Comedian Patton Oswalt delivered an inspiring keynote at last week’s Just For Laughs Comedy Conference in Montreal. He presented it in the form of two open letters–one addressed to “all the comedians in the room”, the second to “all of the gatekeepers” of the comedy business. Read both of them on TheComicsComic.com.
In the past, I’ve pointed out that artists in different fields often deal with similar sets of issues, especially on the business side. Oswalt’s advice drives that point home; his perspective is applicable not just to comedians, but to almost anyone working in a creative field, including animation creators.
In his letter to comedians, Oswalt implores artists to stop waiting for executives to give them opportunities because the dynamics of today’s entertainment industry favor those who create their own opportunities. Some choice excerpts:
I was lucky enough to get hired onto King of Queens in 1998. I had nine years on that show. Money, great cast, even better writers, a lot of fun. I bought a house. Then I was lucky enough to get cast as a lead voice in a Pixar movie in 2007. Acclaim, money, I got to meet a lot of my heroes. Then I was lucky enough to get cast on The United States of Tara on Showtime. I got to watch Toni Collette work. I got to perform Diablo Cody’s writing. After which, I was lucky enough to get cast in Young Adult, which is where I got to make out with Charlize Theron. I will use that as an icebreaker if I ever meet Christina Ricci.
I’ve been lucky enough to be given specials on HBO, Comedy Central, and Showtime. As well as I’ve been lucky enough to release records on major labels, and I was lucky they approached me to do it. And that led to me being lucky enough to get Grammy nominations.
I know that sounds like a huge ego-stroking credit dump. But if you listened very carefully, you would have heard two words over and over again: “lucky” and “given.” Those are two very very dangerous words for a comedian. Those two words can put you to sleep, especially once you get a taste of both being “lucky” and being “given.” The days about luck and being given are about to end. They’re about to go away.
What I mean is: Not being lucky and not being given are no longer going to define your career as a comedian and as an artist.
In the middle of the TV shows and the albums and the specials, I took a big chunk of my money and invested it in a little tour called The Comedians of Comedy. I put it together with my friends, we did small clubs, stayed in shitty hotel rooms, packed ourselves in a tiny van and drove it around the country. The tour was filmed for a very low-budget documentary that I convinced Netflix to release. That became a low-budget show on Comedy Central that we all still own a part of, me and the comedians. That led to a low budget concert film that we put on DVD.
At the end of it, I was exhausted, I was in debt, and I wound up with a wider fanbase of the kind of people I always dreamed of having as fans. And I built that from the ground up, friends and people I respected and was a fan of.
I need to decide more career stuff for myself and make it happen for myself, and I need to stop waiting to luck out and be given. I need to unlearn those muscles.
To the “gatekeepers”, he offers another message: Your job is to discover, patronize, support, nurture and broadcast material. It’s not to create. Leave that up to the artists or they’re not going to stick around because there are other options out there. Says Oswalt:
Our careers don’t hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates. They’re gone. The model for success as a comedian in the ’70s and ’80s? That was middle school. Remember, they’d hand you a worksheet, fill in the blanks on the worksheet, hand it in, you’ll get your little points.
And that doesn’t prepare you for college. College is the 21st century. Show up if you want to, there’s an essay, there’s a paper, and there’s a final. And you decide how well you do on them, and that’s it. And then after you’re done with that, you get even more autonomy whether you want it or not because you’re an adult now.
Comedians are getting more and more comfortable with the idea that if we’re not successful, it’s not because we haven’t gotten our foot in the door, or nobody’s given us a hand up. We can do that ourselves now. Every single day we can do more and more without you and depend on you less and less.
If we work with you in the future, it’s going to be because we like your product and your choices and your commitment to pushing boundaries and ability to protect the new and difficult.
It’s perhaps telling that artists who have achieved some level of success like Oswalt are no longer afraid to publicly call out executives and “gatekeepers” even as they continue to work in the mainstream. The Internet has revolutionized and transformed almost every creative industry in the past decade, and these industries will continue to experience even more dramatic change in the coming years. Those who can best grasp this shifting entertainment landscape and understand that the old rules are meaningless stand to benefit the most.
(Photo of Patton Oswalt via Featureflash/Shutterstock)