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Patrice O'Neal

2 September 13 words: Ashley Carter
Possibly one of the greatest comedians you've never heard of
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Riding high on the zeitgeist of his well-publicised mutiny against the powers-that-be at Two and a Half Men, Comedy Central’s Roast of Charlie Sheen was one of the most highly anticipated in the event’s long history.  Regular roaster Jeff Ross was as sharp and brutal as ever, up-and-coming comics Amy Schumer and Anthony Jeselnik, as well as show business bulwarks like William Shatner, Steve-O and Mike Tyson all played their part well.  But it was after penultimate roaster Shatner had re-taken his seat, and roast master Seth McFarlane had finished his amusing introduction that the figure of Patrice O’Neal – his enormous 6” 4’, 23 stone frame swathed all in black from hat to jeans, a gold chain hanging from his neck – swaggered up to the microphone.  With self-assurance previously unseen in the show, O’Neal opened his notes, and looking down, re-folded them.  He took a deep breath and looked out under the brim of his cap at his awaiting audience.  “It’s strange” he starts, “I had all this planned shit, but I didn’t know William Shatner was gonna be this quasi… like, an old racist man.  But everybody’s giggling…” He stops, thumping his enormous hands into the podium, and turning to the Star Trek legend, blasts “You’re a fuckin’ asshole Captain Kirk!”  

The laughter from the crowd is astounding, as he springs into an impromptu, hilarious savaging of his fellow roasters, deconstructing the long-standing roast traditions and stealing the show.  The Roast aired to 6.4 million people on its debut, 19 September 2011, making it the highest rated episode to date.  After an entire career of refusing to make it on anyone else’s terms but his own, Patrice O’Neal was finally on his way to gaining the widespread recognition his colossal talent deserved.  But barely two months later, O’Neal was dead. Complications from the stroke that three weeks earlier had taken his speech and movement eventually took his life.

He had previously turned down the opportunity to participate in other roasts, but there was something about the way that Charlie Sheen had refused to compromise, and willingly sacrificed so much in order to be his own man that impressed O’Neal, ringing true with his own ethos. Any of the comics who knew him were quick to point out that he was the quickest, funniest and most insightful comic of their generation.  He could easily have held his own with any Bruce, Pryor, Carlin or Hicks. But in an industry where compromise, mediocrity and inoffensiveness are richly rewarded, O’Neal never strayed from the path he chose to walk from the onset.

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Quickly gaining the reputation as a bridge-burner, O’Neal was often confronted with opportunities that, given some minor compromise on his part, could have launched his career. Following his death, fellow Boston comic Louis CK acknowledged that O’Neal, “could be slumped in a chair, and Steven Spielberg walks up to him, and he’d be like, ‘Do I have to take my hands out of my pockets to shake your hand?’” When given an opportunity to pitch a show to some television executives, O’Neal instead decided to spend his time verbally attacking them for allowing alleged joke thief Carlos Mencia on the air with his own show.

His fierce independence followed him onto the stage and polarised his audiences. When Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator Larry David began his stand-up career, he was known for walking onto the stage, looking at the crowd, and walking straight back off again. He could tell straight away whether or not they were worth his time. Similarly, Patrice could tell whether a crowd were with him or not. Instead of walking away, he’d face up to them, instigating conversations so unbelievable that walk-outs became a regular occurrence, and in many instances, a personal goal.  Bill Burr told a story of an occasion in which O’Neal was asked to perform at a benefit to combat cruelty to dogs.  As a huge animal lover and lifetime dog owner, he agreed.  After taking the stage, he was unhappy at how the events organiser was looking at him.  He went on to create and explain several delicious puppy recipes.  When his microphone was cut, he sat at the piano and proceeded to bang out a song. 

As much of an on-stage talent he was, it was conversationally on The Opie and Anthony Show, an American satellite radio programme, that he truly flourished. The nature of the show, on which the comedians such as Louis CK, Jim Norton, Robert Kelly, Bill Burr, Colin Quinn, Nick DiPaolo, Rich Vos, Jim Jeffries, Joe DeRosa and O’Neal are given the creative and comedic freedom to talk, without the time, language or content constraints of regular radio shows. Within this context, comedians aren’t forced to ‘spontaneously’ break into their on-stage material, and can freely express their thoughts. 

To understand the nature of this show, however, is to understand the mindset and camaraderie of the East Coast comedy community.  Usually found at The Comedy Cellar (the club that Louis CK walks into during the opening credits of his FX show, Louie) these comics specialise in the brutality of verbally attacking each other almost non-stop.  Be it an item of clothing, an opinion or a past indiscretion, as soon as one comic has picked up on it, the rest will follow like hyenas sensing a weakness. It’s brutal and ruthless, but is comedy in its purest form, and is what makes the radio show one of the most successful in the world. 

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Clocking up hundreds of hours of air-time throughout the years, a candid and accurate representation of Patrice O’Neal as a man was presented, a backlog of simply remarkable shows that more than makes up for his self-imposed exile from televisions and film.  Co-host of the show Anthony Cumia said of O’Neal’s logic, “you could take a very complicated subject, one that I’d be sitting here all geared up for an in-depth, complicated ‘let’s dissect this subject’ kind of thing.  But he’d come in and sum it up in one sentence and make you think ‘That is it. Perfect.’” The rich vein of insecurity that shapes any comedian didn’t stretch to O’Neal when it came to funny people. “He wasn’t afraid of being around funny people,” said close friend and fellow comic Jim Norton, “people who are genuinely funny never are”, with Gregg ‘Opie’ Hughes of the radio show adding ““If he found you funny, he would absolutely make sure you know you were funny.”

To pick a stand-out performance from these shows is nigh on impossible; there are dozens of moments that highlight different aspects of his superiority as a comic, an intellectual and a man. One exchange with Dr. Victoria Zdrok, a self-confessed ‘sexpert’ and author of a book aimed at telling men how they should approach women, displayed his passion for gender relationships. Within minutes he’d broken down why her book was ridiculous, destroyed any authority she thought she had on the subject and expressed his exasperation at the entire situation. Beginning to flounder, Zdrok started relying on her physical attraction and tales of past sexual exploits to try and win over her all-male audience. She claims that women are just as interested in no-strings-attached sex as men are, a point that O’Neal strongly disputes, shouting, “it’s like going fishing. You buy the bait, go out onto the ocean and find the perfect spot. You fish and fish, and you finally catch this big, delicious tuna. Now you’ve got this giant tuna, and you’re thinking ‘Holy shit! Look what I did’ Then you throw the tuna back into the water, but the fucking fish jumps back into the boat and goes ‘I love you.’” Zdrok goes on to discuss how it was her attitude that led to finding true love with her husband, whose sexual prowess and masculinity she tries to convince O’Neal is her doing, stating that it’s all a case of rewarding his good behavior with sexual favours. An exasperated O’Neal begins making animal noises, play-acting the simple beast Zdrok seems to think he is. Unconvinced that her relationship is anything like she says it is; he knows men and, more importantly, women too well to believe her.  No successful relationship, he says, can flourish under those conditions. Months after O’Neal died, he was proven right.  Zdrok announced her divorce from her husband claiming that she only married him for a green card and US citizenship.

His style in these arguments, especially against women, can on the surface, seem like little more than misogyny or bullying. He was keen to define himself as an uncensored misogynist, declaring that there was always a difference between being racist and being racial. However unpopular his opinions were, as long as they were logical and honest to him, he’d brazenly voice them to all that would listen.

When fellow comic Colin Quinn’s TV show Tough Crowd was commissioned, O’Neal quickly became a regular.  A brutally honest look at race, sexuality, religion and political affairs provided the perfect platform for O’Neal’s outspoken views. Just like with the radio show, he took no prisoners with his fellow comics.  Anyone who had pre-prepared material, or tried to please the crowd with hack jokes were promptly savaged by O’Neal, regardless of whether the audience agreed or not.  But, due to the controversial nature of its content, Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn was cancelled. The network was too concerned with the honesty with which it discussed racial issues.

Above all else, Patrice O’Neal was a fan of logic.  For a man so quick to enter debates on any subject, big or small, he was remarkably quick to concede a point that had been proven to him.  Never one to be bullied into an opinion, he was a phenomenal debater. Perhaps his finest moment, and the event that best represents O’Neal, was seen when he appeared on Fox News to defend The Opie and Anthony Show after a recent controversy in which a homeless man had shouted sexual comments about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on air. His unfortunate sparring partner that day was Sonia Osario, a woman armed with little more than second-hand outrage. Osario was unprepared for the duel, seeing this enormous, black comedian and dismissing him as an intellectual inferior. Within three minutes she received such a verbal savaging that she was tripping over her words and misremembering her points. The YouTube clip – perfectly titled Patrice O’Neal schools broad on funny – is one of the finest examples of how an argument based on fake outrage can fall apart at the seams when faced with a mind like O’Neal’s. 

Dismissing her with a gesture, he starts, “I don’t know her, but I’m assuming she has nothing to do with funny. So, I’m going to speak as the expert on funny. Funny people should just be left to try and be funny.”  As the one-sided argument continues, the smug smile drains from Osario’s face as she realises the verbal beating she’s taking.  Trying to shut O’Neal up, she calls him a fool.

“Ah!” he exclaims, “name calling. I’m outraged.” In that moment the argument is won.  She continues, attempting to trap O’Neal into describing a joke in his act in which he explains the ‘Donkey Punch’, “Patrice says that if you are having sex with a woman, doggy style, and you hit her in the head…” Without letting her finish, he picks up the explanation “Nope. Wrong. It’s called an ‘Angry Pirate’. You ejaculate in her eye, and kick her in the shin.” The sound of a cameraman off-screen laughing grabs his attention. Addressing the noise, O’Neal says, “Why are you laughing? Can’t you see that she’s outraged?” Everyone laughs, even Osario.  The strength of his argument and his comedy completely dominated the exchange from start to finish.  That was the last time he was asked to appear on the programme.

Several heart-breakingly honest appearances on The Opie and Anthony Show by his long-term girlfriend, Vondecarlo Brown (whom Patrice referred to as his wife) shed light on the man in his private life.  Refreshingly, she told of how it wasn’t an act, and that his ferocious integrity and insatiable appetite for truth and knowledge continued when no one else was around. Brown’s daughter, for whom O’Neal was a stepfather, read at his funeral, showing the crowd just how big an influence he had played in her upbringing.  

In the year before his passing, his first hour-long stand-up special was released. Beautifully titled Elephant in the Room it was one of those rare stand-up performances that perfectly captures the comedic identity of a man, showing that on-stage he was just as funny as he was off.  Following his death, a CD, Mr. P, that was due for release before his stroke became available, with proceeds going to his family. A further album of unreleased material, simply titled Unreleased, is available on i-Tunes from 20 August.

His memory continues, fuelled by the countless radio appearances and on stage material he created.  A recent tribute show put together by fellow comic Bill Burr completely sold out, and Vondecarlo Brown’s tireless work on Facebook and Twitter, as well as former collaborator and friend Dante Nero all significantly help maintain his legacy. Last month a young comedian called Kain Carter was exposed as having stolen O’Neal’s material.  The backlash he received through social networking revealed just how strong Patrice O’Neal’s legacy continues to be, and how much the strength of his integrity influenced a whole generation of comedy fans.  

The same beliefs that stopped Patrice O’Neal from becoming as well known as he deserved to be left him with a legacy as the very epitome of integrity and righteousness.  The bravest, most ferociously funny and talented comic of his generation died at the age of 41, just as it seemed he was truly getting into his comedic stride. There were many fortunate to have known him, a select lucky few that copped a good verbal thrashing from him, and many more whose lives were truly changed by his words. The truly auspicious ones however are the people who have never heard just how hilarious, virtuous, silly and intellectually brilliant Patrice O’Neal was: the ones that get to discover him for the very first time. 

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