- Sunday 29th July 2012, 1:21pm
- Edinburgh, Great Britain
- 405 posts
Patton Oswaltâs Letters to Both Sides: His keynote address at Montrealâs Just For Laughs 2012
By Sean L. McCarthy
After stirring keynote speeches by Lewis Black and Marc Maron over the past couple of years, Patton Oswalt took to the stage adjacent to the Hyatt lounge on Thursday afternoon to deliver the third annual keynote for the Just For Laughs Comedy Conference in Montreal.
Oswalt employed self-deprecation right off the bat, joking that he was far from JFL's first choice to address the comedians, industry and fans in the audience. "Luckily for me, none of them could be bothered to wake up before 1 p.m.," he said. He also noted with sarcasm that in a year in which comedy has come under the microscope of the media and bloggers, of course, a "straight white male" should be the comedy community's representative to make sense of it all. Speaking of which, he added: "People are referring to us as the comedy communtiy --that's how f**ked up things are right now."
Instead of a straight speech, Oswalt wrote two open letters and read them aloud.
The first letter he addressed to "all of the comedians in the room"; the second, to "all of the gatekeepers" of the comedy business.
Here are those letters.
Dear comedian in 2012:
How are you? I am good. In answer to your last letter, the mozzarella sticks at the Irvine Improv do taste weird. Iâm taking your advice and sticking with the nachos.
Hey, âknow what I was thinking the other day? Everything I know about succeeding as a comedian and ultimately as an artist is worthless now, and I couldnât be happier about that.
I started doing comedy in the summer of 1988. That was a different time, wasnât it? Joe Piscopo was president, Mary Lou Retton won the Cold War, and Andy Kindler turned 50
If I hadnât popped that goddamn âPâ, the Piscopo joke wouldâve annihilated.
When I say everything I know about succeeding a comedian is worthless, I know what Iâm talking about because everything I know became worthless twice in my lifetime.
The first time was the evening of May 22, 1992. Iâd been doing standup almost four years at that point, and that was Johnny Carsonâs last ever Tonight Show.
Up until that night, the way you made it in comedy was very clear, simple, straightforward. You went on Carson, you killed, you got called over to the couch, and the next day you had your sitcom and your mansion, and youâre made. Just ask Drew Carey and Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres. And Bill Clinton. Thatâs how you did it.
But now, Johnny was gone and he wasnât coming back.
All the comedians I remember starting out with in D.C., all the older ones, told me over and over again âyou gotta work clean, you gotta get your five minutes, and you gotta get on Carson.â And it all comes down to that.
And in one night, all of them were wrong. And not just wrong, they were unmoored. They were drifting. A lot of these bulletproof comics Iâd opened for, whose careers seemed pre-destined, a lot of them never recovered from that night. Youâll never hear their names. They had been sharks in a man-made pond and had been drained. They decided their time had passed.
Keep that in mind for later. They had decided their time had passed.
The second time everything I knew about comedy became worthless has been petty much every day for the last three years.
I know thatâs not an exact date. Some other younger, not yet famous name in this room â you are going to pinpoint that date 20 years from now. But for now, every day for about the last few years will have to suffice.
I just want to give you a brief timeline of my career up to this point, when I knew it was all changing again. Listen to my words very carefully. Two words will come up again and again and theyâre going to come back later along with that phrase âthey decidedâ and people are going to carry me around the room.
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 Codyâs 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.
Iâve been lucky enough to be given specials on HBO, Comedy Central, and Showtime. As well as Iâve 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: âluckyâ and âgiven.â 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 âluckyâ and being âgiven.â The days about luck and being given are about to end. Theyâre about to go away.
Not totally. There are always comedians who will work hard and get noticed by agents and managers and record labels. There will always be an element of that. And they deserve their success. And thereâs always going to be people who benefit from that.
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.
Remember what I said earlier about those bulletproof headliners who focused on their 5 minutes on the Tonight Show and when it ended they decided their opportunity was gone? They decided. Nobody decided that for them. They decided.
Now, look at my career up to this point. Luck, being given. Other people deciding for me.
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.
And I realize now I need to combine both of the lessons Iâve learned.
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.
Iâm seeing this notion take form in a lot of my friends. A lot of you out there. You, for instance, the person Iâm writing to. Your podcast is amazing. Your videos on your YouTube channel are getting better and better every single one that you make, just like when we did open mics, better and better every week. Your Twitter feed is hilarious.
Listen, Iâm doing the Laugh Trench in Milwaukee next week. Is there any chance for an RT?
Your friend, Patton Oswalt
This is his second letter.
Dear gatekeepers in broadcast and cable executive offices, focus groups, record labels, development departments, agencies and management companies:
Last month I turned in a script for a pilot I co-wrote with Phil Rosenthal who has had a share of luck and success I can only dream of. Thanks for the notes you gave me on the pilot script. Iâm not going to be implementing any of them.
And no, Iâm not going to call you âthe enemyâ or âthe man.â I have zero right to say that based on the breaks Iâve got from you over the years. If I tried to strike a Che Guevara pose, you would be correct in pointing out that the dramatic underlighting on my face was being reflected up from my swimming pool.
I am as much to blame for my uneasiness and realization of late that Iâm part of the problem, that Iâm half asleep and more than half complacent.
And Iâm still not going to implement your notes. And Iâm quoting Phil Rosenthal on this, but he said after we read your notes â and Iâm quoting him verbatim â âWeâre living in a post-Louie world, and these notes are from a pre-According to Jim world.â
I just read a letter to my fellow comedians telling them what Iâm about to tell you, but in a different way. Here it is.
You guys need to stop thinking like gatekeepers. You need to do it for the sake of your own survival.
Because all of us comedians after watching Louis CK revolutionize sitcoms and comedy recordings and live tours. And listening to "WTF With Marc Maron" and "Comedy Bang! Bang!" and watching the growth of the UCB Theatre on two coasts and seeing careers being made on Twitter and YouTube.
Our careers donât hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates. Theyâre gone. The model for success as a comedian in the '70s and '80s? That was middle school. Remember, theyâd hand you a worksheet, fill in the blanks on the worksheet, hand it in, youâll get your little points.
And that doesnât prepare you for college. College is the 21st century. Show up if you want to, thereâs an essay, thereâs a paper, and thereâs a final. And you decide how well you do on them, and thatâs it. And then after youâre done with that, you get even more autonomy whether you want it or not because youâre an adult now.
Comedians are getting more and more comfortable with the idea that if weâre not successful, itâs not because we havenât got our foot in the door, or nobodyâs 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, itâs 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.
Hereâs the deal, and I think itâs a really good one.
I want you, all of the gatekeepers, to become fans. I want you to become true enthusiasts like me. I want you to become thrill-seekers. I want you to be as excited as I was when I first saw Maria Bamfordâs stand-up, or attended The Paul F. Tompkins show, or listened to Sklarbro CountryâŚ.
I want you to be as charged with hope as I am that weâre looking at the most top-heavy with talent young wave of comedians that this industry have ever had at any time in its history.
And since this new generation was born into post-modern anything, they are wilder and more fearless than anything youâve ever dealt with. But remind yourselves: Youth isnât king. Content is king. Lena Dunhamâs 26-year-old voice is just as vital as Louis CKâs 42-year-old voice which is just as vital as Eddie Pepitoneâs 50-something voice.
Age doesnât matter anymore. Itâs all about what you have to say and what youâre going to say. Please throw the old f**king model away.
Just the tiny sampling at this amazing festivalâŚ. Iâm excited to not be the funniest person in the room. It makes me work harder and try to be better at what I do. So be as excited and grateful as I am.
And if in the opportunities you give me, you try to cram all this wildness and risk-taking back in to the crappy mimeographic worksheet form of middle school, weâre just going to walk away. Weâre not going to work together. No harm no foul. We can just walk away.
You know why we can do that now? Because of these. (Oswalt holds up an iPhone)
In my hand right now Iâm holding more filmmaking technology than Orsen Welles had when he filmed Citizen Kane.
Iâm holding almost the same amount of cinematography, post-editing, sound editing, and broadcast capabilities as you have at your TV network.
In a couple of years itâs going to be f**king equal. I see whatâs f**king coming. This isnât a threat, this is an offer. We like to create. Weâre the ones who love to make shit all the time. Youâre the ones who like to discover it and patronize it support it and nurture it and broadcast it. Just get out of our way when we do it.
If you get out of our way and we f**kinâ get out and fall on our face, we wonât blame you like we did in the past. Because we wonât have taken any of your notes, so itâll truly be on us.
I donât know if youâve seen the stuff uploaded to YouTube. There are sitcoms now on the internet, some of them are brilliant, some of them are âmeh,â some of them f**kin suck. At about the same ratio that things are brilliant and âmehâ and suck on your network.
If you think that weâre somehow going to turn on you later if what we do falls on its face, and blame you because we canât take criticism? Let me tell you one thing: We have gone through years of open mics to get where we need to get. Criticism is nothing to us, and comment threads are f**king electrons.