Patrice O’Neal Is Mother Theresa: The Fast-Track to Comedy Sainthood
On his album Mr. P, Patrice O’Neal asks an audience member his name, and the man responds “Tolu.” O’Neal is caught off guard and pauses, and that’s all it takes for the audience to explode into laughter; they collectively, in that instant, see the inevitable beating O’Neal is going to deliver, customized, on the spot, to Poor Tolu.
This was the kind of thing Patrice was known for: being flat-out mean, to your face, unapologetically, and also more clever than anyone else, comedian or not. In 2012 Adrian Nicole LeBlanc wrote this profile of him in New York Magazine that focuses on that aspect of his character.
But in the intervening years, I’ve noticed, Patrice’s jokes have proven to be incredibly ahead of their time, almost sagelike. His comedy has aged like fine wine, unlike other things, which he would have you believe age like bread. Any celebrity, after they die, tends to become a legend, and that legend takes on a life of its own. But with Patrice, I’ve noticed, this process has been especially quick, and especially warranted. Like Mother Theresa, Patrice is on the fast track to comedy sainthood. And why not? He’s performed so many comedy miracles:
The New Racism
On March 27th of this year a California jury ruled that the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins was not guilty of allowing an atmosphere where former employee Ellen Pao was unfairly discriminated against on the basis of gender. Although she lost, Pao’s lawsuit sparked a conversation about the most harmful, insidious kind of discrimination, the kind that is just embedded into cultural fabric and can’t be proven. Only Patrice O’Neal was making this exact argument on Mr. P, his posthumous album released in 2012:
This new racism is, The Shit I Can’t Prove. I look at this buzz-cut-head, in-the-Army white boy here and I’m like I bet this motherfucker’s racist! But I could never prove it!!!” Have you ever met a racist? I haven’t. We all agree there’s racism. Is there racism? Absolutely. Are you racist? Nope…never…no. Well please help me find racism!! You gonna tell me the only racists are crazy crackers in the hills somewhere? Noo!!!!
Race and Celebrity
A few months ago Kanye West caused a flurry of discussion about race and celebrity when he went on E! and said the Grammy committee didn’t respect Beyonce’s artistry. For some reason, the response seemed to be especially vitriolic because he’s a super-confident black celebrity. Patrice addressed the exact same thing in a discussion several years before:
It’s why you like Michael Vick now, it’s why you like Mike Tyson now, it’s why any former arrogant… it’s why you like Muhammad Ali now. Any former arrogant n—- who is now contrite and in his place, you love. It’s why Mike Tyson is getting all kinds of movies now… And I got my eye on Michael Vick. Because the new doing well Michael Vick, the new dunking after a touchdown Michael Vick… He’s starting to get his swagger back, and y’all don’t like that.
Last year an article in The Atlantic touched off a heated debate about reparations for slavery, a discussion that’s still alive in arguments about policing and housing policies being racist at their very foundations. Patrice kind of sketches a rough, lighter version of that same argument in his bit about how black people paying federal income tax makes them “double slaves.” (Interestingly, you can trace these lines of thought back through Chris Rocks “Shaq is rich, the guy who signs Shaq’s check is wealthy” bit on Never Scared, and even back to 1991’s Born Suspect, where he makes the same argument that black Americans shouldn’t have to pay taxes).
Patrice was a genius, but he was also an asshole. Both of these are indisputable facts. He was such an asshole, in fact, that he forced Marc Maron to put a warning at the beginning of his WTF episode.
Speaking of that, trigger warning: racism, cops, Infamous Racist Anthony Cumia.
Racism in police departments has been probably the most important issue in America over the past year, with a seemingly endless string of cases where cops use unnecessary deadly force. The Sean Bell case in New York City was nearly identical to the Michael Brown case in Missouri (and all the others), right down to the white officers getting acquitted. And it just so happens that on the day that verdict was read, April 25, 2008, Patrice was on the Opie & Anthony show (with Louis CK) and they watched the whole thing go down on the studio monitors.
Listening to this show is almost eerie. Patrice is dead, yet he’s literally watching the Michael Brown case unfold, except with different names. Of course, two things: 1. The most tragic thing is that incidents like that have been happening for a very long time, and 2. The salient difference is that there was no social media element to the Sean Bell case. As it is, Anthony basically just keeps saying that cops have a hard job, and Patrice keeps saying that white people run the world in a massive conspiracy and the head of the Illuminati looks like the guy in the Quaker Oats logo. After some predictably unproductive back-and-forth, Louis CK signals the end of the debate by saying basically, well, they’re both right: cops have a hard job and also white people run the world and hurt everyone. And in 2008, with nothing but CNN to go off of, that’s about as far as the discussion went. They get sidetracked and start folding dollar bills to look like the WTC.
Comics love to say “I wonder what Patrice would say about this or that” and in all the other cases, his on-record opinion seems almost tailor-made for whatever you’re talking about. But this one sticks out to me. This one really makes you wonder what he’d say today. It’s the exception that proves the rule that Patrice could always perfectly sum up any situation and close the book on it. What would Patrice say about cops if he were alive today? I think…I think he might just say some mean things about white people.
The Len Bias of Comedy
Chris Rock once said that Patrice was the Len Bias of comedy. That’s pretty accurate: Bias was the U. of Maryland basketball standout who everyone said was going to be the next Michael Jordan, until he died of a cocaine overdose a few days after being drafted by the Celtics. And Patrice also died tragically just before he was, by all reliable accounts, about to take his game to the next level.
But the important difference is that, whereas we’ll never see Len Bias play basketball again, Patrice left behind a huge, huge body of work. Not just albums and specials, but radio shows, TV shows, live standup, and podcasts. And they are for the most part evergreen, and aged incredibly well. You could listen to a new fresh full hour of Patrice every day and you wouldn’t know he’s dead for a full year.
And also, much like Mother Theresa, he touched all those around him, like Bill Burr, who runs an annual Patrice tribute, Louis CK, who dedicated Live at the Beacon Theater to Patrice, and intimate buddy Jimmy Norton. His ex-fiancée Von Decarlo is carrying to torch on social media, and is even producing a documentary about his life, Better Than You.
Yes, Patrice is still very much alive. And his legacy of caring for the sick and underprivileged is stronger than ever.