A comedy game changer can be an antihero. This game changer pushed audiences to their limits, tested their boundaries, and won them over. He was a noted misogynist, racist, and diabetic. He made discomfort his biggest weapon on stage, on TV, on radio, and in life. This comedian controlled the game, thus giving him all the ability to redefine it. This game changer is Patrice O’Neal.
Quoting the late comic’s words, “In 1969, Patrice O’Neal got his start in a uterus.” He was raised near Boston, and he was an all star athlete in high school. Athletic scholarships came his way, but he turned to them down to study theatre at Northeastern University. In October of 1992, the 22 year old O’Neal heckled a stand-up at an open mike. The stand-up responded by challenging O’Neal to return the following week to perform at the mike. Challenge accepted. He spent the next 6 years working the Boston circuit before venturing off to New York City.
His first TV gig was The Apollo Comedy Hour. It was here that he debuted his notorious Malcolm XXL bit, “I’m the leader of the fat people.” He made other appearances all over including parts like Lonnie Collins on NBC’s The Office and T-Bone on Arrested Development. His biggest, most viewed gig was Comedy Central’s Roast of Charlie Sheen with over 6.4 million viewers. This was around the time when Sheen was still “bi-winning.” He noted his favorite TV spot was on the short lived Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn. He also was a regular voice on radio’s The Opie & Anthony Show. His off-the-cuff candor proved to be more than a bit. This was a comedian who was always on.
O’Neal was labeled as the “Black Louie CK” for his honesty in approaching discomfort. The comedian has also been labeled brash, sexist, racist, and blunt. He baited his audiences, and he crossed the lines. He wanted to be Richard Pryor good. Often, he riffed on white women. He had a bit about white women’s fearful perception of him, and he flipped the scenario saying, “I hope no one kills this woman because I don’t want to be blamed for it.” He continued the joke saying he has to buy something every 15 minutes to leave a paper trail of alibis. His statural awareness was keen, and it did not exclude his own flaws. He poked at his weight and health. About being an aging diabetic, black man at 40, he quipped, “I am a 177 year old [in white people years].” It was clear his health was a real concern for the comic.
At the age of 41, he died after a month long coma from a stroke. Three years before his death, he was a practicing vegan. He knew he had to get his health under control, but his time ended too soon. His funeral was filled with many comedians giving eulogies that sounded more like a roast for their comrade. Colin Quinn remarked, “Patrice is the only guy I can imagine trying to meet God as an equal.” Patrice O’Neal left us too soon, but he indeed left a godlike thumb print on comedy.