot of us like to - I certainly like to think that, well, I make my own luck. And I make things better. But I was lucky enough to meet and fall in love with and have someone as extraordinary as Michelle McNamara fall in love with me. And then - it's almost like getting hit by lightning twice. 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.
And she is - I mean, she's - this is going to sound so facile, but she's Mary Poppins. There's that line in the movie, "Saving Mr. Banks" of, oh, she's not there to save the children. She's there to save the husband. That's what Mary Poppins is there to do. And that is what Meredith has done for me and for Alice and has made me - has just - 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 - seemingly effortlessly. And the way that we met and fell in love was so extraordinary. And so all of it is just...
GROSS: Can I ask how you met?
OSWALT: We met because we have a friend in common, this actress, Martha Plimpton. And Martha likes to have these dinner parties where she invites various people. It's almost like a salon where she wants to see people talk. And so she invited a whole bunch of people. And Meredith and I both got invited. We had never met each other. I was aware of who she was. She knew who I was. And at the last minute, I couldn't go because of some travel screw-up, and I wasn't able to go to the dinner party. And we have all these mutual friends. We were all on the same invite thread. So Meredith sent me a little Facebook message the next day just saying, dude, you missed some amazing lasagna last night. And I wrote back something like, oh, well, we'll go out and get some - whatever, you know?
And we just messaged back and forth about everything - about books and life and politics. And we talked about Michelle and what I was going through and, you know, all this stuff. And from February 28 until May 20, all we did was message each other on Facebook. We never spoke. We never saw each other face to face. And it got to the point where it was like, OK, same time tomorrow night, 9 o'clock. We would, you know, be in bed just texting back and forth. And I realized one of the things I missed so much about being married and being so in love was, at the end of the day, you get to talk in the dark with someone who really, really knows you. And at the end of the day, I was talking in the dark with someone that I really, really wanted to know and who, you know, really wanted to know me.
So that was - it just meant everything. And then we finally met. I said, well, let's go to dinner. And I suggested some restaurant, and then she went, well, let's go to Shutters on the Beach. They have a restaurant there, but then we can go walking on the beach. And we'll meet in the lobby because she said, what if we get together, and we hate each other, and then we're stuck at this dinner? Let's have an escape route, like, in case one of us wants to bolt because there's a lot of people that I'll fall in love with them. And then I meet them, like, oh, God, I don't like this person.
But, you know - so Shutters on the Beach is a hotel in Santa Monica. And I'm sitting in the hotel, and I feel this hand on my left shoulder. And it was - oh, man, I'm getting all choked up. I just, like - my breath froze. And I turned around and looked at her. But it was like I was meeting her for the first time, but it felt like we had been together for years, and we had just had to separate for like a week for something. And now we got to see each other again. And the first words she said to me were, oh, you're so cute. And then, she's gorgeous, so I think I said like ha, K, duh. And then we - literally, I couldn't. So then we went and had dinner and walked on the beach and watched people play chess. And it was just like - I can remember every single moment of that evening.
And from that point on, it was like - met on May 20. I got engaged on July 4, got married on November 4 because it was - you know, when you're in your 20s and you're still trying to figure yourself out. Like, I don't know if we should get married; let's take some time. You know, that's - and that makes sense. You should take your time. When you're 48 and Meredith's 47, you kind of know. You can speed the process up. Like, we've been out with enough people. Like, I know if this is going to work or not.
GROSS: So Meredith is still acting, right?
OSWALT: Oh yeah. Yeah she's acting. She does a lot of voice-over stuff, a lot of cartoon stuff, a lot of acting.
GROSS: And you're doing a lot of animation stuff too in addition to 3-D acting - what do you call it, actor acting?
GROSS: Like, what do you call it?
OSWALT: That's - yeah.
GROSS: If you're trying - yeah.
OSWALT: Well, I do a lot of voice acting. And then they do this thing called 3-D acting where they make the voice actors get in front of the camera in makeup. It's crazy.
GROSS: I know how to distinguish, oh, when its animation, but when you're talking about animation, how do you distinguish that it's actually real and not animated? What do you say? What's the word?
OSWALT: I don't know, but I'm going to steal that.
OSWALT: I'm going to actually say, what are you doing today - some 3-D voice-over. I dress - this is weird. I do voice-over as this character, but I actually wear the character's costume. And they put makeup on me, and I look like the character. It's this whole new form of voice-over. It's really cool.
GROSS: And people can see you.
OSWALT: I'm so stealing that from you.
GROSS: Oh, that's great.
OSWALT: I am.
GROSS: So this is a good time to take a short break. So if you're just joining us, my guest is Patton Oswalt, and he has a new comedy special on Netflix, which is called "Annihilation." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDEN BOY'S "KITTENS OF LUST")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor Patton Oswalt. He has a new comedy special on Netflix, which is called "Annihilation."
So you have been doing a lot of animation. I mean, it's - I think it started with "Ratatouille."
OSWALT: Well, I had done a lot of little cartoon bits - like, little tiny things here and there before "Ratatouille." But "Ratatouille" was - thank God, Brad Bird was driving around one night, and he was listening to one of the satellite comedy channels, and they played my bit about the Black Angus Steakhouses and how the menus had become, like, these threatening assaults of food. They give you way too much food. And I - you know, I really go into it. And then he said, oh, that's the rat. That's the voice I want.
And apparently, he made a pencil test of Remy doing that bit. He was doing the Black Angus bit. And he showed it to the Disney people, and they were like, wait, is he going to be, like, cursing like that? He goes, no, no, no, this - just listen to the voice; he won't actually be using that language. But that's the voice I want for the rat. So that led to then that, like, kind of really - I was very fortunate that I got to do a lot of voice-over.
GROSS: Can you do some of the voices you've been doing for animation lately?
OSWALT: Yes. Well, I do Mr. McSnorter on the "Mickey Racers" (ph), which is a (As Mr. McSnorter, snorting) sort of just a pig. But I've come here to do the (snorting) - snorting that hurts my throat. (As Pinky Penguin) I also do a character on "BoJack Horseman" called Pinky Penguin. Pinky Penguin is BoJack's agent. He's just the most beaten-down human being on the planet.
And then, oh, well, I can't do it now because it'll rip my voice out. Back on a show called "Kim Possible," I did a villain named Dementor, and I would just scream at the top of my lungs in this - it was almost like a Klaus Kinski - sort of insane German, like, way over-the-top - (as Professor Dementor) we will build this thing. Like, it was just - it was nuts.
And then I also just - I do a lot of voice-over with my own voice. I'm the narrator on "The Goldbergs" on ABC, and I do video games like "Minecraft." They also just want my - a lot of times, I show up with a voice, and they go, oh, no, just do your voice, dude. And I go, oh, OK, sorry.
GROSS: When did you know you could do all these things with your voice?
OSWALT: I'll be quite honest with you. I didn't know that I could do this until I got to Pixar and started recording. And the fact that they just wanted me to do my voice and not put on a character and that he trusted me to do that - you know, having Brad Bird say, yeah, do that - and also, the fact that I could - when you do a Pixar film, they don't give you the script ahead of time. You cold read it. They put it in front of you, and you cold read it. And I just - it was something I didn't know that I could do and was pretty good at. So thank you, Brad Bird, for showing me this skill that I didn't know I had.
GROSS: So your p's just started to pop a little bit. So if you could just, like, speak at a little bit of an angle across the mic instead directly into the target...
OSWALT: I was just telling you how I was good at voice-over and I'm popping my p's.
GROSS: So I want to bring up the importance of the silent version of "Nosferatu" in your life.
OSWALT: Oh, my God.
GROSS: ...Because you saw - it's a really scary, eerie vampire story. It's, like, the original "Nosferatu" film from the 19 - is it '20s or teens - '22 maybe?
OSWALT: It's 1922.
GROSS: And you were 5 years old when you saw it - probably a big mistake to show that to a 5-year-old.
OSWALT: Oh, God.
GROSS: How did you get to see it?
OSWALT: It was...
GROSS: And tell us about the impression that it made on you.
OSWALT: OK. When I was 5 years old - and by the way, I'm - the story I'm about to tell you - all the adults in the story had the best intentions. They were good parents, all right? But I was 5 years old, living in Tustin Meadows, Calif. Daddy was a Marine. We're traveling around, and they had a Halloween day at the library for the kids - yay. And they bring us all to the library. And it's little kids, and we make pumpkin cookies. And they tell ghost stories, and we make trick-or-treat bags. And then the adults - at the time, before VHS tapes, there was a rental market for 8 mm film - that you would rent 8 mm films - movies - they'd mail them to your house, and you'd show them. So one of the librarians got an 8 mm print of F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" - 1922 silent film.
Now, at the time, the adults were thinking, oh, it's an old silent film. These are fine. These are G-rated for little kids. "Nosferatu," even as an adult - and, by the way, I'm not even saying this in terms of if you're a little kid, or you remember - I watched "Nosferatu" in the theater three years ago. They - it got screened. Even today, when I saw it as a 45-year-old man, that is a terrifying, disturbing, unnerving dream logic film where there are harsh jump cuts and - the whole film is so unsettling. And the image - every image in that film is disturbing. Even the ones that aren't monstrous, it just looks disturbing.
And so they projected this 1922 silent film on the little white wall of this library. And the little kids are watching it. And 10 minutes in to do it, we were screaming and freaking out. And I just remember - I remember so vividly thinking this - because I remember trying to, you know, scare my friends with pranks, with monster masks and stuff. All they were doing was putting this square beam of light on a wall. And the act of doing that was sending this room into hysterics. And I just remember thinking, I want to get on the other side of that little square and see how they did that. Like, that was my entry into wanting to be in films, in show business, in some kind of creative endeavor. I've never forgotten that.
GROSS: So how come you ended up going into comedy instead of making horror films?
OSWALT: Well, I did start making horror films. But it was in middle school and freshman year of high school. I would make little Super 8 slasher films. I had one where there was a killer with a weed eater because they didn't have access to a chainsaw.
OSWALT: And - yeah, I know. It's production value. So anyway, I just couldn't figure out how I was going to - because I was living in the suburbs of Virginia. I had no access to anything like showbiz. But then when I found out when I was 19 that, oh, but you can just go onstage and just start talking. And also, at that point, it just seemed like that was going to be way more fun. And I was just very, very focused on - because also, in between all my movie love, in high school, I really, really got into comedy - really, really got into Steve Martin and Monty Python and "SNL" and Richard Pryor and George Carlin. And I was in a click of other comedy nerds that really loved comedy. And so I just decided to make it a vocation. Like, that became my obsession for a while. But then luckily, it led back into movies and writing and getting to do that kind of stuff.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patton Oswalt. And he has a new comedy special on Netflix, which is called "Annihilation." We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us my guest is comic and actor Patton Oswalt. He has a new comedy special on Netflix, which is called "Annihilation."
So I'm wondering if you are at all nostalgic for the time when the big controversy in the comedy world was about rape jokes as opposed to about actual sexual misconduct?
OSWALT: (Laughter) I'm nostalgic - Terry, I'm nostalgic for so much. I think all of us are nostalgic for so much right now of - yeah. Remember when things were so simple (laughter)? I mean, yeah. I mean, at least with rape jokes, you could argue, well, what is the focus of this joke? Is it making fun of the victim? Is it making fun of the rapist or making fun of people's attitudes about rape? How is it being used in context? But you could at least argue, well, but no one's actually getting raped here. But unfortunately, well, actually, no. No. You know what? It's - I don't think it's unfortunate.
As gross and kind of enervating and demoralizing as all of these revelations are, I think - this is the same thing as - for decades African-Americans were telling people cops are shooting unarmed African-Americans and people were saying, no, that's all inflated. It's hysteria. And then we started putting dash cams and body cams. And sure enough, everything we were being told for decades is happening. And now for - and I'm just as guilty of going, I think this is being a little - a lot of the stuff that women were talking about, what they deal with on a daily basis - because I was like, well, you know, I've never seen that. So I think this might be a little inflated. But I was so completely wrong. At the exact rate that people were saying it was going on, it was going on and is going on. So, you know, 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 then I have to relook at everything because that stripping down is what leads to growth and evolution. And even if it's painful for yourself - because I've had to sit down these last few weeks and go - I'm like - I'm going through my head - and I hope every other guy is doing this - of not even, like, physical acts but, like, was there a remark that I made? Was there a way that I put things that made - you know, you're just constantly now thinking of that.
And I see a lot of people saying, oh, what men are supposed to now triple, quadruple, quintuple think everything that they say and do? And then you go, well, clearly, women have had to double, triple, quintuple, septuple 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? Would that be OK, Mr. Alpha Male?
GROSS: (Laughter) But there's probably also people you thought you were sure of who maybe you're not so sure of.
OSWALT: Oh, there were people that were huge influences on me that were friends that I looked up to, that I have to go - it's like Sarah Silverman wrote - can you love someone who does horrible things? And now we've got to figure out again - we got a refigure where's that line. You know, what is your moral compass? What is your code? And - but shouldn't you have to have that questioned every generation or so? Isn't that about growth? There were - you, know, there were people in the '30s and '40s - I'm sure very, very good people - that thought blackface was fine. And these were people that would help out at their church and were charitable. But also - there's no harm in enjoying blackface. Who's getting hurt? Well, people are now articulating very eloquently how and why they're getting hurt, so maybe you need to rethink this.
So, you know, I'm going through the same thing, and I'm glad that I am. I am. I'm glad that I'm - and also, in a sick way, I feel like - and this is the worst pop culture way to put it. But all of these rapists and harassers and creeps that are being exposed, overhanging all of this, like the final boss in a video game, is our president, Donald Trump - 24 accusers - 20 named accusers, 24 total. So as each of these mini bosses, if you will, gets taken down, are we working our way towards the final boss where we can finish the video game and move on to the next thing at this point?
Or, I mean, can we at least evolve to the next platform where more people feel like they have solid ground under their feet? Because every time I hear someone talk about the good old days, or things were better, and they just give some date - whatever it is, the '50s, the '60s, the '70s - when they talk about that, what they are saying is it was better when fewer people had a fair shot at success and peace and fulfillment. The world was better when fewer people had that shot because they feel like, well, what if I get edged out, you know? And I will admit to - I will admit to having those feelings sometimes and realizing - and taking too long to realize how selfish and frightened that kind of thinking is.
GROSS: Patton Oswalt, thank you so much. It's been great to talk with you again. And I know that you're still grieving, but it sounds like at the same time you've managed to find love and some joy in your life. So, you know, that makes me happy. I'm glad to hear all that.
OSWALT: Terry, thank you so much for that. Thank you.
GROSS: My interview with Patton Oswalt was recorded in November after the release of his Netflix stand-up comedy special "Annihilation." Tomorrow we continue our holiday week series, featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. We'll hear from John Le Carre, the author of "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and the recent novel "A Legacy of Spies." Before writing about spies, he was one. He says he learned about deception from his father who was a pathological liar. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "THE RAMBLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.