Vondecarlo, who is a singer, compares their courtship to the way he broke down an audience. In this case, the set lasted nearly ten years. “He said I suffered from Pretty Girl Syndrome,” she says. O’Neal accused her of treating her hotness as a substitute for personality; he refused to sleep with her for months. On “O&A,” the porn stars and Penthouse Pets dreaded being booked with Patrice. He’d badger them for not having opinions and zoom in on every little thing—including a tiny pimple on one girl’s butt.
Gino Tomac, O’Neal’s writing partner, learned that simply agreeing didn’t let him off the hook: He had to prove he’d reckoned with Patrice’s reasoning. Tomac remembers an endless treatise on the precise differences between “yep” and “yeah” and “yes.” The writer described the collaborative process as “brutal” and “painful” and “torture.” He also said he’d give anything for the chance to do it again. Their 2007 web series, “The Patrice O’Neal Show, Coming Soon!” couldn’t find a sponsor because there wasn’t a group it didn’t offend.
In 2010, Neal Brennan, the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show, wrote a pilot with a character inspired by Patrice—harsh and philosophical, in a warm way. Brennan phoned him and cut to the chase: “Are you going to be a dick?”
“How you going to be asking me if I’m going to be a dick?” Patrice said. Then he launched into a two-hour meditation on his philosophy of being a dick. “Neal,” Patrice said finally, “I can’t promise you that I won’t be a dick.”
Three remarkable interviews with fellow comedians Ron Bennington, Paul Provenza, and Marc Maron between 2007 and 2010 map O’Neal’s empathetic imagination at work. They also document a middle-aged comic original taking stock of his creative needs in a business that had, for the most part, failed to meet him at his best. He knew he was enormously talented and that his stand-up was important. He remained both wounded and mystified by his irrelevance in the broader culture, and he also realized he had adjustments to make. He apologized to a few people in the industry he felt he’d treated badly and decided not to take on work he’d sabotage, then recommitted to his own course, as he had always done. “I’m not finished offending people,” he said. “I’ll be an unedited racist, unedited sexist, piece of garbage till I die.”
The respect of other comedians had sustained him during the difficult times: “They’ll tell the truth. Even if they don’t like me as a person, my worst enemy won’t say I suck as a comic.” But he had plenty to say about comedians who cared more about being liked than committing to their particular point of view: “Do you have a life philosophy? Do you have anything that says goddamn ethic? Any ethic, you piece of shit? If you don’t, don’t talk to me. I don’t even have to say sheep.”
O’Neal was also trying to reconnect with the purity of his early years in stand-up—when the crowd wasn’t the means to some bigger end but a group of other human beings in the room. “I am trying to work my way through all these obstacles to get back to the audience,” he said.
By 2011, O’Neal’s new approach was bearing fruit: He finally taped a Comedy Central hour, which he promoted on Jimmy Fallon’s show—his first network appearance in four years. He also recorded his first CD. The business was changing, slightly, too—evidenced by FX’s partnership with Louis C.K. John Landgraf, the network’s president, during his first meeting with O’Neal, gave him a development deal on the spot. “I didn’t want to cast Patrice in a sitcom,” said Landgraf. “I wanted to create The Patrice O’Neal Show. It took him a while to believe we meant it.” FX didn’t bail after O’Neal rejected their first script. Perhaps equally significant, Patrice didn’t bail when they passed on the draft he and Gino Tomac came up with.
But if O’Neal’s star was rising again, his health, which had never been good, was in jeopardy. He tried juicing and being a vegan, but could not lose the weight. Vondecarlo regularly woke during the night to check that he was breathing. He spoke to his friends of losing interest in sex, and of the fear of losing her because of it. “I’m 40,” he’d said onstage, “and that’s young in everyone-else years, but in black years—high blood pressure, diabetes—if you did a black-to-white-life ratio, I’m a 177-year-old.”
The Comedy Central roasts are cheesy, pretaped affairs with a mixture of top-flight comics, hacks, and faltering celebrities, but they can substantially boost a comic’s visibility. Patrice hadn’t done one since the salad days of Tough Crowd; he wasn’t interested in roasting people he didn’t know. But that summer, O’Neal agreed to do the Charlie Sheen roast because he respected Sheen for going against the machine, and he wanted to tell him in the way that held the most meaning for him—face-to-face.