November 30, 2011
The World Deserves to Know
Until 1997, I had never heard of Bill Hicks. I was a closet writer and fan of comedy that lived a secluded life in a small southern town. One day I was browsing the comedy section of the local mall’s CD store and I came across one of Hicks’ CDs. I didn’t recognize anything I read, but I was desperate for something new so I bought it. I don’t remember which one I bought first because I didn’t even get out of the parking lot before I listened long enough to know I had to turn around and go purchase everything else he had on the shelf. The genius of Hick’s smacked me in the face within minutes of hearing his voice for the first time. I have only had that experience with one other comic.
Tough Crowd came on the air a couple years after I started my career in standup. The regulars were familiar names to me, but mostly through backstage talks with those who had dared to venture out of the shitty southern rooms we were working at the time. The first time I saw Patrice, unlike a lot of people, I didn’t see an asshole. I didn’t see arrogance either. What I saw was a master of control. With just a 2-3 minute portion of a single segment he was able to maintain control over the crowd and the other guests, all while sipping from a cup and sitting on his ass. He could make me both love and hate the same sentence but he could never make me stop paying attention. Imagine what he could do with an hour, I thought to myself.
When I started traveling north I managed to meet Patrice a few times and he was never anything but gracious and polite. While working with XM I often stopped in the old O&A studio on West 57th. When Patrice was there I always did my best to stick my head in and watch him take over. It was there, behind the scenes, where I noticed two other things about Patrice. He was a problem, and the second he engaged you in conversation you were already five steps behind him. He could see things in people and situations that no one else could and he could verbalize them almost instantly before anyone around him saw it coming. The few times I saw him perform short sets in the city, these things became even more apparent. Each time I watched him, I was always left wanting to see what he could do with an hour.
It’s no secret in the industry that Patrice did things his way and some of those things didn’t sit well with a lot of people. Like a lot truly original thinkers, he didn’t seem to give a shit about the repercussions of his actions, and whether it earned or lost him work in most cases he stood his ground. Elephant in the Room was no exception to this rule. It was his special. He did it his way, and because of that it is in my opinion one of the greatest standup performances ever recorded. He made you instantly aware he was in control. He made you pay attention to his every word and inflection. And, he made you admit to yourself that you don’t really know how to spell restaurant either.
Patrice O’Neal is one of the greatest comics that has ever lived. He was a master of the craft unlike any before him. While in the past I always wondered how long it would take the mainstream audiences to realize this fact, now that he was taken so early in his life I now fear there is a chance that they never will. I will never forget Patrice. Those that study comedy will never forget Patrice, but the rest of the world deserves to know, and would better themselves by knowing, the Patrice that we knew.
Patrice’s family holds the reigns to his legacy, and I hope they can find the strength to move forward from this tragedy and finish what he started. Everything he ever recorded should be packaged and made available to the mainstream fans. Not for monetary reasons but because his art was worthy of admiration and there are so many people left out there who don’t even know what they’ve been missing. If they do this, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that one day in the future someone will be browsing the comedy section of iTunes or Amazon, and within minutes of finding him realize they are in the presence of genius.