Patton Oswalt delivered a brilliant keynote address at this years Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal a few weeks back, addressing a letter to the comedians in the room, and another to the gatekeepers of the stand-up comedy business.
Oswalt’s first letter, to his fellow comedians, could be addressing writers with the substitution of a few words. It revolves around acknowledging the enormous about of lucky breaks he’s been given in his career, about the sole path that seemed to be open to him when he started his career, about the opportunities he’s been lucky to capitalise on when they’re given to him. And he acknowledges that:
“…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.
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 there’s 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.”
Technology has changed thing in the comedy industry, making it possible to find an audience without being given the opportunity by the gatekeepers. The future, Oswalt argues, lies in finding an audience instead of being granted one. To stop waiting for the lucky break, and start making opportunities for himself.
If this rhetoric sounds familiar to many of the militantly independent writers embracing epublishing, there’s an enormous amount of grace and gratitude in the way Oswalt speaks to the institutions that have fostered his career. More importantly, his advice to the gate-keepers in his second letter is no less genuine than that he gave to his fellow creatives:
“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.
Here’s the deal, and I think it’s 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 Bamford’s stand-up, or attended The Paul F. Tompkins show, or listened to Sklarbro Country….”
Gatekeepers, Oswalt argues, should look past the panic and see the advantages of the new world: creatives love to to create. Gatekeepers love to nurture, to promote. The match-up should be obvious, but the old power dynamics have shifted and some people still need to adjust to that.
Together these two letters are a brilliant call to arms for comedians and gate-keepers alike, and the points being made are just as poignant when looked at through the lens of writers and publishing. Inspiring, compelling, acknowledging the difficulties without getting caught up in the sturm-und-drang.
Oswalt’s speech is recommended reading for anyone in the early days of their writing career, and I encourage you to check it out.