Towards the end of his last television appearance before his death, the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen, Patrice O’Neal does something out of character. After scrapping prepared material in favor of slicing and shredding his way through the dais with a spontaneous and devastating verbal assault of a riff, the comedian finally arrives at the grand prize, Mr. Sheen himself. Even a comic with half the talent and experience of O’Neal would have perceived the tiger blood-fueled actor as a sitting duck, a veritable piñata of embarrassments just waiting to be bashed open. But when it comes time to deliver the final deathblow, the comedian suddenly changes tack. Looking his target straight in the eye, Patrice Lumumba Malcolm O’Neal, that hulking giant of a stand-up whose unique ability to dissect others’ most guarded vulnerabilities with searing accuracy made him at once loved, feared, respected, and resented by those who knew him, decides to show mercy.
“I wanted to say to your eyes, man, I love that you stood up to what you thought was wrong,” says O’Neal, after only mildly harassing the actor about the recent carnage he had brought to his career. “I’m impressed by you and I wanted to say that.” The two had never met before, but perhaps within the wild mania of Sheen’s public meltdown Patrice had seen the flash of a kindred spirit.
After all, O’Neal himself had achieved a degree of notoriety for burning industry bridges and giving voice, both onstage and off, to thoughts which many found objectionable. For the better part of his promising yet embattled career he had refused to compromise with forces that sought to remold him into something more palatable for a broader audience — and he had paid a price for it. In the years leading up to his death, the ferociously insightful 20-year veteran, whom Louis C.K. proclaimed as his favorite working stand-up, was struggling, painfully, to accept his marginalized place in the culture and embrace his status as a revered cult comic. He was forty years old when he recorded his first and only hour special for television. Aired in February of 2011, just nine months before O’Neal’s death, Comedy Central’s Elephant in the Room captures the blistering vitality of the comic as he lays siege to a howling auditorium, not relenting for a second until the audience has waved the white flag in giddy surrender.
For O’Neal, stand-up was a hostage situation, a perpetual negotiation of power between performer and audience. He harbored an acute awareness of how quickly people could turn ugly, and so he was always on the offensive with the crowd lest they should get the upper hand on him. “When an audience sees that you’re struggling and you’re trying not to struggle…they get worse,” he told Marc Maron on WTF in 2010. “They want to put the dirt on your grave and watch you fail.” When Patrice bombed on stage he refused to go down alone. In those situations, he advised, “the best thing to do is to take everybody to die. Everyone dies.”
In Elephant in the Room we have the thrilling sense of being in the ring with O’Neal as he lurches into the fray, challenging and antagonizing and interrogating the audience. But despite O’Neal’s keen wariness of the mob mentality, his aggressiveness is not an act of vengeance but a path toward communion. He’s combative, yes, but he’s battling to uncover a sliver of common ground with the audience, some degree of understanding that they weren’t previously aware was shared. When he zeroes in on one unfortunate soul sitting close to the stage while contending that proof that society values white women above all others can be found in the differing amounts of attention given to missing persons cases, the audience responds with a laughter that’s noticeably skittish. But when he follows up on the assertion by slyly influencing the crowd to respond (in one case, with their silence) with the names of two specific missing women, the tension in the room is released in a frenzied explosion of relief. Before we’ve even realized what’s happened, he’s made us pawns in his own argument, transforming the audience from uncomfortable spectators into unwitting accomplices.
Though O’Neal clearly relishes the role of provocateur, it’s not shock he’s after. He’s attempting to wrench our perspectives out of their comfort zones, to provoke some sort of reappraisal of the ugly little truths that grease most of our human interactions. If we’re unsettled by some of his assertions, he forces us to question whether it’s because of an honest difference of opinion or simply a result of our own protective squeamishness. His jokes have the backbone of a filthy philosophical dissertation; even if you don’t agree with what he’s putting forth, Patrice makes it near impossible to totally defy the logic underpinning his punchlines or the cunning ingenuity with which he crafts his arguments.
And yet for all the energy he expends aggressively engaging with the audience, O’Neal doesn’t shy away from turning the investigation inward. He delivers his inimitable point of view boldly and without apology, but there’s an inescapable sense that the truths he’s arrived at have come after a long, messy, and ongoing reckoning with himself. The swaggering comic makes sure to allow his own doubts and insecurities — both small and large — to seep through his bravado and come to light on stage.
At one point during Elephant in the Room, while discussing regrets, O’Neal tells the audience, “If you’re over forty, and you’re trying to better yourself — just stop. You’re not gonna better yourself.” The comedian himself had just reached that fateful milestone and was wrestling with the bleak realities of his own perceived slide: his inability to break through on the level that his talent warranted, his failing health. Despite O’Neal’s fierce commitment to truth-telling and his staggering gift for rhetoric, in this particular instance one can detect an obvious untruth. For as a comic Patrice was in fact growing and progressing — in the spring of 2011 he recorded his posthumously released album Mr. P, the purest representation of O’Neal’s savage magnetism and a testament to his rightful place among stand-up’s elite. With his mischievous turn on the Roast, and the twin nuclear assaults of Elephant in the Room and Mr. P, Patrice was surprising us all up until his death — and even after — with his seemingly boundless ability to transcend. He even possessed, it turns out, the capacity to surprise himself.