When the comedic legend died this week, we lost more than just a standup.
A couple months ago I was showing my mom, a Midwesterner who doesn’t swear or drink alcohol, a YouTube clip. It was footage from standup comedian Patrice O’Neal’s most recent Comedy Central special, Elephant in the Room, and it was about women. “You know how you can tell how pretty a white woman is?” O’Neal, an imposing black man with a large gap-toothed smile, asks the crowd. “You look at her, and then you wonder how long they would look for her if she was missing.” I turned to my mother, who is white, in her 60s and—bless her heart—a Kenny G fan, and she looked shocked. She was also laughing. Hard.
Patrice O’Neal died on Tuesday. He was only 41, but he had diabetes, a condition that led to him having a stroke in late October. With O’Neal gone, we’ve lost a great standup comedian and an actor who had some hilarious turns in things like The Office and the Chappelle Show. But we’re also forced to say goodbye to one of the most important cultural critics working in America today.
In a way, the late and multitalented comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s tagline—“I don’t get no respect!”—wasn’t a joke. Compared to their acting and singing contemporaries, comedians are often underappreciated, residing on the show business totem pole somewhere above magician and below rapper. That’s been changing with successful standup acts like Louis C.K. and Donald Glover hitting the mainstream, but a lot of their accolades have been based on the fact that they’re now more comedic actors than comedians. O’Neal was a comedian.
Though he had more than 20 acting appearances to his name on IMDB, O’Neal’s roles onscreen—in TV shows and some low-budget comedy films—were almost always small. Sometimes he wasn’t even credited. Where O’Neal really flexed his muscles was onstage, doing standup. “It’s a serious thing,” he once said in an interview. “That’s why sometimes comics are not happy. You leave a little piece of you [up there].” O’Neal was serious about being unserious, which is what made him so good at his job.
Before I heard Patrice O’Neal, I’d have told you it was impossible to get my aged, churchgoing mother to laugh at a Natalee Holloway joke. O’Neal made it possible. He also made it possible to laugh at dog fighting, lung cancer, and slavery. That’s not easy—people are taught their whole lives to not laugh at that stuff—and it takes a very smart person to get them to crack up.
Like most smart people, O’Neal wasn’t content unless he was trying to make others smarter. It’s important to make folks laugh, especially now, in time of war, poverty, and historic international upheaval. But if all you need is a giggle you can log onto YouTube and watch countless videos of guys taking soccer balls to the crotch. O’Neal was funny and enlightening. When he says in the Holloway bit that “a white woman’s life is valuable,” you laugh. If you’re like me you laugh hard. You also forget, or never even notice, that you’re laughing at a topic, “missing white woman syndrome,” that’s been discussed by thought leaders and highly paid pundits for years now. Esteemed academics write entire papers [PDF] about this stuff; Patrice O’Neal brought it into dingy comedy clubs and made people smile at it, and maybe even think about it the next morning.
Most of us are raised to think that discussing things like race, class, and religion is impolite. Humor is often necessary to give people the guts to broach taboo topics, the same way sugar helps the medicine go down. O’Neal knew that as well or better than any comic working today, and he made the American pop culture landscape better, funnier, and, most importantly, more intelligent. He'll be sorely missed.
Photo via Comedy Central