In stand-up comedy, the term “crowd work” refers to improvised interaction with the audience. Most comedians practice at least the most primitive forms of crowd work. “How’s everybody feeling tonight,” for instance.
Patrice O’Neal, who died last November just shy of his 42nd birthday, did much, much more.* As he says during the six and a half minutes of crowd work that open his final comedy album, Mr. P, out today, “I like to know who I’m here… fuckin’… trying to fuckin’ make laugh and shit.” (In addition to working the crowd, O’Neal worked more than a little blue.)
His interlocutor at that particular moment is a man he’s already put on the defensive, a man whose date seemed less than excited when the show began. After pointing this out, O’Neal reads the man’s body language and decides he really doesn’t like the woman he’s with. Then he makes fun of the man for getting touchy, and finally he asks the woman how old she is in order to contrast her with a younger woman sitting nearby, whose comeliness O’Neal has already commented on. (O’Neal could be egregiously sexist, even misogynistic—about which more below.)
By needling his crowd like this, O’Neal manages to peel away the social niceties that keep people guarded and nervous—and less likely to laugh. And so, once he’s ready, he can start talking about his life, often without even really telling jokes, and absolutely kill.
On Mr. P, O’Neal pivots to a heartfelt reflection about how he doesn’t really care about massive tragedies as much as he should. “You ever have trouble giving a fuck about, like, shit that you supposed to give a fuck about?” he asks the crowd, after referring to the tsunami in Japan. Out of context, it is probably hard to understand the considerable laughter that line gets. It’s the laughter of recognition, the giddy laughter of people who are happy to be listening to a man who will be painfully honest with them for the next 90 minutes or so.
During those 90 minutes O’Neal talks about money and sex, politics and power. He says that the fairest form of reparations would be to eliminate the federal income tax for African-Americans. And he goes back, again and again, hilariously, to the crowd. At one point, ready to launch into a bit about differences between white women and black women, he strikes up conversation with another man by asking what his name is. When the man tells him it’s Tolu, O’Neal just stops. He then launches into a hilarious, apparently improvised rant about black parents giving their children African names (O’Neal was named for Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba), and the ways that black and white kids respond to those names. The crowd dies. It’s the funniest track on the album.
O’Neal then goes into his bit about black and white women. “Women,” unfortunately, is probably not the term he uses most. In a great, searching interview with Marc Maron, O’Neal said he used to be “a terrible misogynist,” but that what turned out to be his last (and longest) relationship had changed him. He also says, in the course of that interview, “I generally don’t like what women are.” He means, in part, what society makes women—but his solutions to that situation were not exactly what you would call feminist. And O’Neal’s way of talking about women may be too much for some listeners to overcome. (Which he didn’t mind: “I hope everybody ain’t laughing,” he says on Mr. P, “because it’s no fun if everybody’s laughing. It’s always good to have somebody here saying, ‘That’s just… That’s not…’”)
“I’m not as angry at women as I used to be,” O’Neal says well into the set recorded for his final album. Judging from much of this routine, however, he was still, at the end of his too-short life, pretty angry. His interview with Maron demonstrates that he wasn’t afraid to examine the sources of that anger. And it’s one of the many sadnesses of O’Neal’s passing that we won’t get to find out where that examination might have taken him.
* This post originally misstated O’Neal’s age at the time of his death.