There are inevitably heightened emotions when listening to a posthumous CD – but even on its own merits, the final stand-up album from Patrice O’Neal is an impressive piece of work.
Mr P, which was recorded in Washington last April and released yesterday, features his usual, irresistible mix of smart, provocative – and sometimes just plain dirty – material, all adding to the considerable legacy of a rightly respected comedian. No hurried cash-in following his death in November at the age of 41, this is the album he would have released anyway, and continues to push the envelope on sex, power – and sexual power – into sometimes touchy areas, but always with a daring, charming wit.
It starts, it has to be said, rather straightforwardly. As he settles into his place of work behind the microphone, he spies a woman who looks unhappy to be there, and starts probing her partner about the state of the relationship. But there’s some edge to his banter, as he bluntly asks the woman her age – and suggests the man will inevitably be checking out the younger women in the crowd. You don’t need to be able to see them to appreciate just how much they must be squirming.
O’Neal has instantly spotted a fault line, jammed his comic crowbar into it, and started waggling it – waiting for the cracks to appear. It might be uncomfortable to be the object of his attention, but for bystanders, there are plenty of laughs in watching it.
It sets the mood for the rest of the 75-minute show. For he really comes into his own when those fault lines are massive social issues that are swept under the carpet for the ease of us all getting along. The fact that he admits, with typical honesty, that can’t bring himself to care about the tsunami in far-off Japan, is one such snag that he picks at – but it’s when it comes to race that he’s particularly potent.
‘This definitely ain’t going to be funny to white people,’ he says as he introduces a typically inflammatory piece. ‘Or Latinos. Or Asians. Or Jews. Anybody...’ Indeed what follows is an contentious idea about repatriations for the slave trade unlikely to get much political support among the ruling classes – but because he delivers it with such charisma and self-aware good humour, it’s as funny as it is tense, even if you don’t agree with it.
From this, O’Neal leads on to the more accessible, if not necessarily any more palatable, material about sex and race. On its simplest level, this could be reduced to the cliched ‘black women do this/white women do this’ format of so many hacks working this territory. Yet despite this – and a distinct whiff of sexism – O’Neal lands huge laughs of recognition. It’s observational comedy of noticing what no one has noticed before – but with added daring.
Not everyone might appreciate some of this, thanks to some of the crude sexual descriptions, his advocacy of affairs (or ‘side pussy’) – or, indeed, his casual use of terms like ‘side pussy’, ‘my bitch’ or ‘hos’. But in one very telling aside, O’Neal asserts: ‘I hope everybody ain’t laughing – because it’s no fun if everybody’s laughing.’
As a preamble to these discussions about relationships. O’Neal asks a man in the audience about his dating history – and immediately hits a rich seam of mockery, again demonstrating his command of crowd work, when he finds the man’s name is Tolu. O’Neal finds this hilarious – especially given his own unconventional forename – and the gales of giggles are infectious. More spontaneous hilarity ensures when another man, apropos of very little, asserts that he’s ‘not racist’, spawning a fiercely cutting – but always good-humoured – outburst.
It proves he is as funny off-the-cuff as he was with his prepared, bigger, topics. On these he surely had more to say, and it’s a great loss to comedy that this playful provocateur will never get to say them.
- Patrice O’Neal: Mr P is out on BSeen Media. Click here to buy the CD from Amazon, or here to download from iTunes.