The news started the way news seems to start these days – with a Tweet or two. The initial hope was that it was a false rumor or something, because those things do happen in the era of Twitter and Facebook and the 24 Hour News Cycle. But as the tweets started to roll in it seemed that they were true: Patrice O’Neal was dead.
Patrice suffered a stroke not too long ago, which sent justifiable shocks through the comedy world. He had just had his best and most high profile year yet. His Elephant In The Room special was an instant classic in February on Comedy Central and then his off the cuff performance on the Roast of Charlie Sheen, which was a welcome change from the neatly polished and predictably mean-spirited jokes that litter those roasts now, elevated him to another, more mainstream audience. And then he had a stroke.
And now he has died.
Until a few years ago my favorite comedian in the world was Greg Giraldo. A brilliant, but accessible comedian, Giraldo was exactly what I aspired to – a lawyer-turned-comedian who was in the top class of comedians – popular and respected. But then he died too early, at 44 years old, in a hotel in New Jersey. He, like Patrice, had finally achieved a step into the mainstream with his appearances on Last Comic Standing and his undisputed closing status on Comedy Central Roasts – he was like the Mariano Rivera of comedy.
And then he died.
As if filling a void for comedy hero in the wake of Giraldo’s parting, I was lucky enough to work with Patrice O’Neal at the DC Improv. The first time I worked with him was a true gift. It really felt like being a fan again. All the cynicism and jealousy that goes with being a comedian went away because I was watching someone practice comedy at such a high level that all you could do was admire and clutch your stomach in pain from laughing too much.
But the single greatest honor I have received was when Patrice asked to have me emcee his shows in DC the next time he was in DC. And I remember him telling me that the emcee is important and that I should not demean it. See to a lot of comics they would consider emceeing beneath them at the 7-8 year mark of their career, but this was one of the titans of the art form telling me that what I did was important and important to his show. This was because he was a true comedian. It was not about status or fame – it was about the show. And no one currently in my opinion, other than maybe Bill Burr, put on a show like Patrice O’Neal.
And the fact that my shows opening for Patrice earned me some of my most engaged Facebook fans tells me that not only did he enhance comedy as an art, but he attracted true fans of the art.
But the death of Patrice O’Neal reminds me of something quite ominous for comedy. Comedy is not producing any new Patrice O’Neals. Or at least is not promoting any. What disgusts me about comedy is when I see greats like Greg Giraldo and Patrice O’Neal taking 20 years to become household names. The advantage of that is that their skill set and world view are so damn developed that they are practically forces of nature by the time they break. But does that mean it is right? Didn’t Patrice deserve to be bigger (only 1 hour long special on comedy central?) than that?
But beyond the personal tragedy of Patrice O’Neal’s death is what it means for the art of comedy. Greg Giraldo and Patrice O’Neal are not being replaced by similar younger talent. For me there is a generation that includes Bill Burr and Jim Norton that still represent the truest form of stand up (their careers were not built through savvy social media campaigns and sitcom roles, but on stage night after night). But like manufacturing jobs that disappeared in America or rock stars more concerned with pilates and yoga than with partying and making great rock songs, the “comedy soldiers,” as Patrice once referred to himself and Burr, seem to be a dying breed. Telegenic and marketable seem to be more important than true comedy genius in today’s comedy market. That is not to say there are not great young comedians with real points of views and insightful thinking in their material. There are. But at some point places like Comedy Central need to take some responsibility. They have monopolized the comedy business, in some schools of thought have ruined live comedy (imagine Broadway had a basic cable channel called “Broadway Central” where you could watch Broadway plays – it would diminish ticket sales as well as the allure of live performance), but do not necessarily keep the art in the highest esteem.
I do not know the solution, but it reminds me of cable news. Instead of doing longer, in-depth stories, cable news tries to meet the consumer half way (more like 80% of the way) and give them what they want to hear. But at some point the news station has to give us our vegetables. Stop serving up what people want or the lowest common denominator (Lindsey Lohan’s name should never appear on CNN except on their entertainment show). Same for comedy – all due respect to my young friends (and to my own sputtering career) but when I turn on comedy central I should be seeing Pryor, Carlin, Giraldo, Hicks, O’Neal, Burr, Wright, Rock, Seinfeld, etc. a lot more than I do. These are among the Shakespeares of our art and people should be schooled and respect the classics.
When Patrice’s special aired I told everyone to watch it with the same vigor that I tell people to watch Breaking Bad – nonstop with a 100% guarantee of enjoyment. Afterwards I had friends saying “I never heard of him, but man that was great!” This is not a failing of Patrice O’Neal, this is the failing of the comedy business. Comedians suffer and struggle and hustle to be worthy of the platform that late night television and Comedy Central provide, but once they have earned it, as Patrice did many times over they deserve at least as much air time as Dane Cook or Larry The Cable Guy. Comedy programmers are not supposed to just be a reflection of people’s taste – they should be enriching it.
The loss of Patrice O’Neal is huge, but what makes it annoying to a super fan like myself is that it is not actually bigger.
There will be no more working with Patrice, watching Patrice or looking forward to new opportunities for Patrice. And I am sad for the loss to comedy and his family and friends and angry at the injustice that that symbolizes.
So Patrice died one week before his birthday fits the comedy business perfectly – he almost got to be celebrated the way he deserved. But it is nice to see all the comedians and hard core comedy fans celebrating him. The best way to honor him going forward, at least in comedy I think, is to not settle for anything less than what he brought to the table. And that was a whole lot.