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The Comedian Comedians Were Afraid Of


Patrice O’Neal’s Socratic Method: The comedian holds forth in two memorable riffs recorded the year before he died.

Jim Norton stood. The third mike of radio’s “The Opie & Anthony Show,” Norton had clocked in thousands of hours of conversation with Patrice both on and off the air. They’d toured together and done TV shows together and gotten prostitutes together. Norton also heard Patrice ridiculing him as he approached the lectern—“Shut up!”—but he found the familiar blast of insult reassuring. For the nearly six weeks that Patrice had been in a coma following a stroke last fall, the “O&A” show had become a cross between a hospital waiting room and a coffee shop. Comedians kept stopping by and calling in with their favorite Patrice stories; after he died, the stories continued to pour in. Comics spoke about the thrill of witnessing someone’s first takedown by Patrice and the suitcase full of dildos he brought hookers on his trips to Brazil. They also rehashed the highlights of his bridge-burning career—his lousy attitude when he auditioned for Chris Rock; his unwillingness to keep his schedule open for Spike Lee; his refusal to travel to L.A. for additional work on The Office, where he had a recurring role.

At the church, Norton read a few of the hundreds of e-mails sent in by “O&A” listeners. One wrote, “I never had someone make me laugh so hard, while saying things I couldn’t agree with less.” Another woman introduced herself as a friend of Eddie Brill’s, the former booker for David Letterman, who’d met Patrice after he opened for Denis Leary at Carnegie Hall in 2004. He’d stared at her nipples and said, “Well, at least one of them is happy to see me!” The woman explained that she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. When Patrice seemed to doubt her, she found herself flashing him to prove it; he had roared with laughter and enveloped her in a bear hug. When Norton had visited Patrice in the hospital, he told him how many people were asking after him. “Of course,” said Norton, “he couldn’t respond, and I realized, in all the years I’ve known him, this is the first time I’ve ever dominated a conversation with Patrice.”

Colin Quinn went next. “That was very nice, what Jim said,” he began somberly. Then he paused, and the comics, suddenly alert, sat up a bit straighter for what they hoped was coming. “ ‘Eddie Brill’s a friend?’ Why would you include that? You irrelevant idiot.” People laughed and shifted in the pews; they were loosening up. Quinn recalled how even on his own TV show, Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn, the network frequently gave him can-you-shut-up-Patrice? notes. “You couldn’t shut Patrice up any more than you could shut off a river,” he said. “Patrice is the only guy I can imagine trying to meet God as an equal. If I could somehow be looking at him in Heaven right now, and watched him meet God, I know I’d be thinking the same thing everybody else would be thinking. ‘Uh-oh, God shouldn’t have said that. Now he’s going to get hammered by Patrice.’ ”

Other performances followed. Wil Sylvince, O’Neal’s longtime roommate, spoke about how Patrice disabused him of stereotypes of overweight men: He didn’t smell, didn’t leave food lying around, and always had women. Kevin Hart, who now fills stadiums, remembered a night at the Comedy Cellar when Patrice and the ­other big-shot comics tossed telephone books at him. As Robert Kelly approached the podium, he imagined what Patrice would have said—“Speak from your heart, asshole!”—so he did. Rich Vos followed, scoring points off both Kelly and “Lil Kev,” then preempting ridicule about his own stalled career. “I’ll be selling my DVDs and CDs on the church steps after the service,” he said, waiting a beat before adding, “just as Patrice would have wanted it.” O’Neal, a terrible self-­promoter, hated merchandise.

The funeral was in many ways just the kind of room Patrice liked to work in—with people he loved, stripping away one another’s pretensions to get to a more honest place, and ultimately on his terms. Not surprisingly, this dynamic had eluded him in Hollywood, and he had repeatedly tried to re-create it on cable, the web, and radio. He operated in what a former manager called “Patrice time”—at his own pace and on the assumption that others would eventually catch up. At one point, he’d come up with an idea for a show: The Patrice O’Neal Show, Starring Other People. The Park Avenue Christian Church was as close as he was going to get, but he wasn’t there to see it.


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