Patrice Lumumba Malcolm O'Neal possessed one of the most distinct voices in contemporary comedy until his untimely death in 2011. At 6"5 and over 300 pounds he was an indistinguishable mix of merciless tormentor, social commentator, therapist and comic. The precision and insight of his work encouraged a level of discomfort in his audiences that he believed helped them to achieve a greater degree of self awareness and personal truth. Rarely writing his material down and performing his nightly set differently depending on his mood, O'Neal searched for a freedom and legitimacy in his work that the current crop of venal, fame hungry panel show comics can only dream of.
Born in Boston, he was privately schooled before being offered a scholarship to play college football. He rejected it and decided to study performing arts at NortheasternUniversity instead. At 17 he was arrested for statutory rape. The story goes that he and some friends met up with two 15-year-old white girls. They ended up having sex and after bragging about the liaison to anyone who would listen the whole school knew what had happened. Another kid used the gossip to blackmail the white girl into giving him a blow job. Rumours continued to spread, the girl said she’d been raped by both her blackmailer and O'Neal. Patrice was convicted and sentenced to 60 days in prison.
Unsurprisingly this experiance would go on to shape the comics perspective on the position of the black male in American society. He was convinced that had the white girl been of a higher social standing he would have been punished to the fullest extent of the law, a potential twenty year sentence. It also coloured his view on women, he was an incongruous combination of bullying misogynist and loving, committed partner and father. Using this unique combination of perspectives he was able to find a fresh approach to the male/female experience, an area of comedy that had been picked clean by hundreds of comics before him.
O'Neal did all this with a trademark honesty that also characterised his personal life. Their was no onstage persona with Patrice O'Neal, only an absolute truth and a desire to unmask the hidden prejudices and fears of his audience. Lisa Lampanelli a comedy store regular and renowned insult comic famous for her Roast appearances was constantly at the sharp end of Patrice's razor sharp barbs and particular brand of honesty. "It takes a real coward to be that much of a fucking asshole in real life" she once said after years of abuse.
For O'Neal being liked was never high on his list of prioritise, being righteous was far more important. "When I wake up I want to know I was honest with myself". He refused to do the tap dance and sabotaged endless opportunities. Famously torpedoing an audition for the hugely popular show "Everybody Hates Chris". Surly and unprepared he gave one of his biggest supporters, Chris Rock, no option but to give the part to someone else. A short lived stint on the American version of The Office went the same way. Cast and crew members found him to be difficult and disagreeable, with Patrice eventually refusing point blank to travel to LA to film the show.
Not long before he died O'Neal had arguably his finest career moment. Brought in at the last minute to perform at Charlie Sheen's Roast, he made only one request of the organisers, he didn't want to go on last. He was ignored and left with the job of closing the show. A popular club comic but little known beyond The laugh Factory and Caroline's, O'Neal decided to do away with his prepared material and take the idea of Roasting his peers to its logical conclusion. Instead of firing off a bunch of pre-written, so offensive there actually inoffensive jokes, he assassinated every other pretender there. A moment of complete clarity in what was otherwise a typically "Hollywood" affair, whilst the other participants were happy to nibble the hand that feeds Patrice bit it off.
Afterwards he was approached by fellow Roaster William Shatner, they discussed Patrice's diabetes and Shatner offered his support. Recommending ways to deal with the illness and reassuring Patrice it didn't have to be a death sentence. At the end of the conversation, they cried. “He knew that he was dying, that he was a dying man, and in a way, he wanted to die,” said Shatner.
Before he died O'Neal was able to record his first and only hour long HBO special "Elephant in the Room", It's an indication of what could have been. A great mind with the capacity to take the complex and simplify it, to make it funny. The day before he finally passed away his family were told that if was to survive he would have been left paralysed and unable to talk. Which would surely have been worse.