Updated: Feb 26, 2021
“Euckh” it's a sound you would instantly recognize if heard out loud. The phoneme is a sound of pure disgust, it echoes the mucus lodged in the back of your throat scraping the uvula into a cave-like uproar of hatred. It feels primitive and ancient, it's cross-cultural, as soon as you hear it, you know what it means. This person is clearly disgusted by something, it’s an involuntary and rare sound that people make only a few times in their lifetimes, and it’s a sound that is synonymous with Patrice O’Neal.
When I was in middle school I would spend hours afterschool watching anything 'stand up comedy' related that I could get my hands on, interviews, old Carlin and Pryor specials, Redd Foxx specials, Chappelle’s Show, Talking Funny, Opie & Anthony, and Tough Crowd. That’s when I stumbled across Patrice O’Neal. Patrice, like many great artists, was a purist. He lived and breathed his craft. This guy was one of the most honest people in the world, almost psychopathically. Patrice was a master at describing precisely what was going on, and if he wanted to, he would do it in the most vindictive way possible, it was hilarious, but that sound mirrored his view on life. Patrice was disgusted by everyone, and everything, all the time. He was ruthlessly judgmental of everyone and everything around him, he hated anything he deemed phony, which was great for his craft, but terrible, in his own words, for his personal life.
Listening to those podcasts while growing up truly made me move differently in my life. The world is constantly trying to make us conform to it, there’s a certain way you are around your friends or family, and then a certain way you are in professional settings. Jim Norton had the perfect description of Patrice, he said “Patrice lived his life like there would be a movie about his life that would be played to his buddies after he died” That was put so beautifully, and perfectly encapsulates why I love Patrice, and the impact his abrasive honesty had on me, but also how it was the biggest detriment to his professional career as a person in the entertainment industry.
As an aspiring artist, in a world where that is categorized as part of the “entertainment industry” Patrice echoed my sentiments. Patrice said he hated being called an entertainer because his goal was not to entertain, it was to “get it off.” Patrice O'Neal was a comedy nerd, he loved the craft, he loved the greatest practitioners, and he thought that "hacky" comedians were doing a disservice to a culture he loves, Patrice was a purist. Patrice was compelled to use the medium of stand up comedy to convey his emotions, and he wanted to master the art form because he saw it as a medium for truth. Truth, not propaganda, like a true artist, you would see him work out his point of view on stage, and his goal was to be great at stand up, like the people he loved, which he felt required "half the audience to be horrified." He wanted to provoke you, and challenge your worldview with his truth. He didn’t want to do anything phony, he even had “hack court” which is where he would put different comedians bits on trial to tear them apart and let them know why it was corny, various comedians like Kevin Hart & Joe Rogan claim it was an honour for Patrice to even laugh at their jokes, because he wouldn’t fake a laugh. His discernment and constant criticism made his work amazing, but it also stagnated his career.
What Patrice had is what Martin Scorsese is talking about with film recently, which he expounded on in the essay he recently published titled “Il Maestro.” Scorsese talks about maintaining the integrity of film and treating the great cultural landmarks of film as something more than just “content” and "property." Scorsese is talking about something much more than just wealth and blockbusters, he’s talking about the heritage of a medium that has affected lives around the world, including his own, and the culture surrounding it, that is being degraded & commodified by industries. That is the same fight Patrice O’Neal was having. Patrice wanted to maintain the purity and truth in a genre and culture that changed his life.
Scorsese and Patrice have many parallels. Scorsese originally made low budget films, he wasn't necessarily a blockbuster name until decades into his career as a director. His films were grittier, honest, and reflective of a certain culture in New York at that time. Films like 'Kings of Comedy' that are now critically acclaimed were only in theatres for less than a week. Scorsese, like Patrice, was a film buff and a purist, dedicated to the furtherance of the culture and the craft. Scorsese worshipped great directors like Federico Fellini, Georges Méliès & F. W. Murnau, in the same way Patrice worshipped comics like George Carlin & Richard Pryor.
Martin Scorsese has caught flack recently for saying he doesn't deem movies like the Avengers to be 'cinema' and there was an uproar of Marvel fans on the internet. We need respected practitioners like Patrice and Scorsese to defend the integrity and quality of a culture that people love, that is their role. You can enjoy franchises like the Avengers, Jumanji, and every Disney remake, but there needs to be someone great, that reminds us there's a difference. Its not elitism, its quality control, its an expression of love. Scorsese’s passion for preserving the art of film and the language around it is important. It goes beyond whether marvel or dc is considered cinema. It’s about restoration, survival, and knowledge of the medium. There's a difference between George Carlin and Jo Koy, there's a difference between Homers Odyssey and 50 Shades of Grey, there's a difference between Kendrick Lamar and Lil Pump, and that's what Patrice O'Neal and Scorsese are trying to emphasize, in their respective genres.
Patrice’s abrasive non conformity was the biggest detriment to his career. Since its inception, the entertainment industry has had gatekeepers. It was a concentrated and controlled industry, you couldn’t get something on television or in movie theatres unless you were a studio. Everyone's information intake was, and still widely is, controlled by a few corporations. Noam Chomsky, an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist, said in his book titled ‘Manufacturing Consent’ “The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”
Private interests monopolized the industry and had almost every aspiring artist lining up at their door to sell their talent, and because of the influx of talent, the talent became less valuable and the gatekeeper positions gained sole power. The gatekeeper now had full autonomy over people’s livelihood, if this person likes you, they could give you an opportunity and if they hated you, then your career is finished. That’s what lead to power dynamics like Harvey Weinstein buying sex with a movie role. He controlled the industry, you couldn’t go anywhere else. So a lot of people did things they weren’t proud of in order to “make it.”
Patrice, like Scorsese, was an artist, he didn’t need to make it, he definitely would have loved to be rich, but that’s not what he was in it for, to the point where he ruined his shot of having a consistent appearance on The Office, one of the biggest shows of all time, because an intern was too excited at 6 am. He felt like she shouldn’t have been so giddy at 6 in the morning, so he told her, and he was deemed difficult to work with. He would tell writers if their scripts were unfunny, he would openly complain if he was in a bad scene. Patrice is our internal monologue at work when your annoying coworker is too excited a little too early, but most of us are polite people. Most of us won't tell her to "shut the fuck up and reflect about what she has to be so giddy about." But that’s how he felt, and he said it, because it was true. He lived his whole life as a stand up comedian, which to him meant a truth that most people couldn’t imagine, which is great for artistry, but terrible for career progression.
Patrice could have played the game, got ahead and become as successful as his peers Kevin Hart, Louis C.K. Dave Chappelle, Joe Rogan & Bill Burr, he was just as talented, but he didn't have it in him. Patrice was pre-Netflix, and his personality wasn’t going to be at networking events trying to get buddy-buddy with superiors to try and get ahead, even though he probably should have. He wasn't going to tone down his rhetoric, or do hacky roles, even though he should have. And he suffered for not doing it, but he stood up for what he believed and dedicated himself to becoming stand up comedy personified, and thus Truth personified.
Patrice didn’t even want to fake a smile, he wanted to be true to himself, all the time. I feel him because I’m that same antisocial guy, I’m not overly extroverted, I’m not the network, make the rounds of the room, meet everyone, remember names kind of person. I feel Patrice on so many levels, I’m probably way nicer, and more of a people pleaser, but I understand his barometer for phoniness. Patrice is the high octane example of that feeling inside every person, Patrice, like stand up comedy, represents that part of us we hold back for politeness.
Patrice was so much funnier than everyone else around him, no matter how many executives hated him and stifled him, but it wasn't just funny, it would give you a different perspective on the world. His name still rings because his talent was undeniable, and it was honest. Regardless of how many people outspokenly hate him, his name is still around a decade after his death because of his talent level. Acting and entertaining have historically been treated as subservient positions, the goal being to please the audience and meet their expectations to gain validation. Patrice O’Neal took the assertive position, like a Rockstar, you might not like him, but you’re gonna play those songs, because they’re undeniably fire. He wasn't going to dumb down, or tone down his material, and he was going to be the medium as abrasively as possible, even if it meant his work won't resonate with everyone.
Patrice would have thrived during the internet, direct to consumer age. He passed away in 2011 so he didn’t get to see through the complete boom. Comedians like Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari revolutionized the business model for comedy by building their own websites and selling millions of specials directly to their fans without a middle man, aka the gatekeeper. The same gatekeepers that stifled Patrice’s career because they weren’t fond of his personality. Louis and Aziz were able to make themselves invaluable, and then monetize, regardless of what studio executives thought about them, but they were also proficient at playing the game.
Louis and Aziz carved a lane where they were able to live like successful artists, not just entertainers. Artists focus on honing their craft, entertainers make content that will please the fans and make lots of money. Not everyone is in a financial position to live like a successful artist, many people compromise and become entertainers. People like Ellen DeGeneres and Nick Cannon are entertainers. No offence to Nick Cannon, for most of his career he’s been an entertainer. I loved Wild N Out, I loved him on Nickelodeon, I like when he hosts America's Got Talent, I like some of those songs, and his whole thing is making fan pleasing content and making lots of money. Nick is an extroverted, fun looking guy, he laughs and smiles a lot, he’s articulate, he’s talented and charismatic, he’s a ‘made-guy’ for the entertainment industry. Same as Kim Kardashian, Mario Lopez and Ryan Seacrest. These are all probably highly intelligent and very wealthy people, but their goal wasn’t to make Citizen Kane or anything, it was to make something fun, safe and lucrative.
Some people are trying to make Citizen Kane though, people like Scorsese sought that out, and Patrice was trying to become Richard Pryor. He wasn’t like Nick Cannon, he’s not like Diddy, he’s not a smooth politician, he’s passionate, talented and honest. You can be talented and passionate, but in a monopolized industry, you could only go so far being completely honest. A truly wise man knows when to use honesty strategically, but that wasn’t Patrice, he was a pure artist, that was the drive that put him in the -ism. We can all become blinded by wealth and things of that nature, but there’s a certain truthfulness to art that connects with us and stays with us.
There are artists we all love, it might have been a song from our youth, a movie, a picture, painting, poem, lyrics, a book, a blog, podcast, a story you heard, a joke your friend told, something that resonates with us because of how real it was. There’s millions of songs out there, but there’s that one artist or that one song that said something so specific about something so closely related to what you were going through, that resonates with you, changed your life or made you think differently. Or it was the soundtrack to something you were going through, or you felt what they were going through because you’ve been there before.
Great art is reciprocal, it’s the most sincere form of understanding, and when it works, it changes your life, in ways that aren’t quantifiable. We have such a hard time conveying our emotions in real life, but true artists are superheroes, that can create things that are true, in ways we couldn’t dream of. There are people that want to become famous, there are the metaphoric ‘tap dancers’ and then there are people that want to make things that shift culture, but they’re all lumped into the same category. Films like ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘Jumanji’ clearly have different goals in mind, but they’re all lumped into the category of ‘content’ and the cultural heritage of film is watered down and the intellectual property is infinitely monetized.
All artists are lumped into the 'entertainment industry' and artists are made to feel as though they have no leverage, and when the industry was monopolized, that was true, so sometimes, the system would be restrictive and artists would have to follow someone else’s lucrative idea, instead of making something great and true to themselves. Any artist that wanted to make any money had to go through the studio system, or the label system, which are the same systems, in order to gain any wealth or notoriety, and at certain points, that allowed corruption and repression. Art is mostly subjective, and the requirements for entry were made arbitrary. Harvey Weinstein didn’t hire people based on an aesthetic criteria.
Patrice didn’t want to play the politics, which is a large part of being an artist in an industrial system. The nature of the world is that there are people who work in certain positions who could help further your livelihood, and if you have leverage, it’s a negotiation, if you have no leverage, it's an ultimatum. Sometimes you have to maintain relationships, deals, advertiser friendliness, and contracts, but Patrice was a stand up to his core and was unwilling to compromise, his motto was "Be The Truth." Patrice’s art was valuable, and he would do great on the road, fans would use their own money to pay and see him perform, even when executives were blackballing him from becoming the biggest comedian in the world. But he focused on his craft, not politics or likeability and understood that his art was invaluable.
Things like the internet being direct to consumers, that would have probably made him a huge celebrity, really started to blow up around his death, so he was stifled by the system he existed in during his time alive, but his work lives on forever through the internet. A lot of new people are discovering Patrice's old material, I’m still finding ones I missed, & a documentary was just released by Comedy Central under his name.
It sucks that Patrice didn’t get to see the rewards of the seeds he sewed with his talent, but I think this was his goal. Patrice couldn’t be the biggest celebrity in the world because he didn't have what it takes, because what it takes would have made him someone else. Patrice can’t be Kevin Hart. Kevin Hart is cool every moment of every day. Any time you see that man, he is cool as a cucumber. He is great in interviews, he's articulate, safe and likeable, he has never looked bad. Patrice can’t host the Oscars or deal with paparazzi. Patrice couldn’t have been on Instagram live, he used to make fun of people for typing. He couldn't become family friendly or tone down his material, in his own words he would "rather die first." But on that stage, there was no denying his skill, and that’s why we still listen to him, and that’s why he’s immortalized for so many. All of his peers, even the ones who hate him, admit his talent level.
Patrice O’Neal was a master in his craft, he was one of the best comedians dead or alive. He’s like a Scorsese or a Tarkovsky in terms of skill in stand up. Patrice is a reminder for true artists to focus on honing their craft and maintaining their integrity, obviously Patrice is an extreme example of that. You don’t have to be rude to people that are unnecessarily excited too early in the day, but don’t just focus on pleasing people or making friends to get to the top, focus on making undeniable work. Hone your craft, dedicate your life to it, use it as a medium for truth. Hone the elements of the craft, learn about its greatest practitioners, and try to do it better than anyone else. That should be the main focus, above wealth and fame, it's to be Kubrick, Scorsese, Dilla, Pryor, Carlin, Da Vinci, Tupac, Caravaggio, & Patrice, someone above concepts of celebrity or entertainment, and into the territory of meaningful masterpieces. That’s what Patrice aimed for every time he spoke. He always wanted to say the realest shit he could think of, and that isn’t conducive in an industry powered by relationships, but we need people that care about the truth. We need people like Patrice & Scorsese to maintain the quality, purity and integrity in cultures that have changed lives, instead of allowing them to be completely commodified and watered down.
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