Saturday, February 19, 2011

Patrice O'Neal On Leaving Boston, Plus A Preview of Tonight's Elephant In the Room Special On Comedy Central

When I first spoke with Patrice O’Neal in 2001, he was already in New York, already drawing attention at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, on his way to better things. His first one-hour stand-up special, Elephant In the Room, debuts tonight on Comedy Central. O’Neal started out in Boston. He grew up on Dorchester and moved to Roxbury when he was 17, and threw himself into stand-up after heckling an act at a club called Estelle’s. He thought he was funnier than the comic onstage at the time. So, unlike most hecklers, he got up and proved it.

O’Neal didn’t leave Boston happy. He got to a certain level as a middle act, and then couldn’t break through the headlining scene and had to leave. A lot of comics from Boston have faced that dilemma. But O’Neal went on a local radio program and spewed a lot of venom at club owners. The way he describes it, he “pretty much had a falling out with everybody in Boston.”

“I officially walked over and tore the paper bridge with lighter fluid and lava shoes,” he told me in 2002, for a story for the Boston Globe. “I’ve had a chance to make amends with certain people. It was just a young black dude lashing out at what he thought was an old white dude thing.”

The scene has changed in Boston since O’Neal left. There is more diversity, there are more women and more minorities in the scene making a name for themselves. Probably still room for improvement, but it seems a vast improvement from O’Neal’s days.

“In Boston, there’s one black or two blacks,” he told me. “There’s always ‘the black guy at the time.’ Jimmy Smith was the black guy, and then Carl Yard and Gerald Bennett was the black guy. I came along, I was the black guy. And then after I left, Dwayne Perkins was the black guy.”

O’Neal told me that he loved Boston. He didn’t want to leave his mother and his girlfriend, but when he left, he felt he was pushed. In a sense, that was probably true, but it was the same for Eugene Mirman, Brendon Small, or any number of comics who had to leave to find a bigger stage. If you’re looking to get the attention from TV or film, the opportunities are few in Boston.

Now O’Neal is a headliner with his own TV special, and by 2002, he had also changed his attitude toward his Boston exit. “I outgrew that whole anger thing,” he said then. “I felt like I was thrown out of Boston. I don’t think that anymore. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. It wasn’t a conspiracy.”

[NOTE: I’ll be addressing the question of why comics leave Boston in a story next month, after the redesign is launched on March 1.]

Onstage and off, O’Neal is gruff and direct. Which is why he has been a favorite on the Opie and Anthony show on satellite radio. He makes no excuses for his point of view. “I have a very misogynistic viewpoint on life,” he told me in 2006. “Somebody has to.”

“On regular radio, it’s so inhibited, you can’t be honest at all,” he said then. “Fuck the swearing, just honesty in general is hard. You’re offending everybody. But cable radio, people are paying for it. You can do anything you want.”

O’Neal likes to use profanity (“Sometimes a good well-placed swear expresses it for you,” he said), he is sarcastic and off the cuff, and he clearly enjoys making people uncomfortable. That applies to O’Neal the comic and O’Neal the person, and it’s what you’ll get if you tune in tonight.

“I’d rather be sarcastic than to just sit around and talk about my favorite cheese, you know?”

Here’s a preview of Elephant In the Room (Comedy Central, 10PM).
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