Off topic, but I just felt like writing something on the subject, and I don't write for a comedy magazine anymore, so it has to go somewhere.
This week, comedy suffered perhaps its biggest loss since the death of Bill Hicks. In fact, the two have quite a bit in common, not in style but in the path they took. Patrice O’Neal wasn’t just one of the funniest comics working today, he was one of the most unique, original, and genuinely smart comedians we’ve ever had. He may not have been influential, but it was only because what he did was so completely inimitable that no one could even try to copy him. It’s for that reason that I feel a tangible sense of loss because of his passing, in a way I never do when a celebrity dies.
For all his talent, it’s a sad fact of reality that TV never really knew what to do with Patrice. Television has a very specific idea of what stand-up comedy is supposed to look like. It should be a man in a large theater standing behind a microphone, barking rapid-fire jokes to a wall of anonymous faces, and that simply wasn’t what Patrice’s act was. He could do it when TV called, of course, but what you were seeing on the small screen was very different than what comedy club audiences saw.
Those qualities that made Patrice special were the same ones that kept him from becoming a household name. It was interesting to see audiences misjudge the 6’ 5”, 300lb black man based on what they had come to expect from other comedians fitting his profile. For as physically imposing as he was, his calm, intellectual approach is what would really catch people off guard.
Upon taking the stage, Patrice would pull up a stool, sit down, and sip a bottle of water. He’d coolly assess the room and banter with whoever happened to be sitting in the front row. At no point was there ever a clear line where crowd work ended and material began, because his entire delivery so casual and conversational, you always felt like he was speaking directly to someone. After seeing his show for the first time, many people would say “Wow, I think he improvised that whole thing.” He didn’t, of course, but his performances were so sincere it really felt that way.
A lot of what he did fell outside of what you’d normally even consider "jokes." His bits were persuasive essays, beginning with a ridiculous or controversial premise, and then supporting it with a series of analogies and arguments until it all made so much sense you couldn’t help but laugh. Like Bill Hicks before him, Patrice wasn’t afraid to take his time with the long set up, because he knew the smart laugh was better than the quick one.
In part because of his conversational approach, and in part because of his unparalleled ability to troll the women of the audience, people would shout out at the stage at almost every Patrice show I’ve been to. Normally when a heckler interrupts a show, it’s an infuriating distraction, but for Patrice, it was just a chance to prove his point. His ability to dissect people in a moment was uncanny, and those that challenged him would invariably feel foolish, sometimes to the point of storming out of the room, or even crying, not because he was mean, but because he was right. That ability was envied by nearly every comic out there.
Again like Hicks, Patrice was always frustrated that he wasn’t more famous than he was, and that took its toll on his productivity. I met him as a fan on a handful of occasions and on one of them, I even said to him “You know, you might just be a few years ahead of your time, like Bill Hicks. You need to record this so it’s around later when people get wise.” He just shrugged and said “Nah, man, I’m too lazy.” Of course, I didn’t mean it in a morbid “you might die” sort of way, I just meant that the material should be preserved, but the choice of analogy seems unfortunately dead-on in hindsight. On a couple other occasions I would ask him when we were going to see an album, and it was always the same response.
His last special, Elephant in the Room, changed things, though. They lit and mic’ed the front few rows of the audience and they let him talk to people. They extended the run time to around 80 minutes, and let him stretch out with his long set ups and analogies. He still had to stand up and deliver monologues, but it was much closer to the “real” Patrice O’Neal than anything he had recorded prior. And it was good. Like Louis CK’s Shameless or Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain, this was an artist reaching maturity.
The last time I saw Patrice was in March at Caroline’s in New York. It was about 3 weeks or so after Elephant in the Room premiered and he was just starting to work out new material. He usually hangs out at the bar and talks to fans after shows, so I brought my Elephant DVD to get autographed, but this time he just retired back to the green room. I'm not sure why I didn't just blow it of until next time, but I'm glad I didn't.
I talked to the security guard and he asked Patrice if I could come back, and he agreed. A woman who had been heckling him throughout the show was back there as well, making nice. He signed my disc, and this time I said, “Now don’t make us wait 10 years for the next one.” He paused and just laughed that unmistakable high pitched laugh of his and shook my hand.
But a month later, he recorded 70 minutes of new material. It was for an upcoming self-produced album on an indie comedy label, the first time Patrice ever actually took the initiative to record something on his own, rather than when a TV network called. It seemed like Patrice was proud of Elephant in a way he hadn’t been of his previous recordings, and it motivated him. He wasn’t lazy at all – in fact he wrote 70 minutes of material in about 2 months – he just needed to feel what it was like to get something right, on his own terms.
Had Patrice lived, there’s no doubt he could have done 10 more specials, every bit as good as Elephant in the Room, and if he did, I’m sure fame would have finally called for him. What I saw as his breakthrough will now be his magnum opus, and that’s what might be most heartbreaking about this whole thing. Had Chris Rock died right after Bring the Pain, he’d still be a legend, but we’d have missed so many great bits. We’ve lost a truly original voice, and it’s one that simply can’t be replaced, ever.
But at least he didn’t die before then. With an amazing special behind him, and a promising album ahead of him, it seems like Patrice is destined to be more famous in death than he was in life, like Bill Hicks and Mitch Hedberg before him. His legacy is secure, but his absence will be felt. We were lucky to have him when we did.
You had your fun.