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The Comedian Comedians Were Afraid Of

Patrice O’Neal didn’t just want to be famous, he wanted to be as good as Richard Pryor. To hear his fellow comics tell it, he was—a brutal truth-teller who spared no one, starting with those closest to him.

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Even comedians—who rarely shut up—had to surrender whenever Patrice O’Neal began to talk. He’s the guy they would call on the long drive home from Magooby’s Joke House who loved to discuss—at length—whether Jay-Z would ever cheat on Beyoncé, or the various options for black reparations, or the best adjectives for different smells of pussy. He was a master at introducing subjects that you never even knew you had an opinion about—like whether you’d be willing to have sex with a girl who had no nose. Even though O’Neal was usually doing 90 percent of the talking, listening had the feel of conversation, in part because he was famously picky about whom he’d talk to, and in part because he always implicated you in his investigations. Whether the topic was crass or ridiculous, he demanded a response. The transformative power of the ugly truth was, for O’Neal, a form of grace.

If O’Neal was known for working his conversations offstage, he was equally well known for taking big risks with his audiences. “If you watched Patrice, all his shows were different and he didn’t write any of his material down,” says Bill Burr, a comic who came up with him in Boston. “He got to it in a new way every night. As long as I knew him, he was always working on trying to attain a level of freedom onstage where he could just go up there and talk to the crowd. To me, that was the Pryor school of stand-up comedy.” Of the many things O’Neal’s peers admired about his performances—the assertions he got away with, the sly surprise of his punch lines, the seamlessness with which he skated between warmth and disgust—what excited them most was the way his shows built as his attention moved among his listeners, sparking off their fears and desires and stirring them up.

“When you question a lot, you are wrong a lot—so wrong—but he’d present the case like a champion,” says Keith Robinson, a comedian and former roommate. “I’m arguing, and at the same time thinking, How this dude is working this!” O’Neal was always maneuvering to make room for the man he was still discovering himself to be—a seeker with competing appetites and sorrows; a half-domesticated feminist ­super-misogynist; an iconoclastic black man who defended the freedom of white racists on Fox News; a brilliant 325-pound jock philosopher from the hood whose favorite books were Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Skinny Bitch: A No-Nonsense, Tough-Love Guide for Savvy Girls Who Want to Stop Eating Crap and Start Looking Fabulous!

“He was an artful dodger who kept researching himself,” says Robinson. And he expected others to make the same effort. His fiancée, Vondecarlo Brown, said it wasn’t unusual for him to lay into a cashier at Marshalls about her bad attitude; Brown would return from her shopping 40 minutes later to find the duo strategizing about ways the cashier might pursue her dreams. Talking led to what Patrice called “the reveal”—­whatever tender or humiliating fact an honest conversation might unearth. Civilians didn’t always have the stomach for it, but comedians usually appreciated the insight. As comic Amy Schumer explained, “The only things he would say were things I didn’t see about myself.”

I’d been researching a book on stand-up for years, and people kept telling me I needed to speak with Patrice, but I always found a reason to put it off. To begin with, his reputation preceded him. He was six-foot-five, extremely loud, a bully, and an expert at leveraging white guilt. Once, at the HBO offices, I overheard his blowtorch of invective when noise in the lobby interrupted his meeting. He had reduced Lisa Lampanelli, an insult comic, to tears. Last year, we finally exchanged numbers, after which he casually eviscerated a young publicist nearby (“Shut your hole,” he said, with a purity of contempt that was striking, even though I was a comedy survivor by then). All of this convinced me that I needed more preparation. I never pursued Patrice O’Neal, and then he was dead.

This past December, at the Park Avenue Christian Church’s funeral for Patrice Lumumba Malcolm O’Neal, the comedians sat quietly. Some wore suits. Others spruced up in their own ways—baseball hats clenched in hands, T-shirts tucked in, slacks instead of jeans. Chris Rock and Kevin Hart wore sneakers, but they were there, along with Wanda Sykes and Artie Lange. Headliners spend a lot of time on the road; it was unusual to see so many of them gathered in one place. In the dim church light, they looked especially wan.

A pro who had known O’Neal for about twenty years later confessed that he’d had to work up the courage to make an appearance because he could hear Patrice’s voice booming, “What the fuck are you doing here?” Another stayed home because he imagined Patrice rising from the casket to lob a similar rebuke. O’Neal would have enjoyed the discomfort—­discomfort was one of his favorite tools. At the same time, he would have appreciated the consideration; he gave serious thought to when and where he chose to show up.


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