(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:
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.