The Montreal Just For Laughs comedy festival is wrapping up this weekend, and thanks in no small part to Patton Oswalt, the comedians and industry professionals who gathered there for the marathon run of shows and panels will all depart just a bit wiser.
Oswalt had the auspicious honor of being this year’s keynote speaker — a role occupied last year by Marc Maron — and he used the opportunity to speak directly to his younger peers and the people who have a hand in establishing their careers.
In two separate letters — one to comedians and one to industry — Oswalt created a portrait of the comedy world as it is now: no longer subject to the tried and true paths to success, and wilder and more inventive than any other time.
In his inimitable way, though, Oswalt first pointed out that he’s not necessarily the person you go to for advice on how to succeed in comedy: “Everything I know about succeeding as a comedian and ultimately as an artist is worthless now, and I couldn’t be happier about that… I know what I’m talking about because everything I know became worthless twice in my lifetime.”
The first time, he explained, was when “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” ended:
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 you’re made. Just ask Drew Carey and Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres. And Bill Clinton. That’s how you did it.
But now, Johnny was gone and he wasn’t coming back.
All the comedians I remember starting out with in DC, all the older ones, told me over and over again ‘you gotta work clean, you gotta get your five minutes, and you gotta get on Carson’. And it all comes down to that.
And in one night, all of them were wrong….
After detailing how the first part of his career was punctuated by luck and being given opportunities, he went on to describe the ways he later worked to build a fan base and career of his own design, learning in the end that there were valuable lessons in both:
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.
I’m seeing this notion take form in a lot of my friends. A lot of you out there. You, for instance, the person I’m 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.
After bolstering up-and-coming comedians in his first letter, Oswalt moved on to address the industry gatekeepers — managers, agents, development executives, and so on — and offer them some sage advice:
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 don’t hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates.
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.
Finally, Oswalt reminded everyone that technology and creativity are working hand-in-hand to unsettle the position of power the industry has held:
[holds up iPhone] In my hand right now I’m holding more filmmaking technology than Orsen Welles had when he filmed Citizen Kane.
I’m 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 it’s going to be fucking equal. I see what’s fucking coming. This isn’t a threat, this is an offer. We like to create. We’re the ones who love to make shit all the time. You’re 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.