Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
When introducing the WTF Patrice O’Neal interview that re-ran following the cult comedian’s shocking early death following a stroke, a melancholy and emotional Maron reflects that he’s had to publicly mourn a number of WTF guests. “I’ve had to do this a few times in the last couple of years,” Maron notes sadly. It’s an unenviable task, having to publicly mourn the deaths of people you consider friends and colleagues, but also one that Maron takes seriously.
Maron’s love and respect for O’Neal is evident immediately. “He just had some fucking magnitude” Maron argues convincingly, and that magnitude went beyond the comedian’s intimidating physical presence. Maron describes O’Neal as “electrifying,” as well as a “joy to be around,” and is both moved and moving when he talks about his shock and horror at discovering that this ferociously alive, vital, and compelling human being had been struck down by a stroke.
Maron cannot conceive of a more brutal punishment for a man who loved to talk, and had so much to say, then to be stricken with an illness that makes you unable to communicate. That awful stroke, and his early death, accomplished what the world otherwise could not: it shut Patrice O’Neal up. It silenced a man who lived his life out loud.
But before that stroke, and then death, had their wicked way with O’Neal, he talked, and talked passionately, and eloquently on a WTF episode that provides fascinating insight into the mind and soul of one of the comedy’s true originals. The thing that’s fascinating to me about O’Neal’s episode of WTF is that I’m not sure I’ve ever been so impressed with someone whose opinions and viewpoints and bold stances I find not only deeply wrong, but offensive on a number of levels.
I first became aware of O’Neal as part of the coterie of tough-talking, tough-living comedians on Colin Quinn’s Tough Crowd. Quinn’s show (think of it as Politically Incorrect for neighborhood guys) introduced me, and its audience, to comedians like O’Neal and Jim Norton, who I initially dismissed as contrarian, sexist cranks before I came to admire them as contrarian, sexist cranks with talent and a point of view, as well as abhorrent ideas about women and gender roles.
It doesn’t take any digging to get to O’Neal’s issues with women. He admits early on the podcast, “I generally don’t like what women are” before espousing a view on male-female relationship that posits men as great white sharks and women as lesser creatures who are attracted and drawn to men because of their strength and power and independence, and then seek to drain them of the very qualities that made them appealing in the first place.
O’Neal talks about being so good with women, and having so many women desperate to be a part of his life no matter the context, that he realized at a certain point that he could be a literal pimp if he wanted, but would not be able to live with himself if he chose that lifestyle. O’Neal has a sense of morality and a moral code and a coherent philosophy, but it’s a philosophy and moral code seemingly unique to O’Neal.
O’Neal realizes that a lot of people won’t agree with him (including Maron at times) even if they share his beliefs, but at the same time he obviously doesn’t care what people think of him. Maron and O’Neal share a fundamental honesty. They both see standup comedy as a form of truth-telling designed to shake up audiences and make them confront the ugliness in themselves and the world rather than entertain them. This aggression sometimes makes standup comedy look like a form of verbal warfare. It’s not a matter of a comedian entertaining an audience so much as he’s angrily confronting them with painful truths they’re not prepared to hear.
O’Neal is ruthless in his take on romantic relationships. If I were O’Neal’s longterm girlfriend, I would be mortified to hear him talk about women as sad, desperate creatures eager to sink their claws into a man. It’s jarring listening to a man talk about women this way. When O’Neal says of his current girlfriend, “I was a terrible misogynist when (my girlfriend) met me” it makes you wonder how low of his opinion of women must have been back then for his current attitude to represent a massive improvement.
Not even his own mother is safe from O’Neal’s brutal take on the war of the sexes. “My mother was somebody else’s bitch at one time” he tells Maron, who walks a fine line here between challenging O’Neal on the many questionable, if not outright wrong things he says about women, while also giving him the freedom and space and open platform to really reveal himself in classic WTF form.
O’Neal drives the conversation, which delves into race before addressing O’Neal’s conviction for statutory rape when he was seventeen years old, an experience that clearly scarred him and had a huge impact on how he saw the world and his place in it. This podcast captures O’Neal as a man and an artist but it also provides fascinating insight into the minds and mindset of obviously intelligent and thoughtful men who are also unabashed misogynists.
Maron and O’Neal talk sometimes about where they’re at, professionally. They wonder aloud when, and if they’ll finally get that career-making break. For Maron, that career-making break came when he put some microphones in his garage and started his own podcast. O’Neal, however, died without finding his own WTF, but at least WTF exists to document this remarkable man’s mind, sensibility, and questionable but passionately argued opinions about gender and sex for posterity.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.