Patton Oswalt’s Important Message To Creators And Executives

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)


  • Chris Webb

    He definitely nailed it.

    Animators, the tools are here! The distribution is here! What are you waiting for?

    Actually, I am proud of animators. Most of them already know this, and many are doing something about it.

    If anyone needs to take Patton’s message to heart, it’s the gatekeepers. Especially movie execs – the least creative and most paralyzed group of people I’ve ever encountered.

  • http://Www.slaptoons.com Gavin

    Hail Patton Oswalt! Great insiping speech. I will do just that…

  • Chuuch

    Come on, Patton. Don’t you watch the news? You should know that if you’re successful, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

    • Mike

      Oh boy, it’s going to be a very long Oscar telecast next year. So many to thank…

    • Chris

      Sorry everyone, but this is an issue here in the US:

      I think Patton Oswalt would be the first to say that if he built a successful company that employs people who can read and write because they went to public schools, he’d be OK with the idea of paying taxes.

      And his taxes would insure that he’d have a reliable stream of literate people that he could hire in the future.

      • The Brewmasters

        Getting off topic here. Please return to the main point.

    • Great

      Oh man, I hope you’re either A, being sarcastic, or B, still in remedial high school English.

      His point is that although he did work hard, he got lucky. Luck is said to be where preparation meets opportunity. He realises that, but also realizes once you get that small opportunity you have to find a way to leverage that to propel yourself forward.

      If you sit back and just hope something is going to come along, you’re going to have a bad time.

      That being said, he would never have been “prepared” for those opportunities if he hadn’t received a “decent” education from his public high school or graduated from a government funded “socialist” college.

      He sure as hell would have never been able to put together if it weren’t for the socialist public roads he traveled on, and he would have never sold his show to Netflix if it wasn’t for the tax payers of the United States of America who helped fund ARPANET and thus the birth of the modern internet.

      Like it or not, we’re a civilization and no one person is an island no matter how big their shitty entitled ego claims to be.

      • Dan Tanna

        There is no such thing as a civilization, there are only individuals in this world making decisions that benefit themselves… it’s called ‘enlightened self-interest’ and it’s how people think and act in reality, when there are no cameras on and no audience to pander to.

        Payton’s commentary finally shows he is thinking like an entrepreneur, not a socialist. The by-product of excess capital and idleness, socialism, cannot work when people aren’t making money, never mind that socialism as a dominant form of government leads to system failure and collapse. We are born ready and willing to create, own and trade things, not sit back and stagnate.

        Focus on filling needs and providing superior products and services, then the rest will follow.

  • Pedro Nakama

    Very good! It’s right up there with the Ralph Bakshi Comic-Con talk a few years ago.

  • http://www.whereisolifant.com Doug
  • Val

    Wow, that was actually exactly what I needed to hear! I’m entering my senior year of art school and lately I’ve been lamenting my inability to snag a really great job or internship. But until that happens, I can still make my own success… :)

  • Julian

    Yes, very motivating, but the only problem I have is money. A comedian can write his stuff and perform on Youtube or open comedy site for virtually no cost. A musician can work with his band or computer and make some pretty sick stuff for a few hundred dollars at most. Although it’s just “cartoon” brew, I think the majority here want to see their stuff alive and animated. THAT, costs money and time. Even though there’s been great progressions in technology and accessibility, it still seems impractical for a hobbiest or one who wants to launch a career with no other grounds. I think that’s why so much of the more professional stuff has to rely on networks and studios, although there are some interesting exceptions. A bit pessimistic, I know, but I’m just trying to see a ground of reality.

    • http://moviecappa.blogspot.com Mike Caracappa

      It does cost time and money, but if you have the passion and desire to make your own product, you can make it happen. There are affordable animation programs out there. Toon Boom has programs such as Storyboard and Animate Pro which each run around $800, and they’re both easy programs to learn (I figured out Storyboard pro pretty much on my own and it works great.). If you have a good computer, the most expensive addition to that would probably be a cintiq which for a good one can probably cost about $3000.. If you’re on a tighter budget, you don’t have to buy an expensive Final Cut Pro software, you can literally cut and paste movies in QuickTime 7. Making your own animated films is not as difficult as it sounds. If you know what you’re looking for, you can probably manage a decent setup between $4000 – $5000. Hell, somebody with experience could probably tell you you can do it cheaper than that. If its what you really want, it’s honestly not that difficult to save up money for it. A teenager could do it (My cousin saved up for a new corrvette when he was 16, which is I don’t know how many times as much as setting up your own studio, and he did it working normal retail/ fast food jobs). If its in your heart and it’s what you want to do, you can make it happen.

    • Steve Gattuso

      If you’re really stretched financially, Valve Software is making their Source Filmmaker software for free. It turns their 3D game engine (also free to download) into a 3D animation studio. For the moment folks are playing around using Valve’s pre-rendered material, but you can import items from other sources as well. And Valve has stated that anything made with the program that doesn’t use any of their pre-rendered material is completely owned by it’s creator.

      That’s just one example. The tools are out there if you are willing to work a bit to find them and massage them into a useful package.

  • http://animationhardtofind.blogspot.com GW

    Maybe it’s true, but unless you’re one of the top draws on a site like YouTube or you’re one of the lucky people selling something through the Apple Store, I can’t see you making much money through the internet. It seems to me that the gatekeepers still have a good game going. Number one, they’re still the people who make you famous enough to make money which is essential in a crowded market like the internet where people have short attention spans. And number 2, some people like Joe Murray don’t make interesting enough work for people to go out of their way to look for it; They’ll only watch it on TV.

    Maybe I’m wrong. But it seems to me that the current system just doesn’t work. Oswalt got bookings that ensured a certain number of people would watch his comedy. Based on good performances he was able to progress and build up a greater audience. Where on the web are you guaranteed a minimum audience? Even here on Cartoon Brew, there’s hardly any comments on some of the videos, likely few views too. If there’s no guaranteed minimum audience even on a website like this one, how do the creators earn more money to create more work?

    It seems to me that without a guaranteed minimum audience or guaranteed minimum pay, it’s a longshot that you’ll ever develop a stable career the new way. You could always try Mark Stansberry’s strategy of selling DVDs cheaply on a major city subway but look at how few views his videos are getting online.

    • mj

      cream rises. you have to believe it or you won’t get anywhere.

  • http://www.elliotelliotelliot.com Elliot Cowan

    I shed a tear over this.

  • The Gee

    I like Patton Oswalt and I appreciate that he said this.
    But, I’ll tell ya something, I don’t like Scott Kurtz much and don’t like his web comic strip. If he said this, I’d probably appreciate that he said it more than Oswalt.

    It is like GW (above) wrote. Oswalt already had his luck and was given things. He has cache that will always serve him well in part because many of his peers came up when he did; their successes happened around the same time and none of them have probably done much to ruin their continued successes. They can help each other out if necessary and wanted.

    In other words, they will still give each other a hand up if needed.

    Granted, I’m assuming he may be thinking of Louis C.K.’s success of bypassing the systems and engaging directly with his fans, and keeping other success stories in mind as to what The Possibilities Are.

    That’s cool. He’s being encouraging and giving due notice to Execs and non-creatives. But, he and others of his generation, his peers, are not really climbing up a ladder anymore.

    He’s right, too. There’s so many more options and it really is a good thing to explore those options, if not by utilizing them then at least by finding out more about them.

    But, I read that with that perspective in mind. If a billionaire ever told me that I can do it….I’d say show me the money so that I, too, can know that I can do it!

    Meanwhile, everyone who creates should keep creating.

    • http://moviecappa.blogspot.com Mike Caracappa

      Umm…Scott Kurtz did do something, he wrote a book with three other guys called “How to make Webcomics”, which is not only about the creative end, but discusses how you can become an entrepreneur and work the business side of Webcomics. Scott himself wrote those chapters.

      http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/158240870X

  • Schopenhauer Philosophy

    The truth is often harder to face & stomach than any of the candy coated optimism out there spun for reasons which are more in line with adding to ones self image, media relations and publicity. Rent, Mortgages, the fact the path of long term subsistence is not a very practical or attractive life decision. If it was “Easy” we’d all do it and we’d all successful. That just isn’t the case. What’s why we go to the absurdity of celebrating every triumphant little fart against the wind, whether it actually gets anywhere or not. In my experience good work is never really THAT great, mostly it’s good because it exists, and that in itself is a feat.

    • axolotl

      A bold statement…

  • http://Goforit IAmSamJackson

    What a great read!
    That is something a great artist I know has been saying for years.
    M Dot Strange has been creating feature length animated films and doing it his way. He has already released 2 CG animated features, one of which has gone to Sundance. He did it all by himself.

    I spend a lot of time at CG animation related websites and it is sad to see so many talented people who have always wanted to make their own films and are looking for their “break” vs just making it themselves.

    The most you see from even some of the greatest artists are “shorts”. Others do not even start because of a naysayer attitude of “it’s impossible” “it is too hard” “it will fail” etc and it is very sad.

    One problem they say is you cannot do it on your own but then when you want to collab and share abilities you find little to no support and the same “naysayer” attitude.

    I’m glad in other areas artists are leading the way and learning you can do this thing and create your own creations and actually make them a success.

    I have to say artists like Jeff Lew, David Krupicz, M Dot Strange are great artists who prove you can make a CG animated film all on your own if you cannot find the budget or the friends to help you.

    Speaking of which, why haven’t I seen anything on these lone rangers on this website. These are some of the only lone animators who have made an entire film. In fact David and M Dot are on number 2.

  • http://www.kustomonsters.com Craig Clark

    I don’t know why animators can’t take their shorts program on the road like any indie rock band does, and sell their DVD’s at a tour merch table. College radio is already set up, tour with a band, show your films between sets from city to city, update your website on the road, document on video. The very first time I saw South Park was at Lollapalooza before the band “Tool’s” set back in the 90’s, so the precedent is there. One way to develop your own audience and control your product.

    • http://none Sasquatchiscool

      It would be pretty cool to see folks combine their powers. Like Image did with Indie comics back in the day.

      Although I just don’t see shorts as a viable thing. I love animation but would not by shorts.

      Whole movie, series or app, now that is differant.

    • Mac

      When your student film is crafted as a job application, who would want to even see it?

  • http://zeteos.blogspot.com/ mick

    he’s great isn’t he. Funny guy and spot on with this.

    two words ‘simon’s cat’…

    throw away those crutches and stand up straight kiddies

  • pizzaforeveryone

    yes

  • Brandon

    The “gatekeepers” probably dozed off during Oswald’s speech…. or thought it was just stand-up material and laughed the whole way through thinking, “Wow this is some funny stuff!”

  • http://www.ronimation.com Ron

    Amen Patton. Thanks for posting this. It’s exactly what I needed to read in this moment.

  • http://www.j3d.com.au Josh B.

    “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.”

    It seems as though he contradicts himself here. Shouldn’t he be saying:

    “What I mean is: BEING lucky and BEING given are no longer going to define your career as a comedian and as an artist.”?