We have lost a comedy legend. A man who is undoubtedly on every working comics top five list. When you saw Patrice O’Neal perform you instantly knew you weren’t doing enough. Patrice incited two reactions within comics, inspiration to be better or a nudge to flat out quit because compared to his, most efforts were futile.
In comedy, it’s often hard to distinguish the man from the comic. As it should be. At it’s best it’s an incredibly personal and intimate art form. Patrice wore it on his sleeve. He lived it. He walked the walk. After you saw Patrice perform you knew him. For better or for worse you knew where he stood. Patrice tapped into the human condition unlike anyone has in the last twenty years and maybe ever.
On stage Patrice was compelling and hilarious. Off stage he was a guru and his impact on comedy extends far wider than people may know. I was in Belfast, Ireland when I got the news and the comics in the green room instantly started quoting their favorite Patrice O’Neal bits. In the early days I was Patrice’s sidekick, well disciple is probably a more fitting word. Every where Patrice went comics flocked to him. His brand of truth and uncompromising defense of truth was a marvel to other comics. We wanted to tell bookers where to put it but we were scared the Chuckle Hut in West Bum wouldn’t book us anymore. Patrice would tell the booker to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, then proceed to kill so hard that the booker had to bring him back anyway.
In those days bookers would ask Patrice to send them a tape of his performance. He would respond by asking them to send him a tape of their audience. Bull shit never stood a chance in Patrice’s presence. If he rubbed a comic the wrong way it was probably because he wanted to make sure you were in it to give to comedy and not simply take from it. Patrice would constantly tell me to not be selfish on stage. Laughter is the comic’s air but Patrice would suffocate before he got laughs that weren’t inspired by the truth. Everyone else just had to be funny. Patrice had to be funny and honest. A burden he carried with the greatest of ease and skill. Patrice has stopped doing bits that other comics could make a career out of, simply because those bits had run their course in his development as a man.
Patrice could size most people up in seconds with amazing accuracy. Sometimes he would give someone grief and only later would I see why but Patrice would know the person was a dweeb from jump. There was no pretense with Patrice. This was off putting to many but the world Patrice lived in is a lot better than the world most of us live in. He was free from living the double and sometimes triple lives most of us live. Even I could be more biting on stage given my background. Patrice was constantly helping comics around him find their truth. Even more established comics knew there was a guy out there doing something very special.
When I read the Fountainhead I casted Patrice O’Neal in my head as Howard Roark. Patrice is the only person I’ve met to meet the standards of quality and unrelenting ethics that the fictional Howard Roark attained.
I’ve only known two comics that I would give my entire catalogue of jokes to just to hear them say my words and see them do my jokes way better than I ever could. Those two comics are Dane Cook and Patrice O’Neal. I feel sorry for people who didn’t know Patrice personally. However, his comedy provides a good sense of what it was like to be in the presence of his greatness. To be humbled by his kindness enveloped in truth.
I had to write this because never talking to him again and never seeing him take life’s most awkward, taboo, even mundane moments and bring them to the stage with hilarious flare and poignancy, is going to be very hard to come to terms with.
Patrice didn’t choose to be honest. He seemed to not have a choice in the matter. It’s like he was ordained to be the kind of person most of us wish we could be. Patrice didn’t achieve his industry success because of his immense talent. He attained it in spite of his uncompromising honesty.
In the past few years I lost close touch with Patrice. I was in LA. I don’t think Patrice really condoned comics going to LA. Again, he was right. LA is great but the industry hustle can take away from the art form. But no one could be a friend of Patrice and not have him rub off on them. And no comic could become close to Patrice without their approach to comedy being elevated.
I tried to keep it real Bruiser. And now that you’re gone you leave an unfillable void but your spirit lives on thru all the people you impacted. We know you’re watching and we will champion for truth. Please don’t be upset if we’re not as good at it as you were. You’re one of a kind. Rest in Peace brother. You left an indelible mark on Stand-up and on me as a person. Thanks.