Friday, November 2, 2012

Not Just for Laughs: Patton Oswalt’s Critical Rhetoric of the Comedian–Executive Relationship

Below is the paper I wrote for a graduate course I am taking in rhetorical theory. If you don't want to read it all here, I've also uploaded it to Google Docs as well. Enjoy. Or don't. I don't really give a shit.

Not Just for Laughs: Patton Oswalt’s Critical Rhetoric of the Comedian–Executive Relationship
Trent Hunsaker
Imagine attending a professional conference featuring presentations from the utmost experts in your field. Now imagine the final keynote speaker telling the audience of peers and cohorts that everything he or she knows about your field of study is worthless and that it’s a giant step forward for your profession.
This exact scenario took place in July of 2012 when comedian Patton Oswalt told the audience of the Just For Laughs Montreal Comedy Festival. Oswalt’s keynote speech is a perfect example of critical rhetoric as defined by Raymie McKerrow (Borchers, 189). I will analyze the critical practice Oswalt uses in his rhetoric, in which he describes the change of hegemony in the comedy community; his address is a critical response to the well-established rhetoric dictated by the producers and executives of the community. This shift in power is brought on by the counterpublic-sphere of comedians reaching audiences without the use of “gatekeepers.” (Oswalt, 2012)
First, let me quickly touch base on critical rhetoric or critical practice to which it is sometimes referred. Raymire McKerrow describes, “In practice, a critical rhetoric seeks to unmask or demystify the discourse of power” (Borchers, 189). McKerrow has even established four features that define critical rhetoric. I will show how these features are present in the Just For Laughs keynote address.
Patton Oswalt’s address is divided into two letters. One letter is addressed to “comedian in 2012,” and the other letter is addressed to “gatekeepers in broadcast and cable executive offices, focus groups, record labels, development departments, agencies and management companies” (Oswalt). The traditional model of comedy has been “a highly dependent and hierarchical culture” (Bayne, 2011). The comedian-producer hegemony has been dominated by the control of the control of distribution. As Timothy Borchers explains in his book Rhetorical Theory, “One form of oppression is through rigid control over information.” (181) In this section of his book on rhetoric, culture, and power, he explains that by controlling the distribution of knowledge, one group can usurp authority over another. Comedians – content generators – have been dependent on “gatekeepers” to disseminate scripts, films, books, recordings, etc. As Antonio Gramsci explains, the ruling class uses rhetoric to exert its influence of values and beliefs to the subordinate class, making the values of the ruling class seem like “common sense” to the subordinate class (Borchers 181).
This is the rhetoric that was accepted when Patton Oswalt first became a comedian, plus one more key figure in the equation. In his address, he explained that the rhetoric to succeed as a comedian hinged on getting on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. That was the only way to be recognized as having value to the gatekeepers.
… the way you made it in comedy was very clear, simple straightforward. You went on Carson, you killed, you got called over to the couch, and the next day you had your sitcom and your mansion, and you’re made. Just ask Drew Carey and Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres.
Going on, Oswalt explains that after Johnny Carson’s last Tonight Show, many established comedians, which had used the credentials of the Tonight Show to launch their careers, could no longer succeed in the changed culture.
            After this point, there were only the media executives that stood between the information created by the comedians and the public sphere. However, the comedians have been kept apart from the public sphere by the controlled delivery of the countersphere’s knowledge to the public. In describing George Herbert Mead’s views on universe of discourse, Borchers simply explained, “… everyone who speaks the same language shares in a universe of discourse … people who share more particular meanings for words are said to share a universe of discourse” (127). Rhetoric, created by the countersphere (the comedians), is in the same language as the public sphere. That is what makes good comedic material, being relatable to a large group across many socio-economic and cultural barriers. The bottle neck of information is what has kept the two spheres separate.
            Making it in the rhetoric of the post Carson comedian culture then hinged on “luck” and “being given” opportunities by the gatekeepers (Oswalt). Nearing the end of his letter to “Comedian in 2012,” Oswalt professes, “The days about luck and being given are about to end. They’re about to go away.”
            As mentioned earlier, McKerrow laid out distinct features of critical rhetoric. I would now like to shift focus to the second letter of Oswalt’s, the one addressed to “gatekeepers in braodacst and cable executive offices,” et. all. It is in this second letter that we can find the features described by McKerrow which qualify Oswalt’s address as critical rhetoric.
            McKerrow’s first criterion for critical rhetoric is a “critical spirit” (Borchers 189). Borchers explains that it is deals with “power, ideology, and rhetoric” (189). Oswalt shows his concern with all three of these details in the opening sentences of the second letter. He uses what Richard Weaver would deem “terms of repulsion” or “devil terms” satirically to establish the inverse of power: “I’m not going to call you ‘the enemy’ or ‘the man’” (Oswalt). He even goes as far as to ironically misalign himself with other critical rhetors, “If I tried to strike a Ché Guevara pose, you would be correct in point out that the dramatic under light on my face was being reflected up from my swimming pool.”
            The second qualification for critical rhetoric is that it “… attempts to demystify sources of power in society by revealing the ways that rhetoric conceals its relationship to knowledge and power” (Borchers, 189). Oswalt first takes on the task of demystifying the old rhetoric by giving multipleexamples of new rhetoric that works, and turns the old style upside down. He particularly singles out the very successful Louis C.K, “… all of us comedians are watching Louis CK revolutionize sitcoms and comedy recordings and live tours.” 
            Oswalt evokes what Susanne Langer described as presentational rhetoric (Borchers, 128), as he held up his iPhone and explained that because of that device, which is almost a dogmatic symbol in today’s popular culture, comedians now wield much of the power that the executives hold:
In my hand right now I’m holding more filmmaking technology than Orsen Welles had when he filmed Citizen Kane. I’m holding almost the same amount of cinematography, post-editing, sound editing, and broadcast capabilities as you have at your TV network. In a couple of years it’s going to be fucking equal.
Peeking behind the curtain, comedians now see the Wizards of Oz and their fancy machines, to be less significant. Oswalt unmasks their power in a very real way with a very simple symbol.
            Another way that Oswalt demystifies the discourse of the media executive’s power is through comparison. He explains that self-produced content isn’t any better or any worse than the executive produced content, “There are sitcoms now on the Internet, some of them are brilliant, some of them are ‘meh,’ some of them fuckin’ suck. At about the same ration that things are brilliant and ‘meh’ and suck on your network.” This is a quantitative way that he shows the equality of discourse between the two groups.
            Critique in the vein of critical rhetoric “is not detached and impersonal,” says McKerrow (Borchers, 189). Oswalt’s entire letter is speaking from personal experience. In six pages of text, Oswalt uses the pronoun ‘I’ 35 times. He particularly owns part of the problem directly attaching himself to the rhetoric he is critiquing, “I am as much to blame for my uneasiness and realization of late that I’m part of the problem, that I’m half asleep and more than half complacent.” Oswalt even expresses gratitude for the work that media executives have “given” him, thus positioning himself as a mediator between the two groups and personalizing the problem.
            Lastly, McKerrow explains that critical rhetoric must offer suggestions in the redistribution of power and actions for the future to change the rhetoric being critiqued (Borchers, 189). The last-two pages of Oswalts address acts as a map for media executives to be successful in the new rhetoric that he has shown, “If we work with you in the future, it’s going to be because we like your product and your choices and your commitment to pushing boundaries and ability to protect the new and difficult.”
            However, Patton Oswalt’s message is not entirely negative. He lays out a “deal” for the gatekeepers which contains positive actions for them that benefit both groups. He encourages executives to become fans of the content that they distribute and produce and to be excited about having “… the most top heaved with young talent wave of comedians that this industry [has] ever had…” He continues and explains that his letter is not a threat, but moreover an offer to reach across the table in a symbiotic relationship.
            Rhetoric can be used as a means of oppression, even if the oppression is unintentional. According to Rosteck, rhetoric is “…the way we understand our own identity” (Borchers, 8). Patton Oswalt’s keynote address, delivered in June of 2012, was a critical response to the long accepted rhetoric of how comedians saw themselves in their careers. As rhetoric being a means of communication, Oswalt finished his address as satirically and ironically as he began, leaving conversation open with the gatekeepers, saying, “If you think that we’re somehow going to turn on you later … let me tell you one thing … Criticism is nothing to us” (Oswalt, 2012).

Works Cited
Bayne, Gregory. You Have No Business Being In The Business. Filmmaker - The Magazine of         Independent Film, August 2, 2011 <
 Borchers, Timothy. Rhetorical Theory An Introduction. Long Grove: Waveland Press Inc.,             2006.   Print
Oswalt, Patton. "All of the Comedians in the Room"; "All of the Gatekeepers." Just for Laughs            Comedy Festival. Montreal, CAN, July 25, 2012. Keynote Address.             <            keynote-address-at-montreals-just-for-laughs-2012/>

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