Patrice Oneal died five years ago today, on Nov. 29, 2011. There are many of his famous peers who knew and adored him, and not only have shared their stories about him but also continue to celebrate Oneal and help his family financially with an annual benefit. Next year’s show, recently announced, 4th Annual Patrice O’Neal Comedy Benefit Concert happens Jan. 26, 2016, at New York City Center. It’s a night of stand-up comedy to honor the memory of a master comedian and true friend with performances by Dave Attell, Greer Barnes, Bill Burr, Rachel Feinstein, Godfrey, Artie Lange, Russ Meneve, Jim Norton & Rich Vos. You may have heard from many of them tell tales of Patrice in the past five years.
This is David Foster’s remembrance of Patrice. You may have remembered him in his younger comedy days as Sauce, and racked up credits such as MTV’s Boiling Point, White Boyz in the Hood on Showtime, and P. Diddy’s Bad Boys of Comedy on HBO.
How Patrice O’Neal Got Me To Drop My Nickname
By David Foster
The only time Patrice O’Neal ever spoke to me was one Sunday night in front of the Boston Comedy Club, and he wasn’t speaking to me at all, but just including me as one of his many targets of derision on the block.
In classic fashion, he’d been snapping on fellow comics, mostly for their attire, seamlessly shifting gears any time any attractive female walked by: “Hey, how you doing?” followed by a joke about her attire as well, as if she were one of the guys.
I don’t know if it was mean-spirited as much as it was a bit juvenile and brash. It just felt like we were just back in high school and Patrice was the huge black dude that all of the girls rolled their eyes at, and all of the guys adored for his hilarious wit. In any case, he was killing, and any time one of the comics tried to come back at him, it was like punching the Terminator, earning only a spattering of chuckles before Patrice’s response elicited the roars and applause he always got, onstage and off.
I was standing in the scene’s periphery with my video camera, showing a clip of my public access show (pre-YouTube days) to a friend, Rome, when Patrice noticed me:
“Oh, yo, check it out dude,” he mocked me. “This is my set from the open mic last week. I killed!” and Rome laughed at me along with everyone else.
“Get back at him,” Rome encouraged me, “Get him,” and I’m sure I looked back at Rome as if he’d told me to hit “Deebo” from Friday (or the Terminator).
Even if I’d had the confidence to respond, I wouldn’t have been clever enough, nor would I receive the benefit of the doubt from the veteran black comics on the block. I chose to remain mum, and Patrice quickly moved on to his next victim.
Fast forward five years, and my career was already beginning a decline behind the incline that once lead to my being cast on a hit show on MTV (via my public access show!). I felt like one of those teenagers you see in AA, whose partying and experimentation peaked at 12, and now they’re just trying to get their life together at 15. In my never-ending pursuit of work in the mainstream clubs, I would go and hang out on nights either before or after my spots.
I often chose Stand-Up NY on West 78th St., partially because it was a simple train ride from home, also one of the few clubs I felt I had a chance of getting into (and I was right! After only four more years of hangin’). One night in May 2008, I got there just as Patrice was about to go on, and I eagerly found an empty seat in the back.
To this day, I’ve never seen greater confidence personified — equal to, maybe, but never greater. If any of us are truly meant to do something in life, Patrice was meant for stand-up, as it came out of him on stage like a bodily function, which evidently took more effort to hold in while he was off stage. He wore baggy jeans, his signature black leather jacket and matching round brimmed hat, a button-up shirt underneath, surely from the big and tall store. Patrice’s face was unique, not at all bad-looking, but it had a ton of character that popped and shone even brighter when he smiled and laughed, mostly along with the crowd at his own observations and anecdotes. He had the perfect look for comedy, also the apparently perfect coinciding of self-love and self-hate, and they both oozed out of him, airing out his displeasures by permeating the room with an arrogance that was impossible to challenge – no matter what he said, it was the word of God.
I watched Patrice’s whole set, even allowed myself to get caught in the bottleneck of the exiting crowd afterwards (amateur mistake), and left the club filled with the storm of emotions only offered to us by our most elite peers. A surge of humility that can easily transform into and out of discouragement that we’ll just never be that good. In spite of the bitter sense of entitlement we’d wielded earlier that night, resentful of this unofficial requirement that we hang out to earn spots, we are in fact, unqualified. We cannot do what he just did, and if that’s the case then what’s the point of even trying? What’s the point of continuing if the best we can be is some insignificant cog on the wheel of the bike that is owned by only the likes of Patrice and Louie, Seinfeld and Chappelle? Magically, this self-defeating continuum of hopelessness exists concurrently with having just been thoroughly entertained. I don’t know that I’d quite liken it to orgasm, but that feeling at the end of an amazing song, the perfect movie or even the end of Breaking Bad – we’ve just been fulfilled even beyond what we’d hoped for; involuntarily pulled out of our trite daily concerns and truly forced by this force to just enjoy the moment they’ve given us. Discouragement can quickly transform into encouragement, as the incredible act has instilled hope in us. If he can do it, why not me? Comedy is not magic, thank God, but it is magical, and I am a part of it, and I can’t wait to get onstage later tonight and take one step closer to that frequency I am so lucky to have just observed.
Such a bipolar internal struggle is exhausting on the body, and requires heavy, greasy, Chinese/Cuban fusion food. Fortunately, one such place was immediately across Broadway from the club, subsequently one I’ve patronized many times over the years. As I glanced at the menu pasted on the window and reached for the door, a strange thought came over me.
What if Patrice is in here? I wondered.
Yeah, what if he is, dickhead? I wondered back at myself.
I neurotically entertained this possibility for the six seconds it took to open the door and be greeted by the older Chinese man acting as host, waiter, and manager of the… “restaurant.”
“Hi! One?!” he shouted in that mechanically friendly Chinese customer service way.
“Yes, one,” and before I could finish speaking the one syllable number, there I spotted the great beast in the middle of the dining room. Also at a table for one, his head down, buried in his food, as oblivious to the rest of the Upper Westsider diners as they were to him, and I wondered how he got here so fast. He must know a secret back-door exit from the club.
Fuck, I worried as the waiter walked me down a path sure to pass Patrice’s table. I wanted to at least compliment him on his set, if not everything he’s done in his life, but I was too timid. Instead, I just glanced in his direction as I passed, and he happened to do the same: “Hey, what’s up, dude? You going on tonight?”
He spoke as if we’d known each other for years, and I felt like the nerdy girl in the ’80s high-school movie who’d just been greeted by the handsome captain of the football team: “Oh, who—what? Me? Oh, I’m sorry, hi.” But I played it a tad cooler.
“Oh, yo, what up, man? Nah, no, I got a spot downtown actually,” and I was embarrassed to reveal I was still unrecognized by the club.
Such a brief exchange is more than long enough for an old Chinese waiter in New York to grow impatient. He saw that we obviously knew each other, couldn’t care less about me as a patron or person, and dropped my menu on the table immediately next to Patrice’s. “Okay, good, sit here. Here is okay?” he shout-asked me.
Hesitant, but also grateful: “Sure,” and I sat down to have dinner with Patrice O’Neal.
For some reason he was warm and friendly, and I quickly became calm and less nervous. Our discussion was matter-of-fact. Two comics who didn’t know each other well, but were immersed in the same world, albeit at different echelons, sitting, eating, and talking shop. We both knew that I knew who he was, so the first order of business was establishing: who the fuck was I?
“You did something, I remember,” he said, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever been so flattered, before or since. The truth is, at that point I’d actually done a lot of things. I assumed he might be aware of my urban accolades, and tried to sound as nonchalant as possible, still practically cutting him off: “I did the P. Diddy thing on HBO.“
“That was it!” he pointed at me. He took a bite of his food and spoke with his mouth full. “Yeah, I remember you. You had a good set.”
“Yeah, I forget your name though, don’t tell me,” and he snapped his fingers as if he were talking about me to a friend and I wasn’t physically present.
“Damn, I forget. It’s something funny, I remember, like a nickname,” and I smiled like an idiot — like some goon running out of time in a game of charades, until finally I took pity on his generosity.
“Sauce,” I relieved him. “I’m ‘Sauce’.”
“’Sauce,’ that’s right,” and he took another huge bite of food. “Yeah, you killed it, huh?”
“I did,” I agreed, wanting to sound as humble as possible while still confirming to Patrice O’Neal that I’d killed on HBO.
“So, whatchu’ doing now?” he asked.
“Grinding. Just… grinding, running around… you know.”
I was a fucking dork, but I know my unspoken ellipses spoke volumes to the elder statesman. My reflections were of cold train stations, staring at walls, bombing for small crowds and being ignored by big managers. Confused wonder as to where I went wrong and/or where was the light at the end of the tunnel, if it existed at all.
My lemon chicken with rice arrived, and Patrice had instant order envy. He paused, and his dish immediately became the old, haggard wife; mine the fly young girl passing by in shorts. Lips pursed, he locked in on it: “Yo, what’d you get?”
“That’s the lemon chicken,” and I immediately knew it was going to be his order on his next visit.
“So, why you think it hasn’t happened for you yet?” he continued, and I couldn’t believe the dinner’s subject of focus was me.
I shrugged my shoulders as I dug into the crispy fried chicken, dunking my piece into the hot, sweet lemony sauce. One answer ran through my mind, but it wasn’t one I dared to share aloud.
At the time I’d been reading a lot of books on spirituality. Buddhism, karma, laws of attraction and such, and had naively supposed that, obviously, the only reason “it” could have possibly not yet happened for someone as talented as me, was energetic forces of fate in the Universe. I knew this would make me sound like a delusional egomaniac with New Age beliefs whose absurdity were matched only by my own grandiose self-perception, and no way I could say it to a comedian who was as talented as he was rationale-minded. He’d laugh in my face, probably spit his food out, then eat all of mine, storm out of the restaurant leaving me to pay both our checks, and share my humiliating thoughts with the entire comedy circuit. I swallowed my chicken and stared out the window: “I dunno.”
Our dinner continued casually, two peers finding common ground and whining about the business end of comedy, typically ridiculing those in charge of it. He eventually asked for his check while I still had plenty of lemony goodness left to devour. Patrice had to get back to the club to headline his second show. I had more time to get downtown for my unpaid guest spot at some shitty little bar show. He left his tip, put his wallet back into his pocket and looked at me (and my chicken).
“Can I tell you something? I mean… can I give you a piece of advice?” and I couldn’t tell you if I was more taken aback by his generosity or his humility. Patrice O’Neal is asking permission to offer me advice?!
“Of course, please,” I said as if I were cool.
“You should change your name. You should drop the nickname…”
I looked up, and he stared back at me. A decade of my life flashed through my mind.
Ten years prior I’d segued from a group of friends of culturally diverse, hip-hop suburbanites to a college crew of culturally diverse, hip-hop urbanites, where nearly everyone had a nickname. We called Eric, “E,” and Brian just “B.” Al was “Tre,” Jon was “Duce,” and Damien wasn’t “Uno,” but “Crack.” I wanted a nickname, too. I was 19, and while I felt amply accepted by my crew, I suppose I wanted our equivalent of the gang tattoo to officially stamp my inclusiveness and/or expanded identity.
The only thing more embarrassing than giving yourself your own nickname is giving yourself your own nickname that is inspired by your affinity for condiments; dressings, mustard spreads, mayonnaise, sauces and such. “Sauce” had nothing to do with any alcoholism or my “saucy personality,” as some of the worst people have inquired, but simply my love for flavorful gastro-accouterment, like lemon chicken.
One night, as the crew and I drank 40s on our favorite stoop, it just came to me: “I think I wanna be called ‘Sauce’ from now on,” and the crew immediately loved it. I don’t think one of them ever called me “David” again. When I started doing comedy they presumptively asked: “You’re gonna go by ‘Sauce,’ right?”
I figured it was entertainment, show business, and all of my childhood heroes (rappers) went by nicknames. Why shouldn’t I? Because of my skin color? I’ve never lived by such parameters before, and surely wasn’t going to start then, in my mid-20’s. When I entered the black comedy circuit I met the likes of “Smokey” and “Capone,” “Kool Bubba Ice” and “Brooklyn Mike;” and it was decided. I was “Sauce.”
Of course I/this was met with skepticism by more than half the white people I introduced myself to, but never by someone originally from New York, and never someone I felt was as smart or cool as my inner circle.
Much stranger than nicknames, I’ve always thought, is certain [white] peoples’ abhorrent detest and refusal to call people by them. They respond as if they’re being insisted against their will to “get out on the dance floor” for their least favorite song; when really it has nothing to do with them. They label nicknames as childish or pretentious, at a level inaccessibly beneath their own of higher maturity and awareness. Though I do suspect it is not their adult practicality, but instead a conservative inflexibility that makes them uncomfortable with nominal playfulness. We must always be aware of the line between the wisdom we gain with age and the stubborn tunnel vision we gain with age. I suspect nickname-haters to be motivated by self-consciousness of being judged by others as “trying to sound/look cool” in daring to address someone aloud by their non-government name.
I don’t know where along the line began the idea that nicknames are an exclusively black thing. Sure, black culture has been historically more creative in word play, and known for giving their children more unique names in general, but I’ve known tons of [non hip-hop] non-black people who’ve gone by nicknames, including several prototypical finance guys in New York. I even have childhood memories of my white-collar father taking me to work at his advertising office in Manhattan, walking through the halls, shouting greetings into office doors that surely did not match the nameplates on their desks. Maybe it’s a New York thing.
I think nicknames are cool. They’re endearing and playful, usually an innocent symptom of love and familiarity, as we cannot associate someone with a new label until we know them well enough to do so. Maybe, in fairness, this is part of the issue for the detesters: How can I call you that when I don’t even know you yet? Fine, but the fact that others don’t have this issue might be indicative of a coldness that would logically coincide with the aforementioned crotchety old inflexibility.
For years I got to observe how polarizing “Sauce” was. It got more of an adverse reaction from white people than others, but to be fair, the majority of white people had a welcoming humor about it; and for most, it made seeing me that much more enjoyable: “Sauce!” people loved to shout, and eventually playful variations: Sauce Money, Salsa, Saucealito… seriously, I think if this bothers you, your soul is just dead.
It did bother a lot of bookers and managers on the circuit. It bothered my acting teacher, a white woman from Philadelphia, almost as much as my hip-hop style did, and she continuously tried to get me to drop it. I’d been unable to get an agent or into the clubs I’d wanted to, even in the wake of my TV credits. I was desperate for progress, clueless to answers, and suspecting I’d been pigeonholed as some stupid wannabe. Still I rationalized that although I wanted to be accepted, this is show business and I’ve got to be myself (ironically?). I’ve got to stay true to my identity and belief system, no matter who prejudges or disagrees… right?
Patrice got up from his seat, and looked at me.
“It’s like this,” he said. “If you meet a booker or a manager, or one of these asshole executives, and you’re ‘Sauce,’ you got all this baggage going into the meeting. You don’t get the chance to be judged at face value. They’re thinking through the whole beginning of the meeting, or beginning of your set: ‘Sauce, Sauce, Sauce, this guy is Sauce – why does he call himself, Sauce? Who does he think he is?’ And they can’t even hear what you’re saying? Understand?”
I think I shook my head, but I have no idea.
“I used to go by a nickname too, you know. I had a nickname when I started in Boston, and then I came here and I was doing the black rooms, and everybody had—“
“–Yeah, that was part of the reason why I—“
“–Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, me too. But where them niggas now? What are they doing? Are you tryin’ to be where they’re at, or you tryin’ to get into Stand-Up New York? Cuz’ it looks like you’re trying to get into Stand-Up NY.”
“I’m trying to get into Stand-Up NY.” I was so humbled.
“It’s like this,” he closed on: “Being Sauce might not hurt your career… but it could. Being David Foster cannot hurt your career, no matter what.”
Amazing. He had already convinced me, but like one of Buddha’s neurotic followers seeking to plug up every hole of doubt and uncertainty, I had one last question, and his body language appeared happy to listen.
“Well, one last thing… I mean, I’m obviously not at your level or near it, but I have gained a bunch of fans from my HBO set and the show on MTV I was on. I mean, not thousands, but there are definitely people who—“
He laughed. “I think your career will survive the collapse of the institution that is ‘Sauce’” (pretty much that entire fan base existed on MySpace).
I laughed too, and he was gone.
For 10 years prior, all I’d heard were flippant, aggressive attacks from people I didn’t know, to the tune of: “Grow up!” or “You’re not black!” And whether ever going by “Sauce” was “right” or “wrong,” I did know (and still know) that those people were wrong, if not in theory, at least in approach. Their protests were mindless and hollow, and since most of them were stereotypically white, they held no credibility.
Besides being black, Patrice was more insightful and gentler. He was genuinely trying to help, not “trying to help” like the drunk heckler in the crowd proclaims to be doing, or the tactless jerk at a party who insults our appearance or attire. His logic seemed so obvious, but I’d been not yet intelligent or aware enough to see it myself (geniuses always make everything look so easy). I wasn’t “selling out” or compromising myself by dropping my nickname, but merely giving myself the fairest shot possible at succeeding in a business where the deck is already stacked steeply and awkwardly against us every step of the way. And if having, and then dropping a nickname sat well enough for Patrice O’Neal, it surely sat well enough for me. Three weeks later was my 30th birthday, which I figured was as serendipitous and/or conspicuous a time as any on which to make it official.
As flattered as I was that Patrice had sort of known who I was, I was that much more so when I ran into his then manager, Wayne, a few months later, who said: “Hey, heard you had an interesting dinner with Patrice!”
“Wha–? He told you—“
“Yes, David,” he emphasized. “He said your conversation had a real impact on him – really affected him… It’s the right choice. I’m glad you’re finally dropping the name.”
He said it had a “real impact” on him?! I thought. Why? What impact could I have on Patrice O’Neal? Was he now planning on switching to lemon chicken between shows?
I was floored, shocked, speechless and confused as to what it meant. Unfortunately, I never got an answer. In typical manager fashion, Wayne wouldn’t elaborate, and when I tried following up, he seemed to disappear into thin air; similar to how he would in response to my emails seeking spots at the club he booked. It was no matter. I preferred to hear what he’d told me sans specifics than having never heard it at all. Eventually I let it go, hoping to one day be rubbing shoulders intimately enough with Patrice to find out firsthand.
My metamorphosis sent a brief ripple of gossip around the comedy circuit, which to my face ran the same gamut as does comedians’ personalities. Some guys were as sweet as can be, immediately respecting my new wishes, some asking me in confidence: “Is it okay if I still call you ‘Sauce’ off stage?” Of course, dude.
Other guys made remarks that were just barely too tactless for the distance in our dynamic: “Is it okay if I call you David Sauce-ster? That’s funny, but no. Thank you. Why do people like you have to be in my city?
Becoming “David Foster” made me immediately more comfortable in my skin in introductions, also in my initial minute on stage in the clubs. I felt less pre-judged, and while I suppose this could have been partially placebo, I kind of doubt it. Ironically, being called “David” felt like it gave me more freedom to be “Sauce,” which was the real me, albeit perceived as the fake me by the inflexible who insist that all we’ll ever be is determined by our skin color and address at birth. Patrice knew better, and for that I thank him. I thank him for his helpful advice and kind words. I thank him for his welcoming energy, for acknowledging me as I walked by his table and speaking to me as an equal. Finally of course, I thank him for so fully and fearlessly giving his gift on stage to all of us. Truly one of the greats, I hope you got to try the lemon chicken.