O’Neal grew up in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in a private house across from the projects, and he attended a suburban school, mostly white. At West Roxbury High, he played football well enough to earn an athletic scholarship, which he declined in order to study the performing arts at Northeastern. He worked as a bouncer at the Comedy Connection before climbing onstage—and then quickly went from holding doors for other comics to being one of the most promising among them.
O’Neal got laughs faster than most beginners do, but he was more interested in how stand-up could work for him. Gary Gulman still remembers one surefire bit of Patrice’s (“I’m the leader of the fat people, I’m Malcolm XXL”). “Some guys would hold on to that joke for their entire career. It’d be the name of their album and special, they’d have T-shirts,” Gulman says. “That was not his thing.” O’Neal allowed himself to have moods onstage. He’d change the wording of a perfect sequence from one night to the next, explaining, “I want to say it how I mean it, and maybe I meant it differently than I did yesterday.” Bill Burr recalls, “Patrice was like a musician, trying to free himself.”
Dane Cook remembers one discussion they had about people-pleasing. Patrice wondered if the desire to be liked onstage might be coming from the need to protect a belief in oneself as a nice guy offstage. What if you weren’t that guy at all?
For comics to truly realize themselves as performers, they must learn to traffic in their vulnerabilities, but the stakes were particularly high for Patrice. By the time he was 17, he had been convicted of a sex crime against a white woman—a stigma that so scarred him that he didn’t discuss it publicly for decades. According to his story, he and some friends met up with two 15-year-old girls and they ended up having sex together. The boys bragged about the encounter, and another boy used the gossip to blackmail the white girl for a blow job. As rumors spread, the girl started saying she’d been raped—first by her blackmailer, then by the original group. O’Neal and his best friend, the only two who admitted having sex, were convicted of statutory rape, for which they served 60 days in an assessment center that summer.
O’Neal would remain haunted by the swiftness with which—on the word of a woman—his identity could be obliterated by a stereotype. In the 2005 “O&A” interview where he went public with the experience, O’Neal noted that there was no room for the uncomfortable truth in the story: white girls who want to have sex with black boys. What had saved him was that the girl, too, was unimportant in the wider world: “I am a giant nigger in Boston. If this girl had been the mayor’s daughter, if she had been some white girl out there doing some George Bush’s daughter shit, and it came out that she gave all these niggers some pussy? You wouldn’t know me.”
The interconnections among victimization, accountability, race, and desire proved to be rich imaginative terrain. In one popular early bit about littering, he says, “I’m afraid if I toss a can of soda over my shoulder, it will fly over a bush and land on some dead white woman’s head, with my fingerprints on the can. Now I’m the Pepsi Cola Rapist—’cause I’m lazy.” He explained that he always made sure to create a ready-made paper-trail alibi for himself, buying something every fifteen minutes and demanding a time-stamped receipt.
O’Neal’s work fought back not by running from the stereotypes but by refashioning them and trying them on, to see what fit—and what didn’t—and he coaxed his audiences to do the same. Could women really deny that they wore sexy clothing at work to turn men on? Didn’t all men have “rape-y” thoughts? O’Neal was determined that his comedy be something scary and exciting that he and the audience were creating together—they wouldn’t be able to pretend they hadn’t been a part of it afterward.
He found his ideal audience in 2002 at the comedians’ table at the Comedy Cellar in New York. The Cellar is a workout club where pros try out material in fifteen-minute sets. Before and after going on, they often hung around the table in the back of the restaurant upstairs—gossiping and eating and arguing. Colin Quinn compared it to the Round Table at the Algonquin—if the table were a mosh pit. “Ripping down is love in comedy,” says Dane Cook. “It can be very cold. It’s a weird hazing that comics do to keep each other on point.”