Once Patrice O’Neal spotted you, it was over. ¶Hurricane Patrice might have been an appropriate nickname. Chairs went flying. Trees were uprooted.
A stand-up comedian who grew thick skin on the streets of Boston and a thicker skin around the comic’s-only tables of New York City, O’Neal could make a prison warden cry. Blessed with an unforgettable gap-toothed grin, a boisterous laugh and a 6-foot-4, 300-pound frame that helped him tower over audiences and comics alike, O’Neal scanned the crowd like an osprey scans a lake. He’d pause, point and swoop in for the kill.
Five seconds into the ninth track of his No. 1 comedy album, Mr. P, it begins.
“What’s your name, brother?”
A pause. Without O'Neal saying a word, the audience explodes. You can only imagine the look O'Neal gives as he is rendered speechless—almost.
“I’m trying to be all brotherly but I’m like, nigga, Tolu? What you named after, feet and a hula-hoop? Some goofy African name somebody named you? My mother did that same stupid shit. That’s what Patrice is. Lemme tell you something—if it was up to one of my goofy-ass 80-year-old aunts, I’d be Lumumba O'Neal up in this motherfucker.” And then, in imitable fashion, O’Neal—named after Congolese freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba—busts up, himself. For the next four minutes, he riffs.
“Tolu, the man with eight white friends…” he says. “And you’ve got the voice that goes with it, too! Deep voice-ass Tolu, and you’re sitting with a Ralph, a Brian and a Jimmy. And this nigga’s Tolu, the great warrior. That works at a law firm. Tolu and Associates. … Can I call you Brent or something?”
Nearly six years after becoming the victim of one of O’Neal’s most memorable bits, Tolu Sogunro remembers what it was like to be in the eye of the storm.
"I thought it was hilarious,” said Tolu, a 31-year old from just outside Washington D.C. “Later I was at this open mic just watching comedians, and one guy was trying to promote his show, asked me to sign up for a listserv, and he was like, ‘Oh damn, you’re Tolu?!”
O’Neal recorded Mr. P as part of a headlining weekend at the D.C. Improv, the weekend of April 15, 2011.
Seven months later, O’Neal was dead.
When you offer yourself as an artist, when you offer your truth, you are giving other people the courage to examine themselves.
Comedy has lost some remarkable voices in the last decade, but few have left the emotional legacy that O’Neal did.
When O’Neal passed on Nov. 29, 2011, from complications of a stroke suffered six weeks earlier, fiancée Von Decarlo was inundated with a still-unceasing outpouring of love. Comedians like Louis C.K. and Bill Burr proclaimed him the best working comedian. Months later, Burr went on Conan O’Brien’s show and broke down talking about his friend, then announced the first Patrice O’Neal Comedy Benefit (held at the New York City Center; the fifth annual iteration was February 21.).
One of the first messages Decarlo received was from a fan in his early 20s who wrote to her, “Patrice was the father I never had.”
“When you offer yourself as an artist, when you offer your truth, you are giving other people the courage to examine themselves,” Decarlo said. “Patrice was so honest in his thoughts and his righteousness was so true that it affected people in their real lives.”
Emerging from a crowded Boston comedy scene in the mid-1990s alongside Burr, Dane Cook, Bobby Kelly and Gary Gulman, O’Neal blazed a path behind and in front of him. He was as hated by some comedians as he was beloved, never afraid to pick apart someone’s act to their face. There was no more dangerous weapon to a comedian than the O’Neal “icccckk,” disgust in its purest form. Enough to make a comedian quit on the spot.
But those who loved him still do.
“I thought he’d be the next Chris Rock,” Gulman said. “Even the next Richard Pryor. And he was; he just didn’t get the fan base. But if you were to analyze his effect, his influence, what a good comedian he became? If you were to rate him amongst his peers, he was as good as any of them.”
In a crowd of hard punchers, O’Neal was Mike Tyson.
O’Neal may have gotten his start in Boston and later discovered surprising adoration in England, but he found his voice in New York, the city of his birth.
Specifically, sitting in the back corner of the Olive Tree Café. In that confined space—up the steps of the Comedy Cellar on MacDougal Street, to the right and up a few more steps, open the door and head straight back—O’Neal refined the razor tongue that would put him at odds with fellow comedians, entertainment executives and even audiences.
The setting—a bunch of grizzled comedy veterans using each other as punching bags—would serve as template for Colin Quinn’s Comedy Central series Tough Crowd, which featured heavyweights from Nick DaPaolo, Greg Giraldo and Jim Norton to Dave Attell, Kevin Hart and Rich Vos.
In a crowd of hard punchers, O’Neal was Mike Tyson.
In one memorable episode, O’Neal and Vos destroyed fellow comedian Dat Phan. The two of them would later team up for a Comedy Central pilot called The Best Man, where they’d roast a hapless wedding couple.
“He was a lovable asshole,” Vos said. “He was very outspoken but pretty rational. He was black, and he’d always take the black cause, but he’d always take the rational cause. And I’m talking political stuff, because his male-female stuff was from his perspective, and it was all how Patrice saw things.”
Though O’Neal is gone, he leaves a wealth of material online. He was only beginning to work on his own podcast at the time of his stroke, but O’Neal had already put in hundreds of hours on Sirius’ Opie and Anthony Show. Introduced to hosts Gregg “Opie” Hughes and Anthony Cumia by his good friend Norton, O’Neal became a regular and beloved guest.
Veering from the profound to the unbelievably silly, O’Neal could find himself everywhere from the middle of an intense debate on racial relations with Cumia and DiPaolo to an argument about the merits of the movie Independence Day with Norton.
"This alien, who single-handledly was destroying Area 51 with his mind and his giant suit—his suit that encases him and makes him impenetrable—and Will Smith punched him in the face and said, ‘Welcome to Earth.’ And then it killed doctors, choked a guy and made him talk through his mind, almost killed a president with his mind—and Will Smith didn’t knock the alien out, knocked out his outfit. This is where he assumed his alien chin would be. Those aliens have the same nerves. It came out with fearsome evil, and then he dragged this knocked-out alien in a suit.”
But it wasn’t just the funny that earned O’Neal a legion of loyal followers; there was also O’Neal’s frank and often controversial take on women and relationships and sex.
It also earned him his own gig, The Black Philip Show—his version of the Dr. Phil Show—on Sirius XM. It didn’t last long, but clips of it have hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, with comments ranging from “Every three months you need to revisit this. It WILL restore your swag” to “Does anyone else listen to Patrice like it’s gospel scriptures?”
His on-air admissions—sometimes elicited, Decarlo says, because O’Neal forgot he was speaking to a radio audience—were enough to make you blush and think. Mostly blush.
“He knew what he was saying,“ Decarlo said. "Do I think he knew what type of impact he’d have? He was a lot more humble in that area, even though he knew his level of intellect was very high. He was hopeful to have an impact on people at a certain level. I don’t think he had faith in us little brains of the world.”
The best was watching him weave in and out. It all looked like he was just having a conversation. That’s pure stand-up.
By 2011, the comedy community and the world at large had started to take notice.
His death came toward the end of what was considered by many to be a breakout year for the comedy veteran, who built a steadily expanding resume that included film appearances in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, the Chris Rock comedy Head of State and his final two movies, Furry Vengeance and Nature Calls. O'Neal also hosted two seasons of the VH1 series Web Junk 20—Tosh.0 before Tosh.0—and had a recurring role in The Office, a memorable turn in Arrested Development and a brief stint on Chappelle’s Show.
On Feb. 19, 2011, Elephant in the Room was released, becoming an instant classic. “He felt it was his best work,” Decarlo said.
“Elephant in the Room is fantastic,” said O’Neal’s friend and like-minded comic, Big Jay Oakerson. “It’s amazing. Still, I’ll watch it every couple months. And every time I watch it, I’ll always be like even this isn’t what it was like to experience him.”
Seven months later, another star-making turn, and this one exploded beyond the confines of comedy and into the tabloids: The Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen.
For years, O’Neal turned down offers to roast. He just couldn’t trash someone if he wasn’t their friend, didn’t know them, didn’t feel them. He was offered a prime spot in the Flava Flav roast in 2007. He turned it down because he was too big a fan and not enough a friend.
He finally acquiesced to torch Sheen because, as he said during the roast and after, he respected Sheen’s contrarian attitude.
The performance would become perhaps the highest-regarded in the long lineage of Comedy Central Roasts.
“I talked to him two nights before it for an hour and a half, and I said, ‘This is just the thing that’s going to put you over the top.’” Vos said. “He wanted to hear it from enough people to justify his decision. We went over some shit, and I go, ‘What the fuck, you got nothing to lose.”
After a brief introduction from host Seth McFarlane, O’Neal strides up to the mic, two pages of material in hand. Within five seconds, he folds it.
“I had all this planned shit, but I didn’t know William Shatner was going to be a quasi-old racist man. You’re an asshole, Captain Kirk. … I think he might be racist because his hair plugs look like black girl’s pussy hair.”
He turns to comedian and highly regarded roaster Anthony Jeselnik.
“He reminds me of a medieval restaurant waiter, like his whole demeanor—‘Hello, may I, welcome to’—and you just want to go, ‘Shut the fuck up and bring me my giant turkey leg, you giant nothing.’”
Then Seth McFarlane: “It’s too much… Seth. It’s almost like he’s jealous of his own creation.”
And finally, the man himself.
“I said yes to this because I respect Charlie Sheen, I do. Not…not his body of work. It’s all been very Christian Slater-ish. He sucks but he’s good but he sucks. But his stand that he made against the business—I think this is a fucked-up business, but he stood up, he still survived and he proved nobody can keep a Sheen down. … They can keep an Estevez down, because his brother…”
He trails off to uproarious laughter, Sheen’s the biggest of all.
The one-two punch of the release of Elephant in the Room and O’Neal’s performance in the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen seemed to be the pop his career needed.
He was in talks with FX for his own show—“They wanted him to be the black Louis C.K.,” Decarlo said—and in the fall of 2011, he gave himself a much-deserved two-week break before heading back to Los Angeles to finalize things with the network. He and Decarlo were also planning a wedding in Hawaii and a party back home for friends in family, working on health insurance, preparing their wills, and “all the grown up stuff,” Decarlo said.
Two days into the break, he called Decarlo late at night, whispering into the phone, something that surprised her.
“I think I’m having a stroke,” he told Decarlo, who was driving home from a bartending gig.
He was rushed to Jersey City Medical Center, where doctors discovered a blood clot had traveled to his brain stem, and transferred to Englewood Hospital for surgery. Vos, Quinn, Keith Robinson and Wil Sylvince, among others, hurried to the hospital. Hours later, he fell into a coma from which he would never awaken.
In some ways, neither has the comedy community.
“I miss him in very often,” Oakerson said. “Once a week, there’s a situation where it’s like, ‘Boy, I’d love to see what Patrice would say about this. … We spent holidays together. All the barbeques, with my ex and my daughter. My daughter, she’s 14, her first comedy show is tonight. She said, ‘I’d like to try it.’ We’d go to these barbeques and holidays, and the best part was the sitting around. Thanksgiving was great, not as big, intimate, everybody with their girlfriends and wives, and Patrice just breaking down everyone’s relationships. To my ex-wife’s credit, she could take Patrice.”
If anyone carries the O’Neal torch, it’s Oakerson. Hulking, too, but with a soft demeanor and sharp tongue, Oakerson is also known for sitting while he pontificates, and for filleting a room of strangers.
Though Oakerson has switched phones several times since 2011, he’s saved the last conversation with O’Neal.
“Patrice, gimme a call when you get a second, I need you to talk me off the ledge,” he said. “We had a very profound moment, very early in our friendship, and it really changed my trajectory, too.”
Early in his career, much of Oakerson’s material revolved around his size, which he said, “which is an early comedy crutch; if I’m going at myself, you can’t go at me.” Caroline’s, a regular premium gig for O’Neal, was scouting him for more stage time. One day O’Neal said to a fellow comic, “Jesus Christ, me and Jay? By the time I get on stage I have nothing to talk about,” and by the time it worked its way back to Oakerson, it became, “Patrice says you’re stealing his jokes.”
“I’m not confrontational,” said the former bouncer, “so I’m not gonna go up to Patrice. I kind of ignored him a couple days, and he kind of felt that. Patrice would say, ‘Sup, Jay,’ and I’d do my own thing. I guess he looked into it, and Keith Robinson says you should get a hold of Jay. I’m 22, still living at home, on my mom’s house phone, and he says, ‘I didn’t say you stole my jokes,’ and we ended up on the phone for two hours. He was like you know what, don’t change what you’re doing. I’ve got more shit I’ve got to talk about, and I thought, ‘Well now I don’t want to do fat shit.’”
And O’Neal was, in fact, evolving his act. He dropped one early bit that could’ve been its own CD, describing himself as the leader of other heavy people: Malcolm XXL. Oakerson saw what O’Neal was doing, and began an evolution, as well.
“I started to make myself really vulnerable,” he said. “Vulnerability. That’s the secret to connecting to people. He had an unspoken vulnerability. He’d tell you if he was the boob in the story. That’s what people connected to.”
Dan Soder, Oakerson’s frequent cohost—including on their Sirius XM show The Bonfire—echoes the sentiment. Soder is almost a walking comedy bibliography. He can cite bits and specials going back five decades. Mr. P is among his favorite albums. He considers Elephant in the Room to be the pinnacle.
Soder remembers one show in particular.
“He’d be at the Stand Up a lot—he was just there all the time—and I watched him do a Valentine’s show, 2007,” he said. “To this day, the best show I’ve ever seen. He’d weave into a bit. I knew his bits. But the best was watching him weave in and out. It all looked like he was just having a conversation. That’s pure stand-up.”
Gulman, who started in Boston shortly after O’Neal, frequenting Nick’s Comedy Stop, said that O’Neal just loved the art of stand-up, and talked about it as often as he could. He said O’Neal knew the limb he was stepping out on, one that doomed other comedians.
“I’m sure they were as honest or took as many chances as Patrice—but they weren’t as funny,” he said. “They weren’t as talented and effective. He was a once-in-a-lifetime comedian. I guess it takes a lot more than that to make it.”
On Tuesday, February 21, a group of them got together to honor his memory in the best way they know how: tearing each other, and the New York City Center crowd, apart. Burr, the organizer, will be there. Norton and Robinson, Pete Davidson and Leslie Jones. Gulman and Vos, too.
Another year of catharsis.
“I didn’t cry after my mother passed, my brother, but I did have tears when Patrice died,” Vos said. “It hit so hard. It almost didn’t hit you; there’s a part of denial in your head, that it’s not happening. It’s the starting lineup, losing your center. Your point guard. Now the starting lineup is not the starting lineup. We bonded because it was like we were Santa’s broken toys. We all made each other feel whole I guess. There was no judging. There was just trashing.”
There is one coveted “young guy” spot up for grabs. This year, Soder, a rising star in the profession, is honored to have it.
“This is beyond special,” Soder said. “It dips between mind-blown and I don’t belong here. If Patrice was here right now, he’d be like, ‘Who? Who are you?’”
“But the world would be better, because Patrice would still be in it.”