Patton Oswalt and Ellen DeGeneres: Making comedy from a miserable place

Creating comedy from personal tragedy has been the hallmark of many legendary comedians; Patton Oswalt and Ellen DeGeneres aare a case in point


                            Patton Oswalt and Ellen DeGeneres: Making comedy from a miserable place
Ellen DeGeneres (Source : Getty Images)

Netflix's stand-up comedy special 'Talking for Clapping' has secured Grammy and Emmy awards and has gone beyond the confines of the streaming service with its digital releases. Now, in a recent interview with Vulture, Patton Oswalt opened up about the inspiration behind the massively successful comedy show and it is something you would least expect: the death of his first wife, Michelle McNamara in 2016.

A true-crime writer, Michelle McNamara's book 'I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer,' was released posthumously this February and reached number 2 of The New York Times Best Seller list for nonfiction and number 1 for combined print and e-book. 

Oswalt started his stand-up journey in 1988, but just a few days before his wife passed away in her sleep, he was thinking of taking a break from comedy. Mainly because his wife was working on her brilliant investigative book which is now being developed into a documentary series by HBO. 

(Getty Images)

In the same interview, Oswalt opened up by stating that his wife "was so deep into writing her book at that point and was so neck-deep in this looming deadline and the increasing intensity of the investigation that I was looking forward to just being a househusband for a while and not going on the road."

"So that I could get up, take our daughter to school, do the dishes, and let her really work on her stuff for once. She had always been very supportive of me, so now it was my turn to let her go do what she needed to do," he added.

Oswalt was pretty much content with the way things were until the day she passed away on April 21, 2016 because of multiple drugs effect.

"I’m suddenly a single dad. I was very lucky that I had some acting roles here and there, some voice-over roles here and there, but I always had that buffer, at least in my head, of Oh, I can always go out and do stand-up and make money and pay the bills that way. Now, suddenly, I’m a single dad — I’m not sure if I could ever do the thing that I had there for financial security again. I honestly didn’t know if I could do it again."

But he did. He went on to conquer the stage after four months with new set of jokes up his sleeves. He told Vulture; "I actually toyed with the idea of 'What if I just go up and do jokes? Why do I have to talk about this?' I realized very quickly that that would seem so demented and uncomfortable to go onstage and do an hour of 'Oh, parking’s crazy.' People are like, 'Your wife passed away. What are you doing?' I knew that I’d have to address it."

The path to finding a comedy piece in tragedy was not, and is not easy, but it is something peculiarly common we see among legendary comedians. Take Ellen DeGeneres, who is the reigning queen of comedy and the "it" talk-show host. In March this year, the 60-year-old revealed to Dax Shepard how the tragic death of her girlfriend when she was 20 spurred her on and eventually led her into stand up comedy.

Her first breakthrough comedy piece, 'Phone Call to God' debuted on 'The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson' in November, 1986. Talking in a new Armchair Expert podcast, she recalled the time when she was a struggling waitress in her early 20s and when her girlfriend was killed in a car crash after a fight, she coped by writing her most famous skit.

“I was living with her when she was killed. I couldn’t afford to live where we were living together and so I moved into this tiny little basement apartment... and I was sleeping on a mattress on a floor and it was infested with fleas. And I used to write all the time, I wrote poetry and songs and stuff, and I thought, ‘Why is this beautiful 21-year-old girl just gone and fleas are here?'" She questioned. 

“I just thought it would be amazing if we could just pick up the phone and call up God and ask questions and get an answer… It just unfolded, I just wrote the entire thing and when I finished, I read it and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s hilarious. I’m going to do this on Johnny Carson and I’m going to be the first woman in the history of the show to be asked to sit down,” she added.

Her prediction came true with her debut and there has been no looking back. Ellen is happily married to Portia de Rossi for a decade now.

Even Oswalt found new love and is married to actress Meredith Salenger since last November.

TV Personality Ellen Degeneres, winner of multiple awards (R) and actress Portia De Rossi pose in the press room during the People's Choice Awards 2017 at Microsoft Theater on January 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Comedy born out of tragedy isn't just confined to a person. After the 9/11 tragedy, when comedy took a brief halt, creator and producer of Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels, asked the then New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, "Can we be funny?"

The satire platform, The Onion, went on to publish an entire paper devoted to 9/11, and despite looming uncertainties, the satire became a massive hit. Psychologist Peter McGraw and journalist Joel Warner in the book, 'The Humor Code', stated The Onion edition to be a "smash hit" as the writers depicted the hijackers to be tortured by “tusked, asp-tongued demons in Hell" with one headline reading “God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule.”

This reaction only concretized McGraw’s long-held theory that comedy is equal parts darkness and light. The best jokes, he believes, "take something awful and make it silly." 

Inner turmoil is said to be another attributing factor to comedy. Comedian Stephen Fry publicly joked about his bipolar disorder and suicide attempt. In describing his quiz show, QI, Fry said, “There are times when I’m doing QI and I’m going ‘ha ha, yeah, yeah,’ and inside I’m going ‘I want to fucking die. I ... want ... to ... fucking ... die’”

Another famous American stand up comedian, Marc Maron, was once quoted telling a fellow comedian that he has "seen a lot of miserable guys do pretty amazing stand-up.” 

There certainly is a dark tragedy behind comedies, even of the Whatsapp forward kind. Mark Twain summed up humor as "a tragedy plus time.”

Maybe it is just a way of coping, but they have proved that comedy and tragedy go hand in hand and all we can do is try and understand.