So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #073: Time for My Annual Existential Crisis

This past week, I was beckoned to the throne of my day job, seated firmly near Knoxville, Tennessee. As I volunteered to make the trek by land instead of air — due in part to carrying some precious cargo (art for our building) — I had the benefit of a 9 hour journey to and fro with which to collect my thoughts.

On the way down, I was asked to give a listen to “The Oz Principle”. For those uninitiated, it’s a decades-old business book about the importance of accountability. To say that I was able to listen to it and not careen my Dodge Grand Caravan into the bluegrass hills of Kentucky whilst hearing the 1,983,957th passage about how we must stay above the line in order never drop below the line, always keeping in mind that we must always see it, own it, know it, and lastly do it… well, it’s a g-d-miracle. Business books are always a mélange of vague musings written by boring white people trying their best to suppress their inner racist / conservative id that clearly wants to just shout “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST PULL YOURSELF UP BY YER BOOTSTRAPS, WILLY?!”. Maybe I’m the biased one. But I digress.

After a week of Knoxville charm, an important sales meeting, and a company town hall presentation wherein I was made to extol the virtue of corporate kindness, I decided to extend said kindness to myself for the return drive home. I purchased the audiobook of Patton Oswalt’s second memoir “Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film”.

The book details (mostly) a period of the nerd-king comedian’s life wherein he consumed cinema at a level that leaves the listener stupefied —if not for the brief respites where Patton name-drops his time working at MadTV or the founding and development of the now alt-famous Largo comedy club.

Suffice it to say, I’ve long held Oswalt in the highest regard. His Werewolves and Lollypops album christened my honeymoon road trip with my beloved wife Kathy. And whilst on our vacation, I picked up the import of 222, which was a double-album of his first material uncut. I’ve followed the man’s career from the stand-up stage, to King of Queens, from Big Fan to Ratatouille. I’ve cried (a bit) when his first wife, Michelle McNamara, passed away unexpectedly… and then cried (a bit, in happiness) when he married Meredith Salanger and shared how that journey came to fruition out of the ashes of a very dark time.

Here in Fiend though, Patton — then in his mid-twenties — waxes poetic about being possibly clinically depressed but clinging to life by stumbling between the art house movie theater and his budding career. By the end of the book, Patton’s on his way. Wounded, but hardly dead. A head full of silver screen factoids waiting to pummel unsuspecting friends, ensconced in a witty mind. A wordsmith who committed properly to the grind of a show-business entrepreneur, such that he’s been able to survive the demons forever awaiting him at his door.

But why should I be reviewing an audiobook for you… one that’s six years old, in fact. Well, it’s not really a review is it? The book is great. Get it. There’s my review. What’s more important for me, was the context in which I was consuming Oswalt’s words… and how they lead me here, to my little corner of the internet.

As I barreled up whatever highway(s) I was on (thanks to Google, I don’t pay attention anymore), piecing together Patton’s career, I started putting together his journey to success. From college to the open mics. From those open mics to a risk heading out west. To finding a new and important voice in the alternative comedy scene which garnered him an HBO special, a MADTV writing gig, and so-on. While no doubt not the intention of the author, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast his journey to my own. One that lead me 3 hours from home to go to college, find a girl, fall in love with that girl, and drag her 3 hours up to the very town I left. House. Career. Kids. And then, in the mini-van, chasing daylight to get home in time for dinner, having completed a trip down to corporate.

This contrast… It led me to a dark place. I won’t lie.

When Patton was committing to the stage and the craft of comedy — when I should have been publishing ashcans and churning out content to hone my comic book craft — I was enjoying being a post-entry-level graphic designer slowly earning enough money to think about marrying the girl I loved (because financial stability is tight!). While Patton was bombing with those original alt-comedy crowds, shedding his road-worthy schlock for original material that tapped into his actual being, I was only just publishing my first graphic novel — a year and a half slog of production that garnered Unshaven Comics $500 and a box of books to sell. And while Patton was producing HBO Specials, and ghostwriting movies to make ends meet? I was buying those specials on CD to christen my honeymoon road trip… excited about publishing our first 24 page comic where my contributions were mostly shitty coloring, and copy editing.

And here I am, tick-tacking away on my meticulously sourced custom mechanical keyboard, above my literal arsenal of Nerf guns, below a trio of sleeping boys bearing more than a little likeness of their dear old dad — in the new home I’m mortgaging — all paid for by that day job. Director of Sales and Marketing. It’s a great title. And heck, I’m not even 40 yet technically. By all accounts, I have nothing to complain about.

But then there’s Patton.

You see, like so many an only child, I’ve never quite abandoned the feeling that I’m the center of my own universe. As much as I love my wife, and my sons Bennett, Colton, and Alec (as well as our forthcoming fourth child… a daughter to round out our collection of guppies)… I can’t escape an inner monologue that sees me as the hero of the story. So, how is it that our hero — meant to sit atop some entertainment empire of Samurnauts TV-series, screenplays, and merchandise — is so ensconced in suburban minutiae that those dreams now truly are left somewhere back on a highway in his mid-twenties. Except that highway didn’t take him west. It just bounced him between Indianapolis and Chicago, as the plan to rule the suburbs he never left cemented.

Allow me to clarify a few finer points though. First and foremost? I am the center of my universe, but I recognize — and love — that it’s because I am the sun that warms and protects the planets in my solar system. Each need warmth, compassion, education, stability, and most importantly… time playing video games. And my day job? It’s legitimately challenging in great ways. While it’s not writing and drawing the adventures of an immortal kung-fu monkey, it is rewarding in different ways. Knowing at present 7 people call me boss and generally seem to like the job I do in supervising them? The satisfaction in being a manager more than a pixel-pusher fulfils a hole I didn’t even honestly know I had. One that couldn’t be filled by the roar of a crowd enjoying content I’ve made. Funny, that.

Ultimately “Silver Screen Fiend” sent me down a path of introspection to question if I’d ever had the wherewithal Patton Oswalt had in those frequent Night Café moments — seminal points in time where your life changes unmistakably forever. The initial feeling in response, honestly was one of failure. Because Unshaven Comics will likely never be more than a fleeting hobby that garners us dinner money and amazing memories. Because The Samurnauts will likely never be picked up as some turn-key IP that mints us a fortune because of its clever hook. Because my own claim to fame may very well be completing art that appeared on bus ads for a few months and got my name dropped in an AP write-up. Because I never took that leap of faith to do more with my fledging comedy than toss it errantly on local spoken word stages as an excuse to see some old friends. Because Patton wound up with the wife, kid, and big house and has the career in entertainment I deeply, jealously, thought I might eek my way into.

Here’s the rub though. Like every artist essentially ever, this pessimistic existential crisis wrapped up in a woe-is-me burrito of ennui and imposter-syndrome vibes… is just a stop on the merry-go-round of the creative type. I’ll feel this exact same way again the second we return to a comic con and I see someone I know with a brand new amazing book and a long line of fans. I’ll feel the sharp pangs of regret when some fan half my age has a portfolio of drool-worthy art, with Ross Ritchie tapping them on the shoulder just to say hello. But feelings pass. Ever-quicker the older we get. My crisis on infinite Earths ended the literal second my middle son Colton hugged me hard the millisecond I walked in the door from my trip down to Tennessee.

Patton can have his movies and his success. I’ll be along for the ride with each album dropped. They make amazing companions on long road trips — be they for Unshaven Comics, Call Center Sales Pro, or just The Fishman Family™.