Comedian Patton Oswalt on loss, new love and finding the funny -- even in despair

Patton Oswalt

CBS News

Emmy Award-winning actor and comedian Patton Oswalt may be best known for his role on sitcom "The King Of Queens," and for voicing the character Remy in the hit animated film "Ratatouille," but his latest stand-up special covers some very different ground.

Laughter was in short supply for Oswalt when his wife suddenly passed away last April leaving him and their 7-year-old daughter deeply grieving. From the start, he was open about his loss and the pain he was enduring. Now, he's actually managed to extract humor from it all. CBS News contributor Jamie Wax talked to him about those dark days, his new love and the state of comedy today.  

His trademark five-foot-five-inch frame, one of a kind voice and sharp sense of humor have made Oswalt one of Hollywood's most distinctive comedians, but performing was hardly a lifelong dream. 

"I had this panic of I had better figure out what to do with my life. I said, 'Oh, I'll just go do an open mic,' and I did my first open mic and it was horrible. It was so bad. But I instantly understood the life, what the life of a comedian was and that's the life I wanted," he said. 

That meant years seeking out open mic nights before landing small parts on some big shows like "Seinfeld" and "The King Of Queens."

But his talents extend beyond comedy. Since 1996, Oswalt has appeared in more than 30 movies showing off his range from family friendly to dark and disturbing. 

"Standup is always gonna be the first -- because that, kind of, brought me to the dance and that is standup is, sort of, like the last dictatorial post in show business where it's purely you. There's no notes. There's no, you know, no one steers you. It's just all you," he said. 

That personal connection with his audience has spilled into his social media presence, which often includes politics. 

"Since January 20 of 2017, no one has shied away from politics, because you can't. I want so badly to shy away from politics, but I don't think I'm going to be able to anytime soon, because every day there's some new -- new horror."

But it was a personal horror that led to Oswalt's most intimate material. Last year his wife, crime writer Michelle McNamara, suddenly died in her sleep.

"It's weird. I remember I talked -- there was another father at the school that my daughter goes to. He lost his wife, he had two daughters -- and he said, 'You will go through stages of I cannot live and then, OK, I can function, but it won't ever feel like life. And then you'll experience joy again," he said. "Now, just like he called it, I'm 100 percent whole again, you know? I'm – if anything, I'm even better, I think, because of being annihilated the way that I was."

He took those feelings and turned them into a stand-up special called "Annihilation."

"That was the closest word that I could think of as to how I have been this last year annihilated -- complete annihilation. Not, not like damaged and then repaired. Annihilated in that the person I was doesn't exist anymore and now it's been rebuilt," Oswalt said.  "I remember I went up four months after Michelle passed away and didn't even have jokes written down. I'm just gonna go on stage and talk about -- just let it be uncomfortable. Just so that I've gone through the process of being on stage. I just want to get that out of the way. I think anything can be funny, even despair, depending on how you approach it."

Approaching despair was an especially delicate process when it came to his daughter, Alice.  

"We would do a thing where at night we would sit down with a book together, a notebook, and we'd write down three things we remembered about Michelle, no matter how trivial they were. But now we have this book just filled with all of these lines of just different -- so that she's very, very much alive," he said. "Loss has a way of adapting and mutating so you got to make it inhospitable and the way that you make it inhospitable is you keep the joyful parts of the person that you lost alive." 

Today Oswalt has found another source of joy -- new love with his fiancé, actress Meredith Salenger. Their relationship developed unexpectedly through a series of online exchanges.

"We just started talking back and forth for three months. We never even spoke but every night at 9 o'clock -- it got to the point where it was like, 'OK. Same time tomorrow night?'"

"It was one of the things that I really, really missed about, you know, being with Michelle was talking in the dark with someone at the end of the day and we would just do that for hours every night. So by the time we met, even though it wasn't explicit, we were in love, you know, and it didn't take for very long to just be like, 'I just want to be with this person,'" he said.   

But not everyone was supportive of their relationship. The couple received some push-back on social media.  

"I remember I said this one time to a friend. Nothing brings out hatred and outrage on the internet than saying that you love something. People on the – especially on the internet, they're just not comfortable with just clumsy, open joy and love," he said.

As for what's next for the comedian, Oswalt says he'd like to try his hand at directing and has plans to do so, but isn't ready to talk about it just yet.

Oswalt's special "Annihilation" is now available on Netflix.