When the late great Patrice O’Neal’s fiancee, Von Decarlo, first pursued making a documentary about her beloved comedian in 2015, the project was called Better Than You, and raised some $129,624 on IndieGogo. Those backers are thanked in the end credits of Killing Is Easy, the 91-minute finished doc, which premieres tonight, directed by Michael Bonfiglio, and produced by All Things Comedy.
Bill Burr is behind All Things Comedy as well as the annual tribute shows that he held for O’Neal in the decade since O’Neal died in 2011 following a stroke at the age of 41. “There’s no way to express what comedy lost with the passing of Patrice O’Neal,” Burr has said. “I feel fortunate to have known him and I’m hoping this documentary will introduce his work to a new generation because he was one of the greatest comedians ever.”
So many of the comedians and people who knew O’Neal from the beginning, from his childhood friends in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood who called him “Bruiser” to match his intimidating 6-foot-6, 350-pound presence, to the guy who inspired O’Neal to start performing after O’Neal heckled him during a South End comedy show, to the crop of stand-ups who started alongside him in the early 1990s (Burr, Dane Cook, Robert Kelly, Gary Gulman), to those who both admired and feared him (including Kevin Hart).
Hart called O’Neal “a comic’s comic.” He also recounted one of his first spots coming up from Philadelphia to perform at NYC’s Boston Comedy Club, and seeing O’Neal throw a heavy phone book at him mid-set.
“He was always just better than us,” Burr recalled, “so whatever we were struggling with, he was beyond it.”
Denis Leary said the idea of “killing is easy” came from O’Neal espousing his belief that he didn’t want to pander to the crowd, but rather: “He wanted the truth.” O’Neal himself, in an archived interview, once said, “I’m not an entertainer,” saying that’s a category for jugglers or magicians. “I don’t think a good comedian entertains anybody.”
O’Neal died before the real explosion in social media and podcasting, so this is truly the first opportunity many of his fans have had to see and hear a fuller portrait of the man and comedian.
O’Neal, born in 1969, grew up in Roxbury, the same neighborhood where Malcolm Little lived as a teenager before becoming Malcolm X. O’Neal noted that many kids of the late 1960s got their names from civil rights leaders of the time. He got Patrice Lumumba Malcolm O’Neal, after both his former neighbor as well as Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
We see and hear from his mother, Georgia, as well as his younger sister and two of his best friends from the neighborhood, and the startling revelation from his West Roxbury High School principal that young Patrice enjoyed visiting his office just to hold court, and the not-quite-as-surprising but pleasing yearbook photo proclaiming Patrice one of two senior “Class Clowns.” Completely startling, yet also so obvious in retrospect, we learn how the infamous Charles Stuart murder scandal of 1989 directly impacted O’Neal and influenced his opinions on racial politics and the media.
In my first look teaser earlier this month, I shared with you the clip of comedian Gerroll Bennett, who singlehandedly prompted O’Neal’s entrance into stand-up comedy in 1992. Bennett’s the guy whom O’Neal heckled, but then also approached after the show, and received advice, names and numbers to pursue his own career.
We get to see early footage of O’Neal onstage at Nick’s Comedy Stop back in 1994, as well as his debut on Leary’s annual Comics Come Home benefit, and learn that when he first moved down from Boston to New York City, he lived in Keith Robinson’s kitchen!
O’Neal both enjoyed and endured his encounters with Hollywood and show business. He played a bouncer in two dramatic films, 25th Hour and In The Cut, and a small recurring role on The Office. But he also burned a lot of bridges along the way, and there’s a funny meta moment where Colin Quinn stages an intervention during an episode of Tough Crowd.
O’Neal not only shined on Tough Crowd but also dominated. Naturally.
It was one of the rare places he could be truly himself onscreen.
I first talked to O’Neal when he was hosting Web Junk 20 for Vh1 in 2006. He could’ve ridden that to a long, lucrative career, as Daniel Tosh would later prove on Comedy Central with Tosh.0. But that’s not what O’Neal wanted. He didn’t want to be “the Web Junk 20 guy” and deal with the audiences and expectations that came with it. “I’d rather die than being a phony,” he said.
A documentary on O’Neal cannot help but be bittersweet.
You see and hear him on the old Opie & Anthony radio show, where they called him “the Black Dr. Phil,” and realize how he took that to his own show, “The Black Phillip Show,” with co-host Dante Nero, who after O’Neal’s death would go on to create his “Beige Phillip” show and along the way, inadvertently inspire Gavin McInnes into creating the Proud Boys. What an insane illustration of the childhood game “telephone” come to life, as the message gets distorted and diluted the farther away it gets from the original source.
So back to the original. O’Neal certainly had haters who accused him of spewing misogyny onstage, and Decarlo acknowledges having to face O’Neal’s female fans after shows. But at the same time, O’Neal was a loving stepfather to DeCarlo’s daughter, Aymil. It’s both touching and heartbreaking to hear not just from Aymil, but also to learn from Decarlo about just how scared and concerned O’Neal was about dying young. He even went vegan for three years to try to control his weight and diabetes.
And hearing him compare the business to a roller-coaster ride, but with such depth and nuance that it made you laugh in the way he made you laugh, makes you miss his presence all over again. But at least we have his hour special, Elephant in the Room.
Elephant in the Room premiered 10 years ago today. I named it the best stand-up comedy special of the decade. What I wrote for Decider in December 2019:
You may wish you knew what George Carlin or Richard Pryor would have to say about what’s going on in today’s world. For me, it’s Patrice O’Neal. It’s always Patrice. The big guy who grew up in Boston died in 2011, just a week before he would have turned 42. He had a propensity for telling you exactly what he thought and not suffering fools gladly, even if said fools held the keys to his show business career. And yet, in 2010, Comedy Central captured O’Neal in all of his glory with Elephant in the Room. You could watch it today, dated as it is, and still relate to everything in it. His opening crowd work segues seamlessly into a pointed take on how long society will care about a missing woman, depending solely on her racial and ethnic background. From there, O’Neal takes on our ambivalence over the Obama legacy (despite it still being his first term as president), the softening of professional football, and more. And by more, I mean O’Neal already had a hot take on masculinity and sexual harassment, offering his own solutions that may sound graphic at times, but also recognize the need for female empowerment. He was a truth-teller. Thankfully, much of his truth remains timeless.
Here are some comedians wondering just that themselves.
Patrice O’Neal: Killing Is Easy premieres at 10 p.m. tonight on Comedy Central, followed by a rebroadcast of Elephant in The Room.