Finding career clarity is no joke

Comedian Patton Oswalt tells UGA students to follow their passion with purpose
Actor and comedian Patton Oswalt speaks as a part of the MBUS Talks Series in Sanford and Barbara Orkin Hall on October 18 in Athens.
Actor and comedian Patton Oswalt speaks as a part of the MBUS Talks Series in Sanford and Barbara Orkin Hall on October 18 in Athens.

Patton Oswalt knew he was destined to be a stand-up comic. His early audiences weren’t so sure.

“When I first started doing stand-up, it was the most unrewarding thing,” he told a group of UGA students on Oct. 18. “There was zero positive reinforcement. The audience could not have made it clearer that, ‘You should not be doing this.’”

Oswalt has come a long way since his days playing open mic nights in his Virginia hometown. An acclaimed actor, writer and comedian with Grammy and Emmy awards to his name, he amassed an extensive list of credits spanning television, film, comic books and more.

Oswalt spoke at the Business Learning Community as part of a Q&A event hosted by the Terry College’s Music Business Program. He was in Athens for a performance at the 40 Watt Club, where in 2003 he recorded a landmark comedy album, Feelin’ Kinda Patton.

It took an industry sea change for Oswalt to find his footing.

When comedy clubs began shuttering en masse in the early 1990s, he was one of a group of artists who ushered in the era of alternative comedy, taking their talents to music venues and other nontraditional locations. In the process, he formed an alliance with the indie rock bands and independent record labels flourishing at the time.

“Everything got shaken up, and the people who truly loved doing comedy started going, ‘Well, the clubs aren’t here. I’ll go find a room — I’ll go to a bookstore or coffee shop or a bar and ask them to let me go up and do a set,’” he said.

Lively and incisive with a punk rock edge, alt-comedy proved influential, and Oswalt landed increasingly high-profile opportunities, including a regular role on the CBS sitcom “The King of Queens” and voicing the lead character in the Pixar film Ratatouille.

Ironically, the comedian found himself back in front of the crowds he’d once repelled.

“The audience that was coming to see me was the audience that enjoyed this 8 p.m. family sitcom,” he said. “And I was really butting up against a lot of these audiences. But again, it was my fault — I had gotten comfortable with (success). I wasn’t pursuing my audience.”

Oswalt doubled down on diversifying his creative portfolio. Even as he showed up in hit series such as “Justified,” he toured the rock club circuit, released boundary-pushing comedy specials and took roles in small, independent films.

“I believe in being a moving target,” he said. “I just have fun doing creative stuff. I love stand-up and will always do it, because that’s the thing that brought me to the dance. But I love being in movies, I love doing TV, I love writing comic books, I love doing voiceover (work).

“You’ll see people in comedy to get out of comedy,” he continued. “They’re using it as a way to get themselves into movies. Whereas I’m like, ‘No, I do movies and TV so I can keep doing comedy.’”

Oswalt told students to carve out their unique career path by identifying the thing they are most passionate about and following it as far as it goes — even as circumstances inevitably conspire against them.

“Any business you get into, yes, you should master the basics, but you’ve got to be very open and forgiving of yourself (to say), ‘OK, everything I know about this, I have to scrap and start anew,” he said. “You have to find a way to defend and restate what it is you’re doing in the face of stuff changing.”

In particular, Oswalt urged those with creative ambitions to allow themselves time to discover their true voice by resisting the temptation to put out everything they create for the world to see.

“Fight for your time in the wilderness,” he said. “Fight for your time to be obscure and have no one know what you’re doing. Do risky, insanely stupid things that are not being filmed, and really figure out what your voice is.”

The resulting clarity, he said, is key to career longevity.

“When you find the thing that you want to be doing, it’ll never feel like a sacrifice,” said Oswalt. “It will feel like a sacrifice if you stay home and don’t go out and pursue the thing you want to do.”