The Patrice O'Neal I knew

By Lewis Schaffer

When someone famous dies, everyone says they were his friend and they knew him well but I really was Patrice’s friend. He often stayed at my flat in London when he came over. We did group shows at the Melbourne and Edinburgh festivals and we worked together at the Boston Comedy Club in New York, where I was house MC.

I knew him pretty well. But I don’t remember anything about him; not really.

I remember him sitting by the washing machine. I remember that argument we had on the stairs with fellow comedian Keith Robinson in Australia and Patrice was so loud the theatre staff locked themselves in their office and were about to call the police. I remember his screeching, booming laugh when he heard that a reviewer had called me ‘witty’. I remember him holding my tiny baby son in his Green Mile hands and thinking of his joke: ‘I don’t like to hold babies. I’d be watching the football game and my team would score a touchdown and…’

I’ll tell you what I liked about him: he admitted his insecurities – like a Jewish guy. He knew he was a fat, ugly guy; I’ve seen him naked – not a pretty sight, but his face grew on you.

When I knew him, he was not a winner yet but his appeal was growing. He remembered what it was like before girls liked him. And I think that grounded the guy. Maybe that’s what we had in common – I started comedy late and knew life away from comedy.

And the other thing was he was not afraid of me back in New York and a lot of people were afraid of me.

PatricePatrice was black. I am white. I grew up at a time – the 1960s and 1970s – and in a place – segregated New York – where I did not have a chance to befriend many black people. As a matter of fact, I did not know many white Christians either. Nearly everyone in my hometown of Great Neck were white Jews.

There is a lot of tension between blacks and whites in America. I used to fear black people… with reason because, for example, black kids stole my bicycle (I saw them do it) and a year later, when I was 13, black kids mugged me in Central Park. I used to think that black people were not as smart as white people because whenever I spoke with them they seemed to have a hard time putting a sentence together.

It was when I met Patrice that I understood. It was not that Patrice was smart – though he was, of course. It was that he was emotionally honest. He made me realise that a lot of black people were afraid of people like me. Or wary of me. Black people were sometimes afraid of me because I represented ‘The Man’ to them. I looked like a successful guy. Maybe it was a class thing. Maybe they thought I was better educated than them. I wore a blue blazer and a white shirt. I always looked neat and moneyed even when I ‘didn’t have a pot to piss in’, as my father would say.

A lot of these black guys, they didn’t know white guys. They couldn’t tell that I was running scared. I made them nervous. This mutual distrust affected the way we understood each other – and the way we acted.

But Patrice was not nervous. He was not afraid of admitting he was afraid of white people. He was not afraid of admitting he was afraid of women, relationships, his health, or getting caught making love in a creaky bed. By admitting his fears he empowered himself and disarmed me. I felt comfortable around him.

What Patrice did on a personal level he did in comedy. His honesty disarmed the audience.

When we worked together in New York, he was not famous at all. He hadn’t been on TV at all.

After I left America, comedy kind of exploded for a certain type of comedian.

The comedians I had started with and worked with in New York suddenly went on TV – and he was one of them. He went on the roasts and the ‘shock jock’ radio shows. But even then he wasn’t really famous. I think it was that he was too honest.

My girlfriend thought he was misogynistic and I guess he seemed that way. But I remember how gentle and loyal he was to his Liverpudlian girlfriend, Melanie. You gotta walk on tippy toes around women if you want to make it big and his feet were too big for that.

He was unique. That’s what everyone always said about him. He was unique. He’d tell these stories – almost shaggy dog stories – about things happening. They would start off with a statement of why he didn’t litter or why he didn’t make love to his wife at his ma’am’s house. Then he would extrapolate… It was almost an English style, or Richard Pryor.

The thing about us as comedians is this… We don’t go to the same office or factory every day. We’ve got different gigs in different places. We rarely see each other; like ships that pass in the night. But we know who’s out there and what they’re doing. It’s like a brother: you get used to not seeing someone but you know he’s out there, so it’s okay.

But now you know his ‘ship’ ain’t gonna bump into your ship. He’ll never be around again.

To me, he died twice.

He had the stroke about a month ago and, for a comedian, that’s death. It would have been horrible if he had come back ‘slightly’. Because he was so full-on. I loved him.

  • Lewis Schaffer (website) was talking to John Fleming, who blogs daily here.

Published: 3 Dec 2011

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