There are few comedians more divisive than Patrice O’Neal. In fact, the only reason he hasn’t ruffled more liberal feathers than he already has, is due to his lack of widespread mainstream exposure. But that’s about to change with his first hour-long special Elephant in the Room for Comedy Central– premiering Saturday at 10 pm EST.
Things are about to get better, or worse, for Patrice– depending on whether he’s looking forward to critics’ closer analysis on his theories on women, race, politics and everything in between.
We caught up with Patrice recently to chat about Elephant in the Room, where he sees himself in the world of stand-up comedy and whether the American people have a strong enough appetite for brutally, honest comedy that O’Neal could finally break through the underground and start pissing off the masses. Enjoy.
Why has it taken so long to have a one hour special?
I’ve done a lot of half hours— three half hours for Showtime, Comedy Central and HBO. In terms of comedy aspirations, that’s pretty good. But now, everyone is doing a half-hour and an hour is becoming what a half-hour used to be. Half-hours were really strong and really made you pop; I think an hour does that now. I think I never did them because there was this phenomenon of do-it-yourself specials, these homemade specials. I just never got into that.
I’ve been doing this 20 years. In my tenth year I did my first special, in my eleventh I did Comedy Central and my thirteenth I did HBO. So in a span of 13 years I had done three specials and I was on top of my game. I was younger and more aggressive. At this point in the last five or six years I’ve been ready to do an hour but I never wanted to do a do-it-yourself special. I wanted it to be real and authentic.
I wanted it to be full on. It’s like the difference between an indie film and an MGM film; I wanted an MGM special. Even though with an independent special, if it hits, you make all the money. But I wasn’t willing to gamble on that; on other things, yeah, but not on that. Comedy Central is invested in this. If I did this myself I’d have to call you and try to set up an interview, send out a pre-thing for the special, but now Comedy Central is invested. They put their money in and they want to get a return so they’re going to do what they have to do to make this thing work. They put a pretty penny in. We’re like partners— and we’ll see for the next time. We’re both getting something out of it. I probably could’ve made more doing it myself but I was willing to partner up with them. I think it makes sense.
You’ve named your special Elephant in the Room, which implies you’re about to tell people a bunch of truths that they would normally choose to ignore. Would you say that’s an accurate assessment of what you do?
I didn’t want it to be a douchey thing. I’m a fat guy, so there’s a dounble entendre. I think it helps those people who can’t focus to focus on something. In the Internet age there’s a lof of haters and that’s their job— to say, ‘go fuck yourself.’ I gave them something to say ‘go fuck yourself’ about right away. Elephant in the Room; I’m overweight. It’s like having a shiny object to distract them. But it’s a double thing. I would never have named it that if I wasn’t overweight; I think it’s funny because I’m overweight. But I don’t want to self describe my own comedy like, ‘I’m saying the things that should be said!’ The name is funny because I’m overweight.
But if you think my comedy describes [the] elephant in the room [concept], that’s a plus. I literally mean there’s an elephant in the room, but it’s also a statement. It’s just like another expression—the 800 pound gorilla. But I couldn’t name it that even though I wanted to. I don’t think white people would be able to deal with that. I think Elephant in the Room has just enough meaning. And using words that describe you as an artist should be done by other people; it’s how you perceive what you are. If you say, ‘I’m an important voice of our generation,’ you’re a douche.
Well, let me then describe your comedy, since you don’t feel its your place to do so: Your comedy allows me to not feel like such a piece of shit for thinking some of the horrible things I do. And I doubt I’m the only one who likes your brand of comedy (guys like Jim Norton, Nick DiPaolo, Bill Burr) for that same reason.
That’s something I wonder. Is there an appetite for that kind of comedy, a commercial appetite? Because none of us are in the realm of Jo Koy. He’s big. Russell Peters is big; Chelsea Handler and Whitney Cummings are big. They’re selling out all over the country. So, is their a true market for what I do or is this just a labor of life? After this special comes out, will anything happen? I’ve been doing it 20 years. I’ve been doing it at a decent level for years. I have a presence on TV but I’ve never broken the plane. If a club holds 300, I get 200 in. Its never broken the plane of 400 people trying to get in where 100 peopole get turned away. I’ve never reached that place. At this point, I’m really in doubt that there’s a market for the brand of humor I do.
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There’s definitely a market. It’s never going to be a mainstream market. But there’s always an appetite for fringe art in all forms.
That’s in interesting term—‘fringe.’ When I look at the top comics in the world, they all have a particular person that comes to see them that identitfies themselves with the other people that go to the show. Like, if I’m a Jo Koy fan and I look at another Jo Koy fan, I say, ‘well you’re me, I’m you and you’re me; we’re his fans.’ Larry The Cable Guy has a very particular market. Kevin Hart has a very particular market; Lisa Lampanelli, too. If you run down the most popular comis today in terms of selling out live shows, they all have a fanbase and it’s not a diverse fanbase.
I don’t think there’s a particular fan for me or for the type of comedy I do, whatever they call it: Cringe Comedy, but that’s fucking ridiculous. I can’t believe a guy like Nick [DiPaolo] just doesn’t have millions of fans, that millions of people don’t want to hear what Nick has to say. Or a million don’t want to hear what I have to say or Colin [Quinn] or [Jim] Norton. I think Bill Burr is getting bigger and bigger an I think he goes down that road of edgy. But I think he has a particular fan. I think he resonates to heterosexual men; they love Bill. I think he makes white, straight men feel good. I think.
Like, my harassment bit. [ed. note: Patrice does a bit in his new special, wherein he proposes that you should be allowed to sexually harass your co-workers one day of the year]. I’m not sure who that resonates to. It’s more of a question, I’m just curious. People laugh when I’m doing my shows; they’re laughing hard. They’ll say, ‘hey man you were great,’ but it seems like the reaction should be more of a powerful thing. And I don’t even mean it should go mainstream. I just mean that people that are into this particular kind of comedy should come out and enjoy it and support it, because there aint much of it out there. Really, there’s a lot of horseshit. And I’m just waiting to see if my special does anything for me.
I just did the Houston Improv and there was an ice storm here [in NYC]. And I didn’t want to fly in; I was like this is ridiculous, so I called the guy who was booking it and I was like, ‘can I pull out of this gig and reschedule it for when after my special drops because maybe it’ll bring more people in.’ He was like, ‘nah…. hour specials do nothing.’ And I was like, ‘damn, that’s deflating.’ He was like Chelsea Handler does more than hour specials. So I’m like, ‘should I just believe you?’
What’s the deal with the apostrophe in your name? I thought it was a thing that there was supposed to be no apostrophe. Now, on all your new projects there’s an apostrophe.
My manager is obsessed with apostrophe, and it confuses people. And I don’t really give a shit. If you don’t put in the apostrophe, just spell it right. I’d rather people just spell it right. When he’s doing things, the apostrophe means something to him. I don’t give a shit. I don’t even remember if its supposed to be there or not. Maybe he thinks its regal or something.
Do you plan on playing Montreal for Just For Laughs this summer, after you were denied entry last year? [ed note: Canadian border police refused to let O’Neal in because of a crime he’d committed in his youth. He had been in Canada 40 times since then].
If they want to try to get me in, sure. It’s one of those things— you have a hard lesson learned. And then you run into people…. People say life aint fair. Life is very fair. We all should have water and we all should have food; and life has given us all those things, but the thing that takes those things away is people. So it would’ve been different if I would’ve ran into a person at the border who was reasonable and who would’ve listened and just been very human about it. But I ran into a person who was put in a position where it was a little too much for her to handle. I’ve been going to Canada since ’96 for the Toronto and Montreal festivals, doing a commercials, a movie or playing nightclubs.
Canada is very racist. And this particular person looked like the Swiss Miss cocoa girl. I could understand her mindset. It’s ok. I don’t hate her guts at all. She didn’t even really do anything to me. She didn’t do anything to me for me to forgive her or not. I’ve ran into many people in my life who have been very unfair. And I’ve seen other people be treated unfairly. I’m a very empathetic guy when it comes to suffering. No one should be suffering at the hand of a loser who gets revenge because of how much of a loser they are. The TSA, a police officer— they could make my life miserable if they want.
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So, if I can go to Montreal this year, I will. If I can’t… Well, I’ve had a long, fruitful relationship with Canada and I’ve put a lot of money into their economy. I have nothing against them. Some people are very cold. I always consider myself a logical person. I always try to look at both sides and be reasonable, and some people aren’t. And I think those are the people that go for jobs that can really fuck people over. I mean who would want to do something where, like an IRS person, like a guy who takes someone’s home— who would want to do that? Just the idea that someone would actually put in a application for that— like can I work for a company that destroys lives? That shit’s hilarious to me.
I don’t care much about the situation in Montreal because I don’t have much faith in people anyway. Anything a person does to another person doesn’t surprise me. You just hope that you bump into reasonable people. That’s all you can hope for.
For more info, check out patriceoneal.com. To snag yourself a copy of Elephant in the Room on DVD, just click the image below.