It’s difficult to accept that, barring some sort of cynical cash-in, the stand-up album Mr. P is the last comedy the world is going to get from the late, great Patrice O’Neal. Arguably one of the best of his generation, the comic, who died last November following a stroke and long hospitalization, never quite achieved the mainstream success enjoyed by several of his contemporaries. Even if O’Neal hadn’t passed away in late 2011, his posthumous release probably wouldn’t have changed that reputation. It’s perhaps too unstructured, moving too much in fits and starts – a better representation of how O’Neal worked than of how funny he was, and that’s the kind of thing that appeals greatly to other comics but which has the potential to leave some audiences less than fully satisfied.
Mr. P showcases nearly all of O’Neal strengths as a comic: his bruising honesty, his singular take on male-female relationships, his loose, open rapport with the audience and near-incomparable ability to turn unrehearsed crowd work into long-form stretches of inspired improvised comedy. So many contemporary comedians are compared to greats like Richard Pryor or Redd Foxx, but O’Neal is one of the few who actually deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence. He was the best kind of comic – the kind with a very specific, well-defined worldview – and there’s no material on this last album that could be confused with any other comic’s.
The record addresses politics without ever being overtly political. He brilliantly takes down the institution of the president, the election of Obama (whose only purpose, he purports, was to make everyone stop hating Bush), the class gap and the great appeal of wealth; it’s observational in nature without ever lapsing into the same tired “Did you ever notice?” shtick that has given that particular style of comedy such a bad name. Even those tried and true topics that O’Neal tackles feel fresh because he approaches them from an angle that’s never been covered, and his complete lack of ego or filter doesn’t just stop him from saying the things he shouldn’t – it practically compels him to. His material on the differences between black women and white women (which, yes, sounds hacky on paper but as delivered by O’Neal is anything but) feels honest and true even when it’s not completely relatable. It’s one of O’Neal’s gifts – his material always rings true because it’s totally genuine. There’s no need to go for shock-value laughs even when what he’s saying could be considered shocking, especially by more prudish listeners (who, for the record, have no business listening to a Patrice O’Neal record in the first place). Extended bits on government reparations and fighting between races feel dangerous and edgy not because O’Neal is cynically trying to push buttons, but because they truly represent how he looks at the world. One of his greatest strengths has always been his complete inability to pull punches, and Mr. P follows suit. In doing so, O’Neal is able to bring the audience to some places they might not otherwise be willing to go. He’s convincing. He makes a good case. Mostly, though, he gets them on his side because he’s hysterically funny, and it’s better to be laughed with than laughed at.
The album feels in need of some editing at times; there are bits that O’Neal seems to be working out on stage as he goes through them, and which could have used some refining to sharpen them up. It’s difficult to speculate whether or not, had he lived, O’Neal would have been involved in shaping some of what appears on the album (which was planned before his death, but only announced afterwards) into leaner, tighter chunks. But even the finished product presented as is gives a real sense of a Patrice O’Neal live show, from the crowd interactions to the improvised feel of his act to the pacing, which suggests that some thoughts are still in the writing stage. It lacks polish, to be sure, but there’s a work-in-progress feel to Mr. P that will most definitely appeal to diehard comedy nerds.
This is not the release for which Patrice O’Neal will be remembered (that will more likely be Elephant in the Room, his 2011 Comedy Central stand-up special), but it is a good representation of him as a comic. Mr. P simply presents O’Neal as he was: a guy who didn’t always need the sharpest, most well-rehearsed material, because he had a talent that even some of his more successful peers lack of just getting up on stage and being so fucking funny. It’s a bit loose, a bit messy, but Mr. P is a fitting tribute to one of the best comics of the last 20 years. He will be missed.