“We teased him forever,” says Keith Robinson. “We beat him out of himself.” But Patrice gave as good as he got, then gave some more. “When Patrice was around, you had to raise your game,” says Rich Vos. Bill Burr prepared for even casual encounters with his old friend: “I’d come up with a dozen insults, do two or three, and he’d swat you to the ground.”
The conversation became the genesis for Quinn’s show, Tough Crowd. Patrice was one of the regulars from the start. Quinn would introduce topics—race, religion, sex, politics—and the other comics would bat them around. The stand-up Laurie Kilmartin, who wrote for the show, admired O’Neal’s swagger—to get a word in “you just had to wait for him to run out of breath,” she says—but she admired his range even more. “He had the ability to go other places other comics couldn’t go because he didn’t show a lot of bitterness, he showed a lot of curiosity,” she says. “He would keep the ball in the air.”
After two seasons, Comedy Central canceled the show. For O’Neal, its ideal conditions would prove hard to replicate: work that felt like play, raised his visibility, and paid him to be himself. By this time, however, O’Neal had assembled a respectable résumé: the festivals (Aspen, Montreal); guest spots on television (Chappelle’s Show, Arrested Development, and more); and movies (25th Hour, Head of State). The half-hour specials came easily: Showtime, Comedy Central, HBO. The development deals didn’t pan out, but that wasn’t unusual. Meanwhile, the archive of Patrice stories grew—the lucrative offers shunned, the budgets stretched by his time-sucking monologues, the verbal pummeling of executives.
He was also making enemies among his peers. The less frequent guests on Tough Crowd had found him bullying. At the Cellar, he derided Lisa Lampanelli so viciously that she avoided the table altogether. “I wasted more tears on this guy than an ex-boyfriend,” she told me. “It takes a coward to be a fucking asshole in real life,” she said, before repeating a remark made recently by a New York club owner: “Now Im going to have to say I liked him because he’s dead?”
But likability didn’t rank high on Patrice’s list of values. In 2006, he was invited to host VH1’s Web Junk 20, a video-countdown show. “I don’t do ‘Hurry up,’ ” he said on the first day of production, and proceeded to abuse everyone on the set. During the shoots for subsequent episodes, the allotted four hours frequently turned to eight. The crew sometimes laughed so hard that they felt physically sick.
One career strategy in stand-up is that TV brings you popularity, which brings you freedom to do your real work. But Web Junk fans who came to his live performances found an angry Socrates holding forth on race and sex, driving people from the room on a regular basis. What happened to the funny black guy wisecracking about masturbating-cat videos? In 2007, he declined to renew for a third season—even when VH1 offered to quadruple his salary.
Patrice wasn’t primarily after money; he hoped to inspire some kind of personal reckoning. “And so?” was a favorite retort. “Fix yourself,” he’d say. “You’ll feel better, you’ll see.” He didn’t make it easy. Dante Nero, who sometimes opened for him, recalled one college gig when a young woman yelled, “Say something funny!” during one of Patrice’s philosophical disquisitions. “You didn’t hear anyone else laughing?” O’Neal began. “Is it because you weren’t laughing? You the type of person who wants everyone to be miserable if you’re miserable?” Then he turned to her friends: “Why do you hang out with her?” The girl stood up to leave, demanding her boyfriend join her, but he sat there, frozen, and O’Neal zeroed in on him—as an ally. “If you stay, it’ll be over,” O’Neal said encouragingly. “Ride it out.” The audience started to weigh in. The girl began to cry.
“Patrice kept going and going, twisting the knife,” said Nero. “I give them a piece of candy to get it down. But Patrice thought, ‘It got to be Buckley’s’ ”—the cough syrup—“ ‘a nasty lesson should taste nasty, and you don’t get a piece of candy afterward.’ ” The mixed metaphors here are telling; whether O’Neal was a healer or an assassin could be difficult to say. Between 2006 and 2008, he ministered to the lovelorn on “The Black Philip Show”—originally subtitled “Bitch Management”—which he co-hosted with Nero on SiriusXM. On this send-up of Dr. Phil, his advice is by turns poetic and appalling. One moment Patrice is patiently explaining to a heartbroken 20-year-old that he needs to sort through his pain because “sorrow carries over to the next relationship,” and the next he’s berating a female caller for what he considers her inflated sense of self: “Tell me why I shouldn’t call you a bitch, bitch?” Throughout, his conviction that men must fight to figure out how to meet their needs is blisteringly clear.