In just a few hours following Patrice O’Neal’s death, a flood of goodbyes and tributes has come from fellow comedians via Twitter. Most praised his unique perspective, critical thinking, and willingness to offend or piss off half the audience in expressing the truth of his own feelings.
O’Neal filmed his first half-hour special, One Night Stand, for HBO in 2005, and was a regular guest on Opie and Anthony and Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn. It was only in February of 2011 that he had his first hourlong special, Elephant in the Room, on Comedy Central.
Aziz Ansari tweeted this segment from Elephant in the Room in which O’Neal somehow draws a comparison between himself looking at women in the workplace and grizzly bears looking at salmon that manages to make perfect sense. It takes a brave comic to perform a bit that could easily be interpreted as a defense of sexual harassment. The comparison with the natural world cuts directly to the unnatural restraints society puts on us when it comes to taboo subjects like sex. You can sense O’Neal’s frustrated desire, not to actually harass anyone, but to cut through the bullshit of political correctness surrounding harassment.
O’Neal’s noted crowd work is on display in the beginning of this video as he questions several members of the audience about their sex lives, and most importantly whether peeing is a part of those sex lives. SItting back on his stool, laughing himself, he makes it clear that the performance is a conversation and a shared experience between him and the audience. He looks like he’s enjoying himself! And he’s likable enough to announce “this crowd stinks” and keep them on his side, which is no small feat.
Comic Bill Burr tweeted, “Never saw anything funnier than watching somebody meet Patrice for the first time. The most purely funny human being I’ve ever met.” In this man-on-the-street clip from Tough Crowd, Patrice takes on the crowd at Fashion Week with much of the comedy stemming from his sometimes brutal honesty. He tells one girl that she’s less hot than her friend, and he sighs “Thank God, I don’t have to pretend no more,” when a man mentions that he’s gay. Again, there’s an admirable lack of bullshit evident in everything O’Neal says, and an obvious pursuit of honest connection in a world that can be as strange and alienating as Fashion Week.
These few clips just scratch the surface of Patrice’s comedy, and we’ll never know what else he would’ve come up with in the next few years. For now, though, we can be inspired by his commitment to expressing himself without worrying about what others would think, and to sharing a unique bunch of laughs with the other people in the room.