White people dance like this; black people dance like this. Judge Bryan Byun...shouldn't dance.
"I like to be loved or hated—I don't like mediocre. So I'd rather have the entire crowd hate me than to have 90% hate me."
Patrice O'Neal is a misogynist and a bigot. He's the kind of guy who compares women to honey-smeared salmon, and fantasizes about owning white slaves (named "Phillip" and "Susan"). He's also extremely funny. And he owns his offensiveness. He doesn't wallow in it—he's not a shock comedian out to provoke his audience—but he's aware that brutal honesty tends to make people uneasy, so if people aren't offended by what he does, he's not doing his job.
Elephant in the Room's title carries a double meaning, referring both to the 6'5" former football player's expansive girth and to his comedic approach of speaking uncomfortable truths. It's O'Neal's first hourlong comedy special (the DVD is an uncensored version, with 40 additional minutes, of a special set to air on Comedy Central). But O'Neal's been working in comedy for two decades, mostly on the fringes of the mainstream, with occasional roles on The Office and Arrested Development. He's also a regular guest on the Opie and Anthony radio show.
O'Neal's act is pretty basic standup material: jokes about male-female relationships, sexual hijinks, race relations—the kind of "men are like this…and women are like this!" shtick that's a comedic staple. O'Neal stands out from the pack, though, with a natural, unforced charisma, a keen intelligence, and a relaxed stage presence that never comes across as trying to win over the audience. His jokes aren't based on setups and punchlines; O'Neal just chats with his audience, one topic rolling easily into the next. An admiring remark to a black audience member about his attractive white girlfriend turns into a riff on the relative values society places on white and non-white women, contrasting the media attention to the murder of Natalie Holloway to that of an anonymous Peruvian woman, which leads into a joke about attaching a white baby to himself at the ocean in case he needs to be rescued.
Although O'Neal's material can be clever—his views on race and much of what he has to say about relationships and marriage ring true—his act probably is funnier in performance than on paper. Many of his more sexist jokes run right up to the edge of hostility, but are redeemed by a sad-clown facial expression, or self-deprecating body language, that softens the blow. He's too easygoing and circumspect to send his more offensive material over the edge and lose his audience. On the other hand, O'Neal's no people pleaser; much of his act involves interacting with his fans, to a much deeper, and more uncomfortable, degree than the expected "so where are you folks from?" icebreakers. O'Neal presents himself as a bit of a goofball, but the way he prods the audience suggests that he's out to challenge people to confront their own hidden, uncomfortable truths.
Little about what he has to say about sexual harassment (he's generally for it) is especially witty—except maybe his proposal for a national Harassment Day (designated the Tuesday before Thanksgiving)—but his clownish delivery sells it, and makes it difficult to be seriously offended by it. Also mitigating the discomfort is O'Neal's willingness to show vulnerability about his own anxieties—his fear of being dominated by women, for instance, or his acknowledgement of having passed his physical prime now that he's hit 40—and openness about his personal failings. O'Neal definitely has some unresolved issues regarding women, and could probably stand to cut back on his misogyny, but it's part of his self-revelation rather than a cudgel to unleash his rage (e.g., Sam Kinison).
The DVD of Elephant in the Room looks and sounds terrific with clean, sharp video (not a 100% great thing…O'Neal is a heavy perspirer) and robust audio. There's also a pretty generous collection of special features, including some funny deleted scenes (although one segment where he teases an overly-serious female audience member crosses the line into bullying), and a brief performance by O'Neal's warmup act, Harris Stanton, a talented and engaging comedian in his own right. Comedy Central has also included the entirety of O'Neal's 2003 half-hour special, which demonstrates how much his act has evolved; it's funny, but much of the humor (Michael Jackson dangling his baby over a balcony) is dated, and he lacks the easy confidence he now possesses.
Elephant in the Room and Patrice O'Neal are not for everybody. This is not family-friendly stuff. O'Neal, while treading familiar ground, definitely pushes boundaries of taste. Still, while I can't condone many of his attitudes, especially about women, I have to admit that the guy is funny, and there's some genuinely perceptive thinking behind his confrontational style.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Comedy Central
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