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Comedian Patton Oswalt Talks Creative Risk, Fear, and Creating Something New

Patton Oswalt — stand up comedian, actor, voice actor, and author — has more than 200 acting credits to his name, so it’s no surprise that picking his next project has (in his own words) “been a big source of tension.” It’s a common problem and one many creators face: a surplus of great ideas, limited time, and no clue where to start.

“There's a lot of things I want to write. There's a lot of things I want to be in,” the A.P. Bio star, who has worked on everything from The King of Queens to *Ratatouille, told us at our recent Patreon Assembly event.

Deciding on a new project, let alone starting it, can feel like an unsurmountable problem. And while lists of pros and cons can help creators weigh benefits like creative freedom in comparison to career progression, Oswalt’s preferred method of late is to leave it up to fate.

“What I did one day, about two weeks ago, I took an empty soda cup from the New Beverly [Cinema], I wrote six projects, six scripts, I want to write on little slips of paper and put them inside. I shook it up and I drew one out. And the one that I drew that's what I'm going to work on right now, because I was so frozen, not able to work on anything,” he says.

If that’s not your style, Oswalt recommends the age-old flip-a-coin trick, but with a twist: “When you flip it and whatever you hope it lands on, that's what you want to be doing,” he says. “That's a great way to do it.”

In the era of hustling and side gigs, the concept of focusing on a single project at a time might seem inefficient, but it’s how Oswalt works best. “I have friends who write comic books, friends who are freelance writers who can work on several things at once. But I can't. I've got to pick something. See it through. Go on to the next thing.”

And the process has served him well, having now clocked up more than 30 years in show business. Oswalt's first time on stage was in the summer of 1988, while he was studying to be an English major at college, and despite what he once described as “four minutes of silence and one single laugh,” he fell in love with stand up. He’s been performing ever since.

”There is literally nothing stopping you anymore.”

For fellow creators who know what they’d like to pursue but have been too scared to take the leap, Oswalt shares some tough love: “Here's my advice. And it might sound like an accusation, I don't mean it to sound that way, but there is literally nothing stopping you anymore. The only thing that is stopping you are these fake people that you've created in your head that are going to either laugh at you or going to write mean comments. People writing mean comments, they're literally electrons, these are not people. So put it out there.”

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And if you think you don't have enough experience or funding, there's no reason to let that hold you back, in fact it could actually help you. A business study from the City University London found that such constraints are actually “beneficial to creativity” because tighter budgets not only cause people to be more resourceful but develop more creative products. It’s a scenario Oswalt has seen play out time and again in Hollywood and beyond when it comes to those considered creative novices.

“I would way rather roll the dice on an unproven person's freshman effort than on a proven person's sophomore effort, because a lot of times the sophomore effort is well, now everyone's excited about them so they're giving them some more leeway and a lot of times that can lead to some laziness and indulgence. Whereas someone who is first time out and working under restrictions, usually that ends up being a much more amazing piece of work,” he says.

“I would way rather roll the dice on an unproven person's freshman effort than on a proven person's sophomore effort”

For creators who have stepped out and are working on their next project Oswalt is not shy about telling them to push themselves further than they ever have before.

“What can really, really help your creativity? This is not a reassuring thing to say, but fear and risk. And that's not a reassuring thing to say to people. But if you want to stay vital and stay at it for in the long run, that's what it's going to take,” he says.

“What can really, really help your creativity? This is not a reassuring thing to say, but fear and risk.”

Oswalt is well versed in overcoming adversity when it comes to risk, fear, and continuing to pursue creativity. In 2016, the same year he won a Grammy for his stand up special Talking for Clapping, his wife suddenly passed away. However just four months later, the newly single father returned to the comedy stage. Despite an understandable rough start with his first few shows, less than a year later he had developed enough material to record his latest Netflix special, Annihilation.

The next step for Oswalt, might be his biggest one of all: making movies. A longtime film buff, Oswalt — whose addiction in the ‘90s had him watching literally hundreds of movies in the space of a few years — has long wanted to be a director.

But when you’ve had so much creative success, how do you start from scratch knowing you’ll have to face fear all over again?

”So every couple of years you've got to consciously peel away the stuff that you fought to establish. You then have to get rid of it and move forward so that you can create something new.”

“The boundaries of my creativity are my past successes because you will tend to cleave to whatever was successful because that becomes a comfort zone. So every couple of years...you've got to consciously peel away the stuff that you fought to establish. You then have to get rid of it and move forward so that you can create something new.”

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