Patton Oswalt is a really, really smart dude, and he can hold court better than any comedian on "issues" as diverse as an Avengers and Star Wars crossover, the inherent sadness of the KFC Famous Bowl, and the racism of babies. But it's when he gets serious that he really shows why he might be the most talented of all comedians who moonlight as writers. Oswalt, of all people, came away with the most touching reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings in April. And, in a "closed letter to myself" (an ironic twist on those "open letters" you see everyone on the Internet) published this weekend, the comic touched on arguably the three most important issues currently faced by comedians today: Heckling, joke-stealing, and rape humor. The resulting 6,000-word-plus missive isn't the last word on the three matters, but it's pretty damn close. He knows what he's talking about.
I should say that you should read the whole thing, but if you can't, below are three highlights. Oswalt with a story on joke thievery:
And another young comedian we both knew – who had started featuring, which meant doing 30 minute sets after the emcee but before the headliner – started stealing Blaine’s material. Not a joke here or a line there. Huge, sprawling chunks of Blaine [Capatch's] act, which ballooned the material he had from about ten minutes to more than half an hour. And he used it to feature – to make more money, to have an easier time in front of an audience that had been warmed up by an emcee like me or Blaine, to get even more gigs. He made no attempt to hide what he was doing and, if I remember correctly, even did some of it right in front of Blaine at a show in Baltimore.
Blaine, ever more Zen than me, even at that young age, politely confronted the comedian and asked him to stop. “That’s my stuff, man. Could you not do it, please?”
The other comedian wasn’t angry or defensive. He was, incredibly, confused.
“But I’m starting to get feature sets. I don’t have 30 minutes of material. You’ve got more than 30 minutes. And you’re not getting feature sets.” The young comedian explained this Blaine like he was explaining the concept of the Tooth Fairy to a 3 year-old.
Blaine said, “But you’re only getting those feature sets because of my material. You wouldn’t have enough to fill a half hour unless you stole from me.”
“Yeah, I know,” explained the comedian, patiently. “You ain’t out there working to get feature sets. You’re just writing all this material and then just doing emcee sets. You ain’t featuring full-time like me, so I need that material. You’re not using it featuring.”
So there you go. Blaine got to watch his work benefit someone else – someone dumber, and less creative but, fatally, more ambitious and shameless than him. I’d love to tell you that the other club owners stopped hiring the thief but…nope. He made people laugh while the audience bought drinks and mozzarella sticks. Most comedy club owners back then – and a few, still, now – are in the Food and Beverage Industry, not the Creativity and Honor Industry. Most audiences cleave to the former as well. What could Blaine and I do, still at the dawn of our careers? Two emcees struggling to find an audience and get work? We had zero power to stop anyone stealing anything. We just had to write more, work harder, out-create the little fucker.
Don’t worry – this story has a happy ending. Blaine and I eventually moved west. So did the thief. But when it came time for him to make the transition to television, to movies, to big-time fame and success? He had nothing. And, without going into details, he flamed out, rather spectacularly, on national television. Like, spectacularly. It was gorgeous for Blaine and I to watch.
And on heckling:
Hecklers don’t make a show memorable. They prevent a show from being a fucking show. Comedians do not love hecklers. They love doing the original material they wrote and connecting with an entire audience, not verbally sparring with one cretin while the rest of the audience whoops and screams, disconnecting from the comedian and re-wiring itself as a hate-fueled crowd-beast. And most comedians, including me, can barely remember a heckler. We go into automatic pilot shutting them down – not because we’re so brilliant and quick, it’s because we’ve dealt with hecklers so many fucking times that we can do it in our sleep. And why do we have to deal with hecklers so many times? Because of all the stupid, misinformed rationalizations I’ve listed above.
And on rape jokes, which have been the subject of a looooong and increasingly annoying controversy:
No one is trying to make rape, as a subject, off-limits. No one is talking about censorship. In this past week of re-reading the blogs, going through the comment threads, and re-scrolling the Twitter arguments, I haven’t once found a single statement, feminist or otherwise, saying that rape shouldn’t be joked under any circumstance, regardless of context. Not one example of this.
In fact, every viewpoint I’ve read on this, especially from feminists, is simply asking to kick upward, to think twice about who is the target of the punchline, and make sure it isn’t the victim.
I think Oswalt will ultimately grab the most attention for his level-headed views on rape jokes, just because this moderate position—away from the "Rape jokes are never funny" and "Rape jokes are always appropriate, because free speech" lines of thought—is so sorely lacking among the pundits who have staked out their corners. Oswalt is ultimately asking that rape jokes not make the victim a punchline, that instead they should be carefully brought up and always attack rape rather than just laugh at it. Which obviously makes sense.