by Ryan Meehan
As of yesterday it has officially been one year since comedian Patrice O’ Neal passed away as the result of complications stemming from a stroke. O’Neal was one of the more talented comedians of our era, and as a huge fan of the Opie and Anthony show I came to know him as much more than just the comic who appeared on celebrity roasts and stand-up specials.
Here’s a brief overview of what transpired during the final month and a half of Patrice’s life: On October 19th, 2011 he reported that he was unable to move his legs, which is typical of being one of the first signs of a stroke. He was transported to Jersey Medical Center and then moved to Englewood Hospital where doctors performed surgery to remove a blood clot. He lost his ability to speak, and later his ability to move, for a time communicating by eye movements, before losing that ability as well. It didn’t look good at all. Although his family attempted to keep O’Neal failing health a secret, a week later Jim Norton came on O & A and broke the news to the world that Patrice was in the hospital and things did not look good. Patrice was a diabetic had struggled for years with his weight, and on November 29, 2011, he died from complications from his stroke. Although there are several deaths within the entertainment industry where certain actors or actresses are posthumously over appreciated for their relatively mediocre talent (for lack of a better example I’m just going to use River Phoenix) this was not the case with Patrice.
Let’s back up even further than that and take a look at how Patrice O’Neal came to be such a huge part of modern-day comedic culture: In the mid to late nineties he bounced around comedy clubs from Boston to New York, honing his act which was heavy on racial and sexual subject matter. During the end of that time period, O’Neal relocated to Britain to try his act in a different geographical area that had its own unique history of appreciating off color humor. (pardon me, off-colour humor) It was there that he was noticed by Ricky Gervais, who was impressed by the fact that Patrice’s talent level was much higher of a majority of individuals doing comedy in the United Kingdom at the time. He moved back to the New York area in 2002 where he filmed his first half hour special for Showtime.
All of these career opportunities led Patrice to become wildly popular amongst his peers. In fact, I can’t think of a single comedian that had a problem with Patrice during his time in the industry which is crazy when you think about just how severe the subject matter could be at any given time. In an entertainment world where simply starting a feud can be a huge boost to your career, O’Neal chose to do the unthinkable – to simply be really great at what he did.
If you know me, you’ll know that the Opie and Anthony show is a huge part of my life. Those guys went right after Stern’s market and took it over. They built an empire out of some of the most raunchy, disturbing comedic material that radio had ever seen (terrestrial or satellite) and they have a very unique gift for recognizing talent and putting together a great panel to do so. Although Patrice’s fan base was nothing like theirs, they were somehow able to use him as a guest host on the show while Norton was taping “Lucky Louie” and they didn’t attempt to mold him into being anything that he genuinely wasn’t. They let him be himself, and it led to some of the best radio in history. To this date Patrice’s prison story is one of the most important hours of radio that has ever aired, and did wonders for making sure that satellite radio should always remain uncensored.
The other night I was listening to the episode of O & A that aired the day after Patrice’s death. All sorts of comedians called in to share their memories with the listening public. The YouTube clip is almost four hours long, and you can listen to it here:
I’ll try to save you all of the “every once in a while in comedy somebody comes a long who is truly unique” rhetoric that usually accompanies a piece like this. While certain people who have a very positive approach to the entertainment will tell you that every comedian is different, the truth is that’s not the truth at all. A lot of entry level comics and hacks are basically identical aside from their one political opinion they use on stage to create the illusion that they are edgy. For the most part, all of these assholes have similar bits about how the DMV is frustrating or how women and men just can’t seem to see eye to eye. If there is anything that I can say about Patrice that wouldn’t be biased because I was such a huge fan, it would have to be that he was the opposite of all of these people. He was so good at what he did that it was almost a warning to the casual comedy fan that there was absolutely no need to pay attention to any of those hacks in the first place. In other words, even if you didn’t know dick squat about comedy you knew that he was great within the first couple of minutes. O’Neal’s performance at the Charlie Sheen roast was a perfect example of this, as he made it seem as if he was just talking to people at one of the tables instead of up onstage for the whole world to see.
At times it just felt like he was talking to the audience and not really doing “bits”. When discussing comics like O’Neal, I’m always hesitant to use the term “bit” or “act” because in cases like this, it was neither. Bits and acts are for the hacks I had mentioned in the previous paragraph. From the very beginning Patrice made it apparent that his life was open for the whole world to see, and that he wasn’t hiding anything or pretending to be anybody he knew that he wasn’t. It was standup comedy its truest and purest sense of the medium, and it reminds me why it’s my favorite art form even though I grew up wanting to be a musician. O’Neal’s comedy was stripped down and was very aware that it could be strip searched at any time, therefore it contained zero bullshit whatsoever.
I’m kind of torn as to where to take this from here: Part of me wants to view Patrice O’Neal’s death as a cautionary tale of how important it is for us to take care of ourselves, but part of me thinks that’s the last thing he would want. Who am I to tell you how to live your life? Patrice lived his live to the fullest, and even though he passed away at 41 he had a much more exciting life than a lot of other people who were taken from us at what I consider to be such a young age. The guy had the satellite radio universe hanging on his every word at all times, and had a story for almost every topic that came up. I always hate to use the term “visionary”, but that’s exactly how I would describe him because he had a vision of how comedy and radio was supposed to be and he brought that vision to reality.
So I guess in a way the last thing that Patrice would want somebody to say regarding this whole situation would be that this is a reminder to everyone that unless you’re a devout Hindu you only get one of these “life” things, so it is important to take care of yourself during the one that you do get. I myself have abused my body to great lengths for whatever reason and I can honestly say that I am glad that period of my life is now over. The Patrice O’Neal thing scares me because I see a lot of similarities between his death and baseball Hall of fame outfielder Kirby Puckett. Now’s not the time to list the similarities, but you can follow where I’m going with that.
There will be a benefit at the New York City Center on February 19th, 2013 and will feature Norton, Dave Attell, Bill Burr, and Colin Quinn along with many others.
Since most of you know that it would be almost contradictory when put next to almost everything I have ever done to end this article like that, in conclusion I will just say that Patrice O’Neal was an extremely successful comedian who I miss very dearly not just because of his radio and standup work but also because of his work ethic and failure to compromise with who he was. He was the most “Un-Los Angeles” type of comedian one could find, and proved that you didn’t need to be fake to make it look like you have a strong will. On this day we recognize Patrice’s talent, and wish his family all the best at the end of a year which has no doubt been very hard for them. Thanks to technology, we will always have the YouTube clips and sound bites and I will always be grateful for that.
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