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The Comedian Comedians Were Afraid Of

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Patrice was not regarded as a man of many secrets. No topic seemed off-limits: his laziness; his loneliness; his threesomes; he’d even discussed his terror of prison, where he’d spent time on a ­statutory-rape conviction when he was a teenager. But many of the comics at the funeral were caught off-guard when Vondecarlo’s 12-year-old daughter, Aymilyon, in her bright-pink dress and rhinestone headband, spoke without a trace of irony about the man she liked to call Mr. P. It was clear from her description of the things he’d taught her—to try new things, to laugh when she was angry, and to argue for her opinion—that she, too, had known the same Patrice. This surprise guest was a classic Patrice closer: evidence that required you to reconsider everything that came before it. At a funeral that resembled a roast, the reveal wasn’t the mention of sex tourism or a breast-cancer flasher, but that he had been a father, too.

By November 2010, when O’Neal finally taped his first hour-long special, Elephant in the Room, at NYU, his health was failing and he knew his time was running out, but he acted as though he had plenty. He looked over the assembled and smiled his charmingly demonic gap-toothed grin. He didn’t open with a foolproof bit. Instead, he warmly objectified a black woman in his line of sight. “I am thanking one in particular pair of titties,” he said, delighting in another eyeful, then making a point of the televised context of the show: “Thank you, audience coordinator, for putting those titties up in the front row.” Then he grunted. So begins the Comedy Central special that he hoped would broaden his appeal.

He next bestows his approval on a black man’s date: “Congratulations to you, my friend!” he says. “Look at that white woman you’re with!” He invites the audience to consider this fine specimen: “Black women get mad at that. But that is top-shelf white woman right there.” He’s arranging and rearranging members of the audience on various sides of an argument that they don’t quite know they’re in yet.

“You know how you tell how pretty a white woman is? The value?” he asks. “You look at her and then wonder how long they would look for her if she was missing.” He points to the evidence already at hand: “C’mon, take a look. Take a look! Look at this! Look!” Everyone is laughing, but you can hear uneasiness. He appeases it by enlisting a black woman to exploit the prejudices he’s now juggling. “I saw you look mad, sweetie,” he says as if he’s talking only to her. “If you was missing, how long you think they would look?” He reports back to the crowd, mimicking her mournful shrug. He lets the sorry truth land: “White woman’s life is valuable.” He then asks the audience to help him remember the point he was originally getting at: “What’s his name—Joran van der Sloot? We find out he was a serial kill—man, he kills women, that’s what he do,” he says. “What’s the girl in Aruba?”

“Natalee Holloway!” people shout out.

“But the one—he just killed the girl in Peru, what’s her name?”

Silence.

“Exactly!” he says. The audience cracks up and breaks into applause, simultaneously chagrined and excited to have sprung that trap he’s set for them.

All this, he explains, is why he’s taking a white baby along when he goes sailing, just in case the boat sinks, to be sure that someone will come looking for him: “I’ma dress the baby real white, too. I’ma put sweatpants on it, and a pair of Ugg boots, and I’ma take a picture,” he says, snapping the photo with his imaginary iPhone. “ ‘If you don’t come get me, this white baby going down!’ ”

O’Neal believed that stand-up—if it was any good—had to take prisoners, that it was always at someone’s expense. And if anybody was going to be uncomfortable, it wasn’t going to be him.

The only place Patrice O’Neal was ever comfortably second-seated was during the early years, as a passenger in other comics’ cars—as long as they were going his way. Bill Burr took him to the open mike at Nick’s Comedy Stop in his red Ford Ranger; Robert Kelly drove him in his gray Nissan 280-ZX to the one at Stitches, another Boston club. Owing to his size, O’Neal would have to move his leg whenever Kelly would shift into fifth gear. O’Neal preferred Dane Cook’s turquoise Lincoln Town Car with the whitewall tires—young bucks, Pimp A and Pimp B. But their coolness was just a pose. “There was a lot of sensitivity,” says Cook. “I remember an eager Patrice.”


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