It’s been almost 10 years since Patrice O’Neal died of complications from a stroke and diabetes at the age of 41. O’Neal was a hilarious comic and a complicated figure, a comedian who had no reservations about courting controversy with his words, who equally valued freedom of speech and the freedom to offend, who balanced keen insight and empathy on some gender and race issues with reactionary viewpoints. New York’s Adrian Nicole LeBlanc once summed up O’Neal’s contradictions by calling him “a half-domesticated feminist super-misogynist.” O’Neal left us right before the culture war really heated up and influenced the rise of Trump and the increased prominence of white supremacy. He foreshadowed where we as a culture was headed, but wasn’t around to see it himself.
It’s not hard to imagine how O’Neal would feel about some of today’s divisive issues. He would no doubt strongly stick up for the northeast comedy club scene that he was deeply ingrained in, and its commitment to a kind of free speech that apparently doesn’t encompass serious criticism. As Leblanc noted, O’Neal “defended the freedom of white racists on Fox News,” so presumably the rise of an alt-right subculture within the comedy world wouldn’t give him much pause. It’s pretty clear where he’d stand on the concept of “cancel culture.”
The thing is we really have no idea what O’Neal’s life would have been like over the last decade. We can’t just extrapolate what somebody whose story ended in 2011 would think and do a full decade later. It’s better to leave them in their own time, appreciate who and what they were, and not try to force them into a world they don’t belong in. And based on the first preview of Michael Bonfiglio’s Patrice O’Neal: Killing Is Easy, that’s what Comedy Central’s upcoming documentary aims to do.
In this brief trailer, we see a few of O’Neal’s friends and colleagues, including Colin Quinn and Denis Leary, drop soundbites on what made O’Neal such a special and revered comic, interspersed with brief, context-free clips of O’Neal’s stand-up. It focuses on O’Neal’s commitment to what Leary and Dane Cook call “truth,” that elusive goal that’s so often portrayed as the true aim of stand-up comedy. That search for “truth” might sound corny and played-out, but it does sort of fit O’Neal—as shocking as his comedy could be, it rarely felt like mean-spirited antagonism, and more like a man trying to talk his way to a real understanding with his audience on some very slippery and painful subjects.
You can watch the full trailer below. Patrice O’Neal: Killing Is Easy premieres on Comedy Central on Feb. 19 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.