Pulling no punches, Oswalt begins by addressing the tumultuous American political situation. Arguing that, contrary to popular belief, the current administration is tiring out comedians rather than providing them free material, the comedian laments rather than capitalizes on the nation’s division. Oswalt’s jokes are provocative but lighthearted, likening the threat of nuclear war to a reenactment of the television show M.A.S.H. and connecting failed New Year’s resolutions with the presidential inauguration in January. Beyond just targeting those in power, however, he also pokes fun at the electorate’s political apathy and swing away from progressivism. Oswalt uses these bits to frame his larger message rather than allow them to stand as the crux of his show. This era of social and political upheaval serves as the backdrop for the personal turmoil Oswalt has recently experienced.
The centerpiece of his special is a heartbreaking look back at the tragic death of his wife last year. Oswalt describes a sort of compounded chaos, layering personal tragedy on top of political division. It’s a stark but effective shift in tone, marking the emotional climax of his routine. His jokes get less frequent and more pointed. Some shine spotlight on the illogic around us, while others, including one absurdist anecdote about a family standing in a graveyard singing along to a bass-less rendition of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” act as a much-needed reprieve from the grief he feels. Some of the most salient moments of his stand-up occur when the comic is quietly recounting difficult experiences in his life. Oswalt posits that the only way to remain sane in an absurd world is to take it at face value, both recognizing the absurdity and continuing to live despite it.
Oswalt is funny, but his stage presence isn’t overbearing. He paces mildly, gesticulates sporadically, and tries his hand at imitation only occasionally. Though the delivery of his lines is fair, his comedic content rather than stage presence is what makes the show.
That is not to say that there aren’t moments which fall flat. Many of Oswalt’s jokes, based on stories, tend to get long-winded, and some of them provide little payoff at the end. His attempts to engage the audience are hit-or-miss. The improvised crowd work is a bit out of place in Oswalt’s otherwise very deliberately structured show. Transitions between disparate topics tend to get a little patchy at times. For all the work the comedian puts into his message, you’d expect the execution to be smoother than it often is.
That said, Oswalt papers over these weaker moments by pushing the theme of destruction throughout his special. Though it’s a motif which only becomes fully fleshed out in retrospect, it doesn’t feel out of place. Perhaps the structure of his show is deliberately entropic, a chaotic collection of comical moments loosely joined by Oswalt’s larger didactic purpose. The comedian offers his audience a way to combat the destructive forces constantly present in the world by sharing a line of advice from his late wife: “It’s chaos. It’s all random. And it’s horrifying. And if you want to try to reduce the horror and reduce the chaos, be kind, that’s all you can do. It’s chaos. Be kind.”
And so, as the camera leaves the applauding comedy club and pans out across the late-night cityscape, we are left not laughing, but thinking. Oswalt’s “Annihilation” identifies some of the least savory but most real aspects of adult life and uses humor to wrangle with them head-on. The honesty with which he presents his own experiences make his otherwise trite advice more palatable: Oswalt comes off less as self-help guru on a soapbox and more as an individual genuinely trying to reason through an unfair world.
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