If you’ve never heard the name Patrice O’Neal until now, may I be the first to say: ‘Fuck you where were you when he was alive?’ before you join the inevitable legion of posthumous fans.
Whenever asked ‘Who are your top five favourite comics of all time?’ Patrice is the only name on my list that I never have to deliberate over. No shuffling the numbers. No umming, no erring. He always has a place.
The first time I met Patrice was in Newcastle in the late Nineties. The venue we were playing for the week provided an apartment for the comics, and before setting off from London I looked up who I’d be sharing with. When I read the name ‘Patrice O’Neal’ I presumed I’d be rooming with a five foot nothing Irish girl. When I arrived I was taken aback to see a 6ft 4in black guy on his mobile phone slouched in a beanbag. (It may well have been a couch but Patrice had the ability to make anything he was sitting in instantly look like a beanbag).
‘Hey man. What’s up?’ spoke the beanbag.
To my surprise this 6ft 4in black guy’s voice had the pitch of the five-foot-nothing Irish girl I’d been expecting.
I instantly cracked up laughing.
‘What’s funny?’ said the beanbag.
‘Nothing mate.’ Girl’s voice or not I was still respectful of the man’s huge volume and size.
‘What’s the running order tonight?’ I asked.
‘I don’t care what the running order is. I’m the headliner and I’m going on last.’
“Really? How long you been doing this mate?”
‘About five years,’ said the beanbag, barely paying any attention to me as he continued a pretend phone conversation to absolutely no one, ‘You?’
‘Well that’s great. I’m still going on last man.’
‘Ha! OK! Let me know how that works out for you.’ I didn’t believe for a minute he would be headlining.
That night my ego got another gut punch when I arrived at the gig to discover that Patrice was right. I did what I considered all my best stuff before bringing him up. I may have even done a few dirty crowd pleasing crescendo-building parlour tricks, just to mess with him. I also made a point of saying absolutely nothing about him, not even mentioning his gender, before introducing him: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Patrice O’Neal!”
The moment he hit the stage the all-white, rowdy Newcastle crowd burst into fits of laughter.
‘What?’ came his high-pitched response. Hearing his voice the crowd laughed even harder.
‘What’s happening? This ain’t some nigger shit is it? You can’t do this to somebody when they’re the only black guy in the room.”’
The less he knew why they were laughing the more the place fell about. Since I got to know him I would say he was one of the most keenly socially aware individuals on the planet. In fact, I’d go so far to say that the man was a bona fide genius at split-second analysis of human interaction. But this was the one time I ever saw him totally in the dark.
Regardless of an unsettling start he took a breath and said: ‘OK let me get… not… not… nervous.’
Grammatically the sentence made no sense but emotionally it hit a chord and the infamously rowdy room was his. He then proceeded to do the best 40 minutes of live stand up I have ever witnessed… ever.
The next day I rang my friends and was reciting his bits down the phone, verbatim. From ‘The Pepsi Cola rapist’ to ‘Ever do something gay by mistake?’ I’ve not been able to duplicate this skill before or since but with Patrice I just instantly knew the jokes by heart. And like hearing your favourite band for the first time, I immediately knew, I was watching one of my all-time top-five comics.
When he came off I told him as much and, naturally, this broke the ice between us. We spent the rest of the week in each other’s company and immediately bonded over countless shared tastes.
To spend time with Patrice was exactly like watching him on stage. This naturalistic style is something I have tried to emulate and failed at consistently.
Wherever he went he frigging killed. In the big-n-tall clothes shop as he dressed the owner down for what he found to be ‘the single saddest excuse for a big-n-tall store on the fuck’n planet’ or pressed up against the window of a jewellery store going, “No that one! That one!” as he flattened his nose against the glass, making his voice extra nasal. Just walking around Newcastle with the guy was… intriguing. That’s the best word I can think of. Both his sense of wonder at this newfound place filled with unintelligible, broke, pale blue people and their fascination with this loud, hysterical walking calamity of a man.
Night after night that week, Patrice would go on to the same reaction: crowd bursting into fits of laughter the moment he appeared, growing the moment he opened his mouth. I could’ve told him why, I know, but it was just so much funnier to watch him struggle.
The long drive home was equally joyous. Although I’m sure he’d label that description as ‘faggy’, (When he said it, he made it sound like he’d just bought you flowers. Go figure)
Eventually he asked me outright.
‘Why’d those people laugh in my fuck’n face every night before I even opened my mouth?’
I’d been waiting for this opportunity for what I considered to be his initial dismissal of me.
‘Your name’s Patrice,’ I smirked softly.
‘This is the UK mate. Your surname’s O’Neal…’
‘When I say, “Please welcome Patrice O’Neal”, they’re expecting a five foot nothing Irish girl.”
“So how come they all laughed when I asked about the nigger shit?”
I gave another warm smirk: ‘You have a girl’s voice.’
He proceeded to make a series of high-pitched beeps something akin to a truck reversing.
‘Wha? Dip… bip… bup…. Bip. D’oh man I don’t even think about that shit anymore…’
‘So how come you didn’t tell me?’ he asked.
‘Cos you were being an arsehole.’
Again came the truck reversing noises. Followed by a laugh so booming that I would later learn it could make a cinema full of people instantly forgive him for yelling things like: ‘That bitch has fuck’n cheese on her legs! This is Hollywood! There’s not supposed to be fuck’n cheese on her legs”
The rest of that long drive back flew by and I often think of it whenever this business gets me down. I realise that in no other field would this guy and I ever be afforded the opportunity to know each other and find common ground.
He made fun of the UK scene every time I saw him after that. Completely ignoring the fact that I’m Australian, he’d declare: ‘You’re ten years behind me mother-fucker!’ And ‘It is staggering to me how unfunny you people are allowed to be.’ And my personal favourite regarding the Edinburgh festival, whittling us all down to ‘The pontifications of Ian Igglepuss’ .
‘Icchhhhh!,’ he’d hack with his tongue out. That seemed to be his favourite noise anytime I mentioned an English comedian I liked. He’d then go on to argue the merits of Benny Hill just to really wind me up. Deep down, I think he just enjoyed being good-naturedly adversarial.
Every phone conversation I had with him was an affair that I’d set aside at least an hour for. On 9/11, a few comics even asked me, ‘Have you spoken to Patrice yet?’ For us, New York, even in its hour of need had been reduced to where America keeps its Patrice.
Exhilarating, profound, insightful and, above all, criminally hilarious. He was infectiously adorable, with a face that had no manners.
There were people that knew him better and loved him longer, for sure. People who could tell you more about his life and work, but when I heard that Patrice had died, I couldn’t help but say: the world is a little less funny today.