Category Archives: Obituary

Lewis Schaffer on the death of American comic Patrice O’Neal

(This was also published by the Huffington Post and, in a shortened version, by the comedy industry website Chortle)

The American comedian Patrice O’Neal (born ‘Patrice Oneal’) died on Tuesday this week, a month after suffering a stroke at the end of October. I did not know him and neither, it seems, did former Daily Mirror editor, now TV’s Mr Showbiz, Piers Morgan.

On his CNN chat show, the lovely Piers said:

“It’s been a sad day for comedy, with the death of Patrice O’Neal… She died of a stroke today. I want to take a quick look at Patrice on Jimmy Fallon, just to remind everyone just how funny she was…”

He then ran a clip of Patrice who was, very obviously, a man.

In October, I remember hearing about Patrice’s stroke from London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer.

He actually did know Patrice O’Neal and was very, very upset indeed when he told me about what had happened. So, after watching the Piers Morgan clip on YouTube yesterday, I phoned Lewis up and asked him what Patrice was like.

This is what Lewis told me:

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Patrice O’Neal with Lewis Schaffer's son in 2001

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.

When someone famous dies, everyone says they were his friend and they knew him well but I really was Patrice’s friend. I am not saying he was my friend. I would have liked if he thought of me that way. But I was his friend. 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 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…”

You’re asking the wrong person. It’s all a blur. Here I am in the confines of my flat and no-one is saying anything nice about me because I’m not dead yet. Poor Greg Giraldo died. It makes you want to fake your own death to get to hear a nice word.

Patrice was a really good guy.

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.

Patrice 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? Or leery? Is that the word? 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. I can’t explain. I feel I should call him up, but he told me not to call him again: that doesn’t mean he wasn’t my friend.

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. And, when one person dies, it’s like we’ve all… it comes close… 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 come 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.

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The death yesterday of Joan Hardee, mother of British alternative comedy’s godfather Malcolm Hardee

(This was also published by the Huffington Post and, in a shortened version, on the comedy industry website Chortle)

Last night, when I was on a train coming home from London, the late comedian Malcolm Hardee‘s sister Clare phoned to tell me that their mother Joan had died earlier in the day.

Joan was 84. I met her over perhaps 25 years. She was feisty, redoubtable and with a mind so sharp you could cut cheese with it. She doted on Malcolm and, when he drowned in 2005, it – as you would expect – affected her greatly for the rest of her life. She died from pneumonia, peacefully, in a nursing home near Deal in Kent.

Joan & Malcolm Hardee

In his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, Malcolm said:

“Just after my dad was demobbed, he met my mum in a pub called The Dutch House on the A20. They met on VJ Night.

“He was quite old when he got married – 32 – and my mum was 20. They stayed rooted in South East London, with never a thought of leaving.”

Joan gave birth to Malcolm in 1950; then her daughter Clare ten years later; and son Alexander another ten years later.

Malcolm remembered:

“I was born in the Tuberculosis Ward of Lewisham Hospital in South East London. Immediately after my birth, I was taken from my mother and moved to an orphanage in a place aptly named Ware in Hertfordshire. We were not to meet again for nearly two years.

“The reason I was shuffled off to Hertfordshire was that my mother had tuberculosis, which is extremely infectious and, in those days, it was unknown for working class fathers to look after young children.

“When my mother was released from the solitary confinement of the TB sanatorium, she came to collect me from the Hertfordshire orphanage. She said she nearly chose the wrong child as there was an angelic lookalike contentedly sitting in one corner, quiet as a mouse. But I was the screaming brat in the other corner.

“We went to live in Lewisham, at 20 Grover Court, in a modest block of genteel 1930s apartments with flat roofs. They are still there, set off the main road: two storeys, four flats to each storey, about 100 flats in all.. They look a little like holiday flats in some rundown seaside town like Herne Bay or Lyme Regis. It was fairly self-contained: almost like a village in itself.”

Joan’s husband was a lighterman. He worked on the River Thames, as the captain of a tugboat, pulling lighters (barges). Malcolm told me:

“People who worked on the River used to earn quite a good wage. Sometime around 1960, I remember a figure of £40 a week being quoted, which was probably about the same as a doctor got in those days.”

But Joan did not have it easy.

Comedian Arthur Smith told me yesterday: “Joan had a kind of necessary but graceful stoicism.”

Malcolm, in particular, must have been a difficult son to bring up.

Malcolm’s friend Digger Dave told me: “Nothing could faze Joan. She just took everything in her stride.”

And she had to.

In his autobiography, Malcolm remembered what he was like as a kid:

“I sometimes used to go shopping with my mother and pretend she was nicking stuff off the shelves. I would get up to the till and say: You know that’s Doris the Dip don’t you?  

“She actually got arrested once – well, stopped  – in Chiesmans Department Store in Lewisham. She’s always been indecisive, picking up things and putting them back and, with me standing behind her, she looked very suspicious. She wasn’t arrested – just stopped. She said she’d never felt so insulted in her life. But my mother has a sense of humour. I suppose she has had to have.”

“Malcolm’s entire family,” comedian Jenny Eclair told me yesterday, “are like him. They are rich, in the best sense of the word – there was so much love amongst the Hardees.”

As a surprise on her 70th birthday, Joan received a birthday card from artist Damien Hirst

Well, it was not a card. He sent her one of his paintings with Happy Birthday, Joan on the bottom right hand corner.

Joan used to work at Goldsmiths, the art college in south-east London where Hirst had studied. When he was a student, she had sometimes let him and other impoverished students share her sandwiches.

Malcolm had bumped into Damien in the Groucho Club in London and asked him if he would create a card for Joan in time for her birthday party.

The Daily Telegraph quoted Joan as saying of the students at Goldsmiths: “I used to buy some of their work at the annual degree show although I didn’t know that much about art actually. I never bought anything by Damien Hirst. I think he did a cow for his degree show and I must have thought Where would I put it?

Malcolm’s son Frank – Joan’s grandson – says: “For me, Grandjo was another Hardee eccentric who loved life and enjoyed to socialise.”

Frank is coming back from South Korea and his sister Poppy is coming back from Palestine to attend Joan’s funeral, details of which have not yet been finalised as I write this.

I liked Joan a lot. She had more than a spark of originality and a keen, intelligent mind.

Poppy writes from Palestine:

“One of my fondest memories of Grandjo comes from the time when I must have been around 10 and she had sold the Damien Hirst dot painting. She held a party to celebrate with the theme of ‘dress as a famous artist/piece of art work.’ The room was full of sunflowers (a strange take on surrealism by Steve Bowditch, if I remember), me as the lady of Shalott and dad as a policeman (the artist John Constable). Joan roamed around the room in an outrageous 1930s flapper girl costume (she was over 70 at this point) enjoying life and the company of eccentric friends and relatives.

“I will remember Joan as a true character – interesting, vibrant, artistic – and I think the person who has most influenced my vintage style and love of a charity shop bargain. She also gave me also my love of old films, celebrity memoirs and whiskey!

“I always loved Christmas with Joan – her snobbery regarding eating only Capon Chicken (simply corn fed darling!), the argument over whether the meat was drier than last year’s lunch and her love of snowballs (the drink) at 10am! I also loved her for the ‘Queen Mother’s Sausages’ (sold by the local butcher and of a type rumoured to have been once eaten by the QM!), trips to the pantomime as our Christmas gift every year and her speciality onion soup!

“The last years of Joan’s life were incredibly difficult for both herself and the family. My aunt Clare and I took on Power of Attorney for her as she was unable to take decisions for herself and I pray and believe we made the best decisions for her regarding making her last years comfortable and the least distressing they could be in light of her dementia and other health problems.

“I thank Clare, who took on the majority of this task with the amazing support of her husband Steve and gave herself selflessly to the task of primary career and decision maker for Joan. No-one could have done a better job than the two of them and it is thanks to them that Joan got the right care and support in these past months and experienced the peaceful death she deserved.

“I think that, in sad reality, Joan never really recovered from the loss of our father Malcolm and it is a comfort that they will rest together at Shooters Hill in London.”

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