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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