Monday, March 5, 2012

Authenticity is worth fighting for

I'm currently reading Patton Oswalt's book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. If you're unfamiliar with him, Patton Oswalt is a hilarious stand-up comedian and actor. I bought the book expecting it to be hilarious, and it totally is, but what I didn't expect was an unbelievable amount of poignancy. Throughout the book Oswalt tells stories about his childhood, his hometown, and the beginnings of his comedy career. One chapter in particular that struck me was "The Victory Tour," in which he headlines a comedy club for the first time.

Turns out, Patton absolutely bombs his first few nights–so badly, in fact, that the club manager demotes Patton from headliner to opening for the new headliner. Patton meets Gary, the guy he'll now be opening for, and their conversation goes like this:

     "So, where do you get your jokes? Reed says he sees you writing them down in a notebook."
     I don't know how to answer this. Gary, like a dispiritingly large chunk of the population, seems to think comedians get their jokes out of books. Does he think I transcribe them from memory?
     "I write 'em down, too." Gary takes a spiral notebook out of his backpack. Then he produces four or five paperback joke books and a few issues of Playboy. He opens the Playboy to where he's got a few Playboy party jokes marked with yellow highlighter.
     "Oh, uh, I write my own stuff."
     "From where?"
     I don't answer. I get a ginger ale and watch Gary transcribe jokes out of the paperbacks onto a separate sheet of paper. At one point, he asks me if a dirty knock-knock joke should come before or after a dirty riddle.
And then comes the performance.
Gary kills. Kills. A star is born in front of twenty-one people in Surrey that night.
     "So, this hooker said, "I'll do anything you want for fifty bucks' And I said–"
     And then the audience swoops in with Gary: "Paint my house!"
     An old man pumps Gary's hand and wheezes with laughter.
     "I'm telling you, that joke with the ant floating downstream with a boner, and he's saying for 'em to put up the bridge. That's been a favorite of mine for so long I can't even tell you!"

It would be easy to see this anecdote being borne out of jealousy and frustration. But Patton's writing style never comes across with a trace of bitterness, nor does he turn it into a kind of "gee shucks" pity tale. The main message I got from this chapter, and from the book as a whole, is that there's a lot of crap out there, and you've got to look out for it.

In virtually every artistic medium, it is hardly the cream that rises to the top. More often, it is the hacky, cliched pablum that appeals to the widest audience possible. To find the really good stuff, you've got to dig. And the more you dig, the more and better stuff you'll find. Authenticity is worth fighting for.

This theme is recurrent throughout Patton Oswalt's comedy career. On his debut CD Feelin' Kinda Patton, he talks about doing open mic nights in the 80s and how formative they were in developing his stand-up. Not because  he got to bounce ideas off an audience to see what worked and what didn't. No, it was because open mic nights were full of fucking crazy people who would just wander in off the street and entertain people with drug-fueled ramblings. Any up-and-coming comedian seeing that immediately had their ego destroyed by the realization that they'd have to really step up their game if they wanted to be noticed.

At another point in Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Patton talks about how many professional stand-ups from whom he sought advice told him that making it as a comic involves a few simple steps:
You wrote and honed a clean five minutes, went on The Tonight Show, got called over to the couch by Johnny, got a sitcom, became a star. There was no other way to do it. That was the endpoint and the reward. 
Sure, there are plenty of great comedians who have done just that. And you can't blame them for doing what it takes to support themselves by doing what they love. But how many of them will be remembered as truly legendary comics like Richard Pryor, or George Carlin, or dare I say, Patton Oswalt?

To really stand out from a crowd, to be remembered long after you're gone, you've got to take chances. You can't just do what people want to hear and what managers are looking for. Progress is only possible if you dare to be original. Authenticity is worth fighting for.


  1. Nice to finally see an atheist write something from his own soul.

    Let it boil, my friend, and let the bubbles overflow into the fire below.

    But for my money,

    patrice o'neal >> patton oswalt.

  2. In reference to a joke I made at the dinner table...

    “..A lot of you don’t drink, no smoke.
    Some people here tonight, they don’t eat butter; no salt, no sugar, no lard. Cause they want to live, they give up that good stuff.. Neckbones, pig tails.
    You gonna feel like a damn fool laying at the hospital dying of nothing”.

    ~ Red Foxx

  3. Btw, Das EFX is the shit, you gotta send me more of that.

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  6. But seriously...

    do you get the same text messages that i do from mom?

    they're harder to read than fucking hieroglyphics.

    6 pages of typos, with an additional 0 grammar and 0 point

    i think my time would be better spent trying to count the number of wrinkles in my balls than trying to decipher one of those streams of consciousness, am i right?

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  9. sometimes i wish that i was born 1000 years ago.

    (@ 3:00)

    and sometimes 1000 years from now.

    (@ 22:15)

    What do I do Brian? Please tell me!

    (because either way, i know the present sucks)