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The Comedian Comedians Were Afraid Of


No one liked to follow Patrice, so he was last in the lineup, as usual. When the moment finally came for O’Neal to perform, the comedians watching understood what it meant when he looked at his set list and shook his head. Patrice was going to be Patrice again—this time in front of millions of viewers. By the time he got up to speak, he had been in the room for three hours and had to address what was actually going on.

“I had all this planned shit, but I didn’t know William Shatner was going to be a quasi—like an old racist man,” he started, each insult bringing with it another nuance of his take on the differences between celebrity and true performance: He bemoaned the fact that Mike Tyson no longer scared white people; ridiculed Jackass’s Steve-O’s cynical use of his own recovery; and sent Anthony Jeselnik, an up-and-comer, back to his booster seat. “He had to go from his guts,” recalled Robert Kelly, amped up all over again by the memory of how well Patrice had done. “You take away the script from any other comic—take away the piece of paper—they’re finished! They’re you! They are anybody else!”

It’s one of the highs that stand-up can deliver—making the most of what you’ve been given, bringing it to bear in the here and now, and showing people what you’ve got—which, for Patrice, was the searing need for people to own up to themselves. Even in the edited version that aired, the shock in the room is palpable. Patrice was incredulous. “How can I be too mean after all this shit?” he asked. In Patrice’s view, brutal honesty was a form of love, and roasting as close as comedy got to Utopia. How could the audience not be grateful for the gift of it? A lot of the evening’s earlier insults hadn’t even been true.

Everyone agreed that Patrice had killed; he was pleased but not surprised. “What I been practicing my whole life is to be okay in the moment of possible failure,” he said after the show aired. “I came through, for myself.”

William Shatner later told me that after the taping, he and his wife ran into Patrice at the garage and talked about his diabetes as they waited for the valet. “It was a strange place to have a conversation about life and death,” Shatner said, “but it was presaged by his clarity at the roast.”

Shatner and his wife reminded him that diabetes wasn’t like cancer and there were things he could do to save himself. Patrice was moved—these two old white people sharing their knowledge. At the end of the conversation, the three of them cried. “He knew that he was dying, that he was a dying man, and in a way, he wanted to die,” said Shatner. “That’s what I saw. That’s why we cried.”

In the last interview he ever did, weeks before the stroke that eventually killed him, O’Neal spoke to fellow comedian Jay Mohr about the business, which was playing heavily on his mind again. His special hadn’t changed anything much, and the heat from the roast hadn’t been transformative, other than helping him finally sell out a weekend at Carolines. He had another meeting with FX—now about an animated series, but the project that most appealed to him was one that required his friends coming to him—to his condo in New Jersey, where he would interview them. Mohr urged him to agree to the next roast, but O’Neal knew the moment was singular and that it was done. What about a podcast? Patrice didn’t want to communicate in a virtual reality. He needed the audience’s energy. “I’m dying inside,” he told Mohr. “But never onstage.”

Mr. P, the only live album O’Neal ever recorded, took place at the DC Improv on a Friday night in the spring of 2011 and was released this February, two months after his death. Many working comics believe it will rank as one of the top 25 comedy albums of all time. He loved performing in D.C., where people heard about the show the way he most respected—by word-of-mouth. If, as O’Neal said, what fed your integrity was your journey to find your people, he found them that night at the Improv.

Melba Davis, the manager of the club, was there; she scheduled herself to work whenever Patrice performed. She loved talking to him backstage and watching him continue the conversation onstage—whether he was chiding her for not having sex while she still could, or taunting the women at the front table, who were acting like they didn’t need men. “His how-dare-he was exciting,” she said. “He demanded you go with him.”

But O’Neal believed that he was only as good as the crowd made him, and that night, they were willing to be taken as far as he wanted to go. On the CD, the laughter keeps getting louder, and Patrice’s own laugh is as loud as anyone’s. After a gorgeous bit on revolutionary leaders, he discovers that a young black man in the crowd is named Tolu: You can feel the terrible thrill move through the audience at what’s coming next—O’Neal seizing the reveal, hilariously and mercilessly riffing on the burden of an African name that’s been chosen by somebody else. It’s a spontaneous moment, full of anger and love, and as close as you can get to the conversation you never had with the comedian Patrice Lumumba Malcolm O’Neal.

This possibility of communion is what live stand-up gave back to Patrice. He’d explained it to Mohr this way: “The audience has to give when they are in the crowd. When I do shows and I see you, I know that you’re giving. Even if you’re not giving, I’m going to fucking see you.”


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