Well, I know how power works. It has worked on me, and if I didn’t know how power worked, I would be dead.”
- James Baldwin, The Black Boy Looks At The White Boy
I guess it's a little weird to lead off a nod to Patrice O'Neal with a quote from James Baldwin. Two black guys, but not exactly the same profile: Baldwin was petite, gay, a "perfumed" literary type from civil rights era racial politics. Patrice stood like 6'4 300ish (with two hefty James Baldwins for legs), and was a rudeboy standup comic from the modern white-girl-terrorism era of racial politics. Also, very much not gay.
But when he passed away Tuesday morning I found myself re-watching his clips (like everyone else) and thought of this passage on power, and some of Baldwin's essays on race, etc. I think the thing they both shared, that so many minorities who are not "traditionally" beautiful share, is a repressed(ish) inferiority complex about one's looks. Baldwin wrote often about growing up feeling ugly, and I think Patrice clearly uses the same experience, the same hurt to fuel his observational comedy. (I think of Nas retort to Jay-Z in Ether, "you seemed to be only concerned with dissing women, were you abused as a child, scared to smile, they called you ugly?)
What Patrice loved to hold court on is how race and beauty influence power, his funniest sharpest comedy consistently digs in on this relationship. And in honoring his memory, I think this is the genius we've been talking about and celebrating. He's a "comic's comic" not for his joke craftsmanship, or polish on stage, but for insights as smart and penetrating as Baldwin or any other celebrated thinker on race, gendered sexuality, interpersonal relations. He comes off raw, but in his clips and radio spots and interviews we see a savant when it comes to knowing how to use people as a medium, like clay or oils.
Watching the Charlie Sheen Roast where he goes off script, not only do we see a comic seemingly hitting his stride within the zeitgeist, but like Vick on the run, Kobe breaking off triangle, someone who's always at their best winging it on-the-fly. At 1:25 Patrice says to a black guy near the front row, "congratulations to you! look at the white woman you're with!" Ha. Do not try this at home!
And the whole bit unfolds in a way that's unique to this crowd, but also relatable enough to play in any room in the country (just need a "top shelf white girl"). Half pre-written, half-impromptu, all awesome.
and in that opening ten minutes or so, he hits all the hot spots: Beauty, Race, Power.
Beauty, as in beautiful women, and power they hold. def one of his favorite obsessions.
Black Phillip was his twist on Dr. Phil, this explanation of how having a vagina = instant celebrity got into Elephant in the Room as well...
On the race front, a lot of Patrice's black culture commentary was just embedded in the persona, one that specialized in talking-about-whiteness (sort of like *cough* this blog). this radiohead breakdown is his version of Stuff White People Like, and perfect:
Radiohead is a performative riff on guitar licks (remember chappelle's electric guitar sketch w/ john mayer? trend piece!), but this one on Fight Club he starts to really break it down. easily the start of an essay on race and privilege pegged to Fight Club here:
this next clip is just such a good straightforward approach/logic to censorship. but man, so difficult to execute a strong defense of rape jokes in a hostile television environment. very tricky! easy to back off and go back home where it's safe, but he makes it look pretty easy with his acting out of the "establishment" voice. there's also something I want to call a "ghetto christopher hitchens" effect going on here:
Patrice was always so honest, his raw feed almost superseded his comedy cause he was so generous with his own source material. this conversation about an audition with O&A and Chris Rock has so much to offer on acting and apathy and comedy and being a professional.
Finally, a lot of good straight science recapping his experience with Charlie Sheen Roast. also a clear feed of some of his bitterness w/r/t to the politics of the business. and his using a whitney cummings as an example dovetails with the race/beauty/power themes. After listening to this I had to remind myself he wasn't a suicide, just sick from diabetes. But then again, especially in the black community, one could argue neglect as death by slow suicide.
Patrice and I share the same name (and namesake, Patrice Lumumba), so just typing the name so often feels a little weird. Even in my Gawker Book Club there was some confusion about which Patrice was in the comments (both of us shot by the same "non-famous" darts from gossip-blog darling Maureen O'Connor).
But it's more than just the name. I try to be funny, and often talk about race, and wonderful white ladies, and I have a "philosophy of beauty" tag (not as deep as his). And for that reason, along with the integrity and pride he wore so brazenly on the sleeves of his leather jackets, I do draw a lot of inspiration from his career. His moment felt imminent. I could have seen him finding an older functionally-dysfunctional Louis CK type of lane. Absolute worst time for him to go.
Still, we have the clips. A lot of good conversation starters from the Baldwinesque mind with a linebacker's body (and temperament). In a few of my book interviews I've talked about race as a "shrinking elephant in the room", an elephant smaller in part cause Patrice was such an enormous talent.
He will be missed. Rest in peace.