Wednesday, November 30, 2011

THE VOICE: Patrice O'Neal

This month, The Beast realized it's been doing a lot of "Rest In Tempo" posts lately -- so much so that we fear this blog will become one long obituary. But the death yesterday of the brilliant comedian Patrice O' Neal at the intolerably young age of 41 made us want to eschew our usual YouTube snippet-with-appreciatory-epigraph-from-another-publication in favor of our own words.

We've been here before, haven't we? Bernie Mac, Robin Harris, Warren Thomas -- all groundbreakers who nudged the art form ahead a few spaces before exiting stage left a bit too soon. But what made O'Neal special was that he developed a unique approach to standup comedy. He may have been the first African-American comedian who -- at least in the early part of his career -- took a page from Andy Kaufman: HE RARELY TOLD ANY JOKES.

Instead, he would ramble on in his raspy, high-pitched Cee-Lo Green croak and trail off just before the punchline. His jokes were the silences between the sentences, where he actually let the audience fill in the blanks with what they thought he was going to say. Which was always invariably funny. In this way, O'Neil was more avant-garde and intellectual than any "urban" comedian I've seen. (What other black comic has a routine dissecting Radiohead's "Creep"?) Sure, he did the Dozens on the audience and could be street-crude and brutally frank -- he shared Jerry Lewis' Neanderthal opinions that "women aren't funny" -- but he avoided the dregs of making it in lamestream comedy and instead deliberately focused on becoming, in his words, "a cult comic."

“If you watched Patrice, all his shows were different and he didn’t write any of his material down,” ONeil's friend, the equally edgy comic Bill Burr, told writer Adrian LeBlanc. “He got to it in a new way every night. As long as I knew him, he was always working on trying to attain a level of freedom onstage where he could just go up there and talk to the crowd. To me, that was the Pryor school of stand-up comedy.”

O'Neal's style went somewhere between Tracy Morgan's stream-of-consciousness ghetto fables and Dave Chappelle's unflinching racial microscope. He didn't necessarily fit in with the post-Dolemite shtick of Eddie Griffin or Katt Williams. He was more like Richard Pryor with a Master's Degree. And he was influential: just look at the sort of semi-exhausted, rambling badinage peddled by comics like Corey Holcomb, Lavell Crawford and the terminally annoying Craig Robinson, who appeared with O'Neil on The Office as one of the Dunder-Mifflin warehouse employees but somehow got bumped up over O'Neil to a starring role despite the fact that Robinson's "act" consists of acting too cool -- or too stoned -- to have an act and force-feeding his godawful R&B music down our throats. Good Lord, what would O'Neil have down with the role of Darryl?

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