Epiphanies can happen anywhere. Like the Nourse Theatre on a Tuesday night, for example. Last week, as I sat nestled in orchestra center, Patton Oswalt helped me achieve one. My friend Sola had invited me to see the comedian give a live interview as part of the City Arts and Lecture series, and assuming any activity involving Oswalt would induce hearty laughter, I agreed. And we did laugh, heartily, as Oswalt described life on the road with his four year old daughter, feigning excitement at movie sneak-preview premieres, and crafting the perfect tweet.
Like many (ok, probably all) performers, Oswalt’s journey to stardom was peppered with huge, embarrassing failures. Though he describes them all with humorous and judicious hindsight, he made it clear that without these failures he would never have pushed himself to succeed.
He told a story that particularly piqued my interest. In the early '90s, Oswalt made his way to San Francisco after years of tirelessly working the East Coast and Midwest as a comic. SF was abuzz with killer comics: Margaret Cho, Greg Proops, Dana Gould, Marc Maron (who will be interviewed by City Arts on October 16th -- get tickets) and others were already nailing it in the open mic scene. And then Patton showed up. As he described it, his jokes were funny enough, but they weren't smart, they didn’t take root and grow, they were kind of lazy, and they certainly weren’t going to cut the mustard with SF audiences. He performed his first Bay Area open mic on Clement St and bombed big time. It was the kind of failure that moves one to action. Patton crossed the street, got some dim sum, and went back to the drawing board, completely revamping his comedic style. (Oswalt may have been a bit too hard on himself though; here is Greg Behrendts’ version of events).
With that, the audience roared with applause, excited that our fair city had awakened the comedic genius. But Oswalt said we wouldn't have been clapping watching him crying in his dim sum, throwing out his new material, and bracing himself to start over again. It was a low point for him, and it was scary.
Then he said something so truthful, poignant, and simple, that I was jarred into consciousness; in order to succeed, you must first fail. Just as he was right about the ridiculousness of the KFC Famous bowl, he’s right about this. He explained a simple fact, that even when you fail so big you think the world is ending, you’re going to wake up the next morning and realize that the Earth is still spinning and that you have survived. This is the best thing that can happen because now that you see that failing didn’t kill you, you’re free to give it another try. See, Oswalt knows that the scariest part about trying anything is the fear of failure. One you’ve failed, you’ve faced your fear and you have nowhere to go but up.