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Comedian Jim Norton reflects on his fallen friend Patrice O’Neal

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By his own admission, Patrice O’Neal was something of a professional bridge-burner, but he was also an incredibly talented comedian who had a lot of friends. Unfortunately, it’s only since his death in November of 2011 that O’Neal has begun to find the kind of recognition that he deserved, but which through accident or design eluded him. But after the release of his posthumous concert album Mr. P debuted in early February 2012, O’Neal’s friends and colleagues mounted a campaign to pay tribute to his achievements and garner him new fans. I

FC recently caught up with longtime friend and fellow comedian Jim Norton to talk about O’Neal; in addition to talking about how the two first met and got to know one another, Norton revealed how O’Neal assembled his confrontational, off-the-cuff material, and explained he managed the difficult challenge of being both a populist entertainer and a “comedian’s comedian.”


IFC: Just talk about everything that sort of surrounded the release of this posthumous album of Patrice’s, and how you feel about it being put out.

JIM NORTON: Well, Patrice actually picked the set, so, I mean, this was the one he wanted released. This is the one that he was happy with, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like a vintage routine and most of the work was done before he died. I mean, it’s very depressing that he’s getting all these accolades in death. He was starting to get them in life. And he totally deserved them – I mean, he’s such a great comedian and then he dies and then everybody’s like, “Oh, my God. This guy was great.” But it’s a shame that the public didn’t catch on a little bit sooner. So from that stand, I’m very, very happy that it’s getting recognition.

IFC: How did the two of you sort of initially meet and then develop a friendship? Was it just a matter of being on the same sort of comedy circuit, or were there other circumstances?

NORTON: Yeah, I mean, we met doing a college gig. We were both performing at a college; we both bombed. He thought he did well; he didn’t. You know, I thought he was an ass when I first met him. Most people didn’t like Patrice when they first met him, because he was very aggressive and I guess just probably being in the area a lot with the same friends and he became one of my best friends. He made me laugh. He was undeniably funny and I think I made him laugh, and if someone makes you laugh, you kind of want to be around them because comics are used to making people laugh. When you find someone that makes you laugh, you kind of want to around them. So that was my initial attraction to him, that even when I first met him I thought he was an ass, I knew he was funny.

IFC: There are a lot of comedians who sort of champion a certain artist as “the comedian’s comedian.” What exactly does that mean? What do you think is the distinction between the way your sensibilities are maybe sharpened as a result of being a comedian and those of maybe normal comedy fans?

NORTON:Well, audiences will laugh at a lot of things that comedians won’t. You know, a comedian’s comedian is just that — it’s a guy who’s original and funny and can make comics laugh. I mean, sometimes an audience will love a comedian’s comedian. Sometimes they hate them. You know, you have to be careful, too, when you’re in that –it’s like to make other comedians laugh, you don’t want to go on and purposefully alienate the audience, or purposefully bomb, because then you’re the hits guy that only comedians like. Patrice never did that. He was genuinely funny and he would smash comedians as hard as he would smash audience members. But to me, he was a true example of that — he wasn’t a guy who bombed in front of real crowds and comics thought it made them look clever to like him. That’s not what it was with Patrice. He was genuinely funny.

IFC: What sort of relationship did you guys have? Could you be honest with him and tell him his set didn’t go well?

NORTON:Oh, no. It was ball breaking. I mean, I totally laid into him – again, it was just two comics fuckin’ with each other, but I had agreed to drive him back to New York. So I think we kind of got along in the car, but I just don’t remember, it was so many years ago. You know, but it wasn’t supportive like hey, you did a good job. But I knew how much he liked me and he knew how much I liked him, and again, we made each other laugh, and that to me is the greatest sign of respect comics could have for each other. You don’t need to always be upfront with each other — like he never needed me to tell him, “hey, Patrice, I really like you,” because he knew I did. I mean, I wouldn’t have reacted to him the way I did if I didn’t love him and he knew that.

IFC: Do you feel the public and the media pays attention to comedians now as opposed to maybe 10 or 20 years ago? Do you think that has anything to do with the fact that it’s just now that Patrice is really starting to get the recognition he deserved?

NORTON: Well, the difference between now and 15 or 20 years ago is they pay attention now because they want to catch you saying something that you’ll get in trouble for and that they can write about. Years ago they would talk about being funny, like [Don] Rickles did racial jokes, he broke walls, and they understood you were being funny, but now when you do something like that they take the sound out, asking, “is this hate speech?” You know, it’s really a dismal. So it’s not surprising to me. And see the thing was, he wouldn’t say anything they could catch him on; he didn’t give a shit. He would be upfront. He would almost un-blackmailable in a way, emotionally. So there was nothing for them to catch him on, so they just didn’t take notice and he wasn’t famous enough for them to have just noticed without something grabbing their attention. If that makes any sense.

IFC: Yeah.

NORTON: Like Adam Sandler’s a famous guy. So as a comic he was famous. On Patrice’s level coming up or my level, the way they’re really different to notice you is for them to see you say something you shouldn’t say to get you in trouble. And that’s the main way for them to notice you until you get big through other means. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself at all but I think that’s a part of it is he didn’t get the accolade beforehand because he wasn’t saying anything that they could use to further what they were interested in, which is, you know, writing about people’s sensitivities. I’m not speaking from the point of paranoia either; I know that that sounds like all crazy, but I really don’t think that.

IFC: How much did you know about his creative process in terms of the way that he would assemble his material?

NORTON:He would think of things and he loved to talk things through. Like he loved to debate about men and women and race and he loved a good argument, but on stage he really didn’t write a lot down. He would just kind of let himself kind of flow and he would prepare, but honestly I think he just worked it out on stage and I think that was his main [technique]. I’m sure he’d think about it and talk about it offstage, but I think his main way of working that out was just going up on stage and fuckin’ just throwing it at the audience and seeing what they thought. Or despite what they had thought.

IFC: Do you find that approach to be particularly unique, or is that the way many comedians put together their routines?

NORTON: I work the same way; I prefer to work it out on stage. I go up with an idea, but you have to be on stage a lot to do that, to remember it the next night. But no I prefer to do that, too. I’m not really great at writing things down unless for a roast or a particular event.

IFC: Gotcha. Well, what then is sort of coming up for you, be it in the context of this or just sort of in your career sort of separate from it?

NORTON:I’m shooting — I have a show in Cleveland in the end of April, an hour stand-up special and I have a CD, which I’m going to release but I’m actually going to wait a while because it’s not really important. I mean, whenever it comes out, it comes out, but it will be awhile. But that’s all I’m really working on. I mean, right now I’m in LA and doing another [show] Monday, so I’m really concentrating here on this special and I want it to be good.

IFC: Have you done any other sort of events or made specific efforts in terms of promoting his album and giving it some attention?

NORTON:Well, just the radio show. I mean, the article in Rolling Stone — just interviews and radio promotion, because he was on that shit all the time. But every comic is doing it. Every comic is talking about it in interviews and stuff. So, I think it’s just kind of mass effort.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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