Most of the new Patrice O’Neal album, Unreleased, is devoted to the late comedian’s give and take with his audience. It’s a compliment to last year’s posthumous release, Mr. P, taken from the same live shows, and in at least one significant way, better captures what was special about him as a performer. To some extent, every stand-up comedian has to sell the idea that what they’re saying is extemporaneous, not something they’ve honed to a sharp edge working stage after stage. For the audience, it has to be a fresh experience, no matter how many times the comedian has done it before.
O’Neal did that better than anyone. There is little on Unreleased that seems like it could have been planned beforehand. He gets into it with a pregnant woman in the audience, apparently upsetting her by interrupting her eating chicken strips. “I’m not afraid of big black bitch attitude,” he tells her. “It don’t scare me.” That kicks off eight minutes of O’Neal talking about how they’ll eventually wind up having sex and falling in love. “You curse the bitch out, and then you love her,” he says. He’s merciless in mocking her in a gruff Cookie Monster voice, but she gives it right back to him, telling him she’ll see his big ass after the show. With some chicken. O’Neal winds up laughing as much as the audience does during the exchange.
The next track starts out with O’Neal’s distrust of the government, which could have been the opening volley for a couple of different Mr. P tracks. But he gets distracted a few sentences in by a white guy in the audience named Reuben (which he thinks is not really a white guy’s name). Reuben was born in England, which leads O’Neal to believe he’s uncircumcised, which leads to five minutes on uncircumcised penises. Did O’Neal have all of that in his back pocket, five minutes on circumcision he was planning on bringing up once he found the right opportunity? Maybe. Maybe not. But it never feels like he’s fishing for the proper introduction to a bit he’s already written.
O’Neal was masterful at leading an audience. Sometimes he didn’t even have to finish his sentence for an audience to start laughing. He stuttered and spluttered as if he were working out the idea right there onstage, letting the audience see the wheels turning. When he talks about marrying his girlfriend, it starts with clear material. She wants to be married, and he wants to make her a wife, he says. “A wife,” not specifically his wife, a subtle difference his audience catches and laughs at.
There was a visible struggle going on that bonded him to his audience, and let him get away with saying more outrageous things about sex and politics. Whether it was calculated or not doesn’t matter. O’Neal knew how to use it, and that’s why an album of material he discarded from Mr. P is almost as funny as the original release.