Death is Easy, Truth is Hard
Given his fanatic fan base, no other documentary subject has a tougher audience to please than one on the life and philosophy of Patrice O’Neal. It didn’t take long for negative reaction videos to come up after the release of Killing Is Easy from Comedy Central. Between fan expectations and the near-decade long wait, the documentary was never going to be anyone’s perfect ending, but it can be a beginning.
Patrice Lumumba Malcolm O’Neal was a black comic from Boston who suffered from diabetes and succumbed to a stroke in 2011, leaving behind a girlfriend whose daughter looked up to him as a father figure. He was a self-admitted racist and sexist human being who could make you laugh about his ugly parts. He was almost afraid of being known for anything else other than a “unedited…piece of garbage” in the name of his pursuit for truth. He defended people’s right to be sexist and racist on outlets like Fox News if only to protect his own right to be flawed. His attitude and actions made him a comic’s comic, but it also drove away many opportunities throughout his career.
I first learned about O’Neal from the fan-made documentary Brutally Honest made one year after his death (collected in one video here). It’s clips like this and his appearances on the shock jock radio program “The Opie and Anthony Show” (also preserved on YouTube) that turned me onto his work. While his raw abrasiveness on shows like Comedy Central’s “Tough Crowd” was a turn off, he was a comparative calm voice of reason on “O&A” who could make himself heard over the chaos.
A documentary of O’Neal was hoped to be released years earlier and under a different name. O’Neal’s girlfriend Von Decarlo, Executive Producer on Killing is Easy, received a ridiculous amount of malice for her perceived hand in how the documentary she originally planned for O’Neal failed to come to fruition even after a successful Indiegogo campaign. Three quarters of the team breaking off with Decarlo to hand the project over to someone else is definitely something that could have happened to the uncompromising O’Neal. Also it’s easy to get the sense early on in the final product that Decarlo’s vision was compromised.
Comedy Central was responsible for producing much of the comic’s most well known work, so it is fortuitous that they stepped in to finish the film but also problematic. Decarlo and others involved had intended a warts-and-all look at O’Neal. Killing is Easy balks at this.
There are blind spots that are hard to ignore for fans with any background knowledge of the man. The most notable omission is O’Neal’s story of being convicted of a statutory sex crime at 16, which clearly had a lasting impact on his life and work (the story he told on “O&A” is available on YouTube under the title “The Greatest Story Ever Told on Radio”). The breezier tone of Killing is Easy would have made mentioning O’Neal’s criminal record a rough fit, but to have his family and friends in front of the camera and not refer to this life-changing event is an unbelievable lost opportunity.
Killing is Easy focuses on O’Neal’s special Elephant in the Room as his penultimate moment. It’s accurate to list it as a highlight, but his closing set for The Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen was considered to be a sign that he was about to break out. Comedy Central has had a long history of spotlighing less-than-savory characters under of illusion of picking them apart. People like Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Donald Trump. Comedy Central likely saw it best to not bring attention to Sheen (who’s become more problematic over the years), but O’Neal, who refused good paying jobs all the time, only took the gig because he admired Sheen’s anti-establishment stance.
O’Neal showed similar admiration for George W. Bush, Alex Jones and other figures who the pubic would later turn on. Maybe he was just drawn to people who also couldn’t hide what was hateful about them. We can’t put words into a dead man and figure out the reason, but it would have been better to ask why rather than ignore altogether.
You need a strong voice to mesh all the things that made O’Neal a complicated yet captivating person, but that voice isn’t on this documentary. On one hand, you have Comedy Central executives who don’t want to alienate or offend their modern audience. On the other hand, you have family, friends and fellow comics (Bill Burr helped to spearhead this film) who make for poor historians. As much as everyone involved should be lauded for their efforts, the film lacks a true documentary’s objective lens to make Patrice’s story more cohesive, compelling and yes, honest. It needed more objectivity, more of an outsider’s eye, more honesty into who O’Neal was. More uncomfortable questions, which would have been to his liking.
There are several special moments in the program with new information that make it worth watching (the segments with O’Neal’s mom are a treat). Many people get to tell their stories, but the stories don’t make a cohesive whole. A greater point of view can’t be found.
O’Neal was an important comic, and his work remains important to understand especially in the wake of the #metoo movement and so-called cancel culture. He predicted his work would be too much for many and hoped for a small but loyal audience. The best legacy that Killing is Easy can hope for is that this brings O’Neal’s name back to the public conscious enough for new people to ask who he was and what he was about with more depth. Since O’Neal’s death, his thoughts have been shared on a level he couldn’t have possibly fathomed in the early days of YouTube and social media. He’s been heard, which is all he wanted when he was alive. It’s only fair someone has a chance to parse the hours of his time on earth and figure out what it all means.