Patton Oswalt lost his wife of 11 years, Michelle McNamara, to unknown causes in April.
In addition to leaving the comedian with a mountain of grief and unanswered questions, McNamara’s sudden death left Oswalt the sole parent of their 7-year-old daughter, Alice.
In an interview with Conan O’Brien on Monday night, Oswalt described his unwilling transition to life as a single dad using a familiar analogy: television.
“I’m like every bad ’80s sitcom where there’s a dad raising a kid by himself, and the mom is somehow… Except my ’80s sitcom sucks. There’s no punchlines. It’s just, there’s a lot of insomnia. There’s a lot of me eating Cheetos for dinner, and I’m waiting for my daughter to turn to the camera and go, ‘No wonder I’m in therapy!'”
In an unflinching Facebook post in August, Oswalt described the intense pain and sense of paralysis he had been living with since losing his wife — and the overwhelming gratitude he felt toward the friends and family who have helped lift him up.
The post ended with a promise.
“I’ll start being funny again soon. What other choice do I have?”
In following through on that promise, Oswalt demonstrates that there’s no one right way to process grief.
Using comedy as a lifeline out of tragedy — like comedian Tig Notaro, who performed a legendary, 30-minute stand-up set after learning she had breast cancer; or “Saturday Night Live’s” Pete Davidson, who lost his father on 9/11 and claims that overcoming the loss gave him the courage to tell more fearless jokes — isn’t just a tradition among comedians. It’s intensely human.
It’s also an acknowledgement that even in the face of great loss, the awkwardness and irony of life doesn’t go away — as illustrated by a story Oswalt told O’Brien about an interaction with one of his daughter’s playmates:
“One of her friends came up and was like — this was at a playdate weeks later — ‘Is Alice gonna have a stepmom?’ And I was like, ‘I’m not really thinking about any of that right now.’ And then she said, ‘When my mom and dad stopped living together, I had a stepmom right way.’ And I was like, ‘I bet you did!'”
But perhaps the most important answer Oswalt gave in the interview was the first, in response to a question about how he’s holding up:
Watch Oswalt’s funny, poignant, heartbreaking account of helping his daughter navigate the most difficult time of their lives — including an epic, unforgettable story of an encounter with an elderly ticket-taker at the airport: