Five years. It’s been five years to the day since we lost one of the most unique voices that comedy will ever see, Patrice O’Neal. His very presence, his command of a room, and his jokes which poured out of his mouth the way notes would flow from the guitar of Hendrix – full of soul and meaning. There could only be one way to stop this wrecking ball of dominance, and unfortunately, that would be death.
Since O’Neal’s passing there’s been benefit shows and there’s been documentaries. There’s been posthumous album releases and there’s been shared memes that blow up social media on the daily. And of course, “Harassment Day.” Unofficial as it may be to mainstream society, its celebration and acknowledgement within the comedy community might as well be as big as Thanksgiving itself. A bit whose life will live on so long as there is comedy on this earth.
O’Neals appearances on Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn were “can’t miss,” but seeing him live among the innocent and sometimes unassuming crowd was a whole other beast. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him. It wasn’t too long after I migrated to New York City with comedy dreams of my own. A dear friend of mine, who arrived in the Big Apple a few years earlier, tipped me off about one of the best kept secret comedy shows – “Evenings of Original Works” from Moonwork. This showcase stemmed from a performing company focused on Shakespeare throughout the year. Each theater season, Moonwork produced multiple evenings that displayed the talents of emerging and established artists, both comedians and musicians alike. Featured talent over the years included Janeane Garofalo, Judah Friedlander, Tom Shillue, Jim Gaffigan, Lewis Black, Rusty Magee, Grammy-Award-Nominee Tracy Bonham, Drama-Desk Award winner Erik Frandsen, and Obie-Award winner Dale Orlandersmith. It was a facility that grew the talents of Demetri Martin, Michael Showalter, Leo Allen, and Langhorne Slim. A complete list of now-famous performers simply too long to list here. Needless to say, this is where I would take in my first Patrice O’Neal experience.
From the second he stepped out on stage, the crowd become one with their individual chairs, as if a fan had been blowing out a gust of wind at upwards of 100mph directly upon them. The previous comedians that night, whose names have been lost in my memory due to O’Neal’s overwhelming performance, ran through their material as if they were timing it for a new television special. But not this comic. The first words uttered out of his mouth were like lasers addressing his surroundings and the poor souls who had to settle for sitting in the front row of tables. He held nothing back. If you debated in your head what you heard as offensive or not, it was too late. You missed the next three jokes. And that is just one of the characteristics he brought to the table. The ability to discuss matters that seemed untouchable in a “matter-of-fact” demeanor. It was like he was already over it prior to spontaneously addressing it. Luckily for the crowd, he still announced his thoughts that evening.
Then came his Comedy Central Presents, Arrested Development, Chappelle’s Show, and The Office accomplishments. Even The Jury if you were paying attention. He racked up a plethora of nice credits. Dig up Shorties Watching Shorties when you get a chance. A gem amongst gems. For me however, it was getting the opportunity to hear his voice (of reason) as a regular guest and occasional co-host of the Opie and Anthony program. O’Neal’s voice transcended the stage and took up a new residence on the airwaves. It was a real treat to listen to Anthony debate O’Neal alongside D.L Hughley while they discuss politics months before Senator Barack Obama eventually become the President of the United States in 2008. If politics weren’t your thing, you could kick back a listen to him weigh in on some of the worst movies ever made. No subject was out of bounds and he called it like he saw it. O’Neal’s voice alone had a warm welcoming tone that would draw you in just before he would slay you with his talents.
Then, in 2009, now an established radio host myself on the same satellite platform shared by O’Neal, my comedy life had come around full circle. In my favorite city of Chicago at the Just For Laughs Festival, O’Neal took me to comedy school. It was an interview I’ll never forget that stands out from the thousands I’ve been fortunate enough to conduct. He shared stories, memories, successes and failures, and looked forward to the future and what was to become of comedy. Gifts bequeathed to me through conversation. And he didn’t even take any shots at my terrible haircut, shirt, and general overall existence. Thank you for not roasting me the way you did to such perfection so many others. I couldn’t help but think back to that first time I saw him at Moonwork during that interview and how I eventually wound up on the same couch breaking down what drives the comedy mind. And of course, he was donning that signature Fedora. It was the icing on the cake of a comedy god. We would lose him but just over two years later.
Thank you Patrice. From the bottom of this once back of the room fly-on-a-wall’s heart. You were kind. You were real. You were a true depiction of a “one-and-only.” And goddamn if you weren’t always the funniest in the room. I think I can speak for anyone who’s ever had the “Patrice O’Neal Experience” no matter on what level – We miss you.