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It was Oscar Wilde who famously said “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh. Otherwise they’ll kill you.” Gone too soon from this world, Patrice O’Neal comes to mind whenever I hear this quotation. Patrice’s blend of genius insight into gender relations, infectious laugh and delivery, and ability to break down social issues made him one of the most well-respected comedians in the business.
He was a great stand up comedian, one of the best I’ve ever seen live. He was fiercely independent, fiercely pursuant of being original and honest (even at times to his own detriment) and was extremely insightful. His comfort level and presence on stage was unmatched. He made other comedians insecure about their own acts because he was always frank about who and what he thought was hacky, and he was usually right. He was honest off stage, sometimes to a fault. He made other funny comics insecure about their material because everyone knew deep down he was the funniest guy around. According to tales in comedy circles, he was an infamous ball breaker and relentless in breaking you down. There are stories of him making comics cry and there are a few well-known comics who hated him for what he said to them. He was a physically imposing guy with an equally huge presence. He spoke his mind for better or worse. He seemed to only be concerned with originality and maintaining his indpendence. He squabbled many big career opportunities because he didn’t feel comfortable with them. His show on VH1 was basically Daniel Tosh’s show before it. He walked away from it, even though it was well received. Elephant In The Room, his first hour special, is in my opinion one of the best specials of all time. It seems he was just getting started as a stand-up great and unfortunately died in his prime. I saw him perform a show at his last weekend of shows in NYC before his stroke and he was brilliant. It was a whole new hour of material and it was hilarious. It was the first time I actually met him as well. My friend, who was friends with him and knew him a long time, introduced me to him in the green room before the show and made the mistake of following up our introduction with, “he’s (me) a beast”. Patrice said, “Oh! Is he really?” His tone was sarcastic and vintage Patrice. He didn’t follow it up with anything and he seemed tired. According to his reputation that was odd. I was nervous and uncomfortable and was preparing to be shredded apart. I do remember getting a little angry when he challenged what my friend said. I was also angry that my friend stupidly said it to him. In retrospect, Patrice seemed to notice that emotion in my face and perhaps that’s why he didn’t pursue it further. Not because he was afraid of me or a challenge, but perhaps his body and mind were tired from his diabetes and he didn’t have it in him anymore. I’m also pretty certain that when he saw the emotion in my face and sensed my emotional state to his confrontation, he respected me, not because he thought I was a good stand up, he clearly didn’t know, but because he sensed I was relatively genuine. I remember seeing that in his face. I’m pretty certain both are true. Patrice prodded people to see how they reacted to find out who they were. He wanted to uncover you. He seemed obsesssed with finding out who was real and who was fake. That he even addressed me, a younger unknown comic to him, proves his humility. I don’t think Patrice thought he was worth more as a human than anyone, he just knew he was probably more honest than you. The last thing he said to me was, “I’ll check out his clips on the Internet…” or something like that. Then, he went and did his show, we watched, he was masterful. He had a stroke a few days later. His career had ups and downs, he even on a few occasions intentionally walked crowds (when audience doesn’t like you in extreme cases they will sometimes get up and leave). I heard a story of his weekend of shows being cancelled because on the first of six shows he was scheduled to perform he walked almost the entire crowd. Patrice didn’t care. He was raw and honest and I truly believe it was all part of his plan to continue to make his job that night even more difficult on purpose to sharpen his skills, master his craft, so he could become the best he could be. He had an unorthodoxed and at time tactless way to get there but there’s no question he died as one of the best of all time. Elephant In The Room and his poshomously released album, Mr. P., prove it.