Why Comedians Were Afraid of Patrice O’Neal

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Patrice O’Neal didn’t just want to be famous, he wanted to be as good as Richard Pryor. To hear his fellow comics tell it, he was—a brutal truth-teller who spared no one, starting with those closest to him.

(Photo: Melissa Hom/New York Magazine)

Even comedians—who rarely shut up—had to surrender whenever Patrice O’Neal began to talk. He’s the guy they would call on the long drive home from Magooby’s Joke House who loved to discuss—at length—whether Jay-Z would ever cheat on Beyoncé, or the various options for black reparations, or the best adjectives for different smells of pussy. He was a master at introducing subjects that you never even knew you had an opinion about—like whether you’d be willing to have sex with a girl who had no nose. Even though O’Neal was usually doing 90 percent of the talking, listening had the feel of conversation, in part because he was famously picky about whom he’d talk to, and in part because he always implicated you in his investigations. Whether the topic was crass or ridiculous, he demanded a response. The transformative power of the ugly truth was, for O’Neal, a form of grace.

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