Patrice O'Neal, one of the greatest comedians of all time, passed away in 2011, only a week before his 42nd birthday. A true comic's comic, O'Neal's legend-status was cemented in his early 30s, but mainstream popularity was never his goal. Instead, he wanted to be the best.
Patrice's story is one that needs to be told. And his wife and fellow comic, Von Decarlo, plans to make sure it's told right. Together with filmmaker Mark Farrell (Z-Rock), producer/O'Neal's former manager Jason Steinberg, and producer Sansan Fibri, Decarlo has already outlined Better Than You, a planned documentary about O'Neal's life and career.
This week, the project's IndieGoGo campaign nears its end, which means the time to donate is now. The perks are incredibly enticing, the newest of which includes an opportunity to actually be on camera in the film, telling your own personal Patrice O'Neal story.
I had a chance to chat with Von Decarlo and filmmaker Mark Farrell this week. Initially, I noted O'Neal's love for (and strong opinions about) cinema, which could make the production of a film about his life a little intimidating.
Update: The Better Than You IndieGoGo has been extended until May 15, 2015.
Von Decarlo: The reason I want to do it as a feature length documentary is that it gives me the opportunity to put Patrice in the starring role of the film. He absolutely adored film and we don't know where his career was leading, he passed away before we could really see. I feel like he would love the idea of us doing it as a feature length film for that reason. Patrice was a perfectionist in his work and he loved little details and hopefully we'll be able to keep that in mind while we're making the film and make the small little details really pop and make it beautiful like he would want.
Mark Farrell: But yes, it is appropriately daunting because of Patrice's high standards and because we know our mantra is to do this how Patrice would have wanted it done. We are holding ourselves to a very high standard because we want to tell this story in a really great way, in a really creative and clever way. And so, yes, it is a bit daunting, but in a great way.
Tony Hinds: So, how did the film project originally come about?
VD: Of course it's something that's been on my mind as time went past and after releasing his albums, Unreleased and Mr. P. After he passed away, I committed myself to completing projects he was working on, and things that he wanted me to do, like my book.
(Decarlo's first book, Speak Fluent Man - The Top Things Women Should Consider Before Blaming The Man, will be available June 2015.)
I just felt like this documentary was the way to solidify his legacy and his story and help us all. Not just myself and his family and friends, but fans as well, to have something to hold onto, and move on a little bit. Where we can look at something and feel like we know we did our absolute best towards preserving Patrice's legacy and story, and telling it the right way. On this project, we're holding ourselves to the same high standards that Patrice held himself.
TH: When I think about Patrice, one of the major things that sticks out in my mind was the notorious stories he would hint at about meetings with Comedy Central executives. He'd spend the entire meeting making them uncomfortable, which was his goal.
VD: Oh yes, I was there for one of those meetings. Patrice was very interesting in his approach to that because it was... You would think people would be used to him! The ones that knew him would be alright, but it was still very uncomfortable for those who may have been new to Patrice. He was never really afraid to really give his honest viewpoint on things. I guess in a sense, it's like "I know you guys aren't gonna take my idea and run with it because it's really good and everything you have on the air sucks."
I remember walking through the hallways with him, and Patrice just looking at the posters they had on the walls. TV shows that they revered as great and him just ripping on the posters, saying "This is what you think is great? Why am I even here?"
MF: That's why we didn't go straight to a network with this project, even though we had interest. That's why we crowdfund like this, because we really wanted to do this without that network interference that Patrice would have loathed.
TH: It's really refreshing. He was a true artist, whether or not he would have admitted it. It's always difficult when art meets business.
VD: The thing with Patrice was that he loved being an artist and being creative and being funny. But I really like the word Mark just used, so I'm going to use it again: Patrice really loathed the business itself. I was with him for ten years and along the way he trained me in a sense, not just with relationships and all that stuff, but he was also training me to work in the business. We had a business relationship and partnership, and I think it's because he really hated anything that had to do with business.
When he used to go on the radio in the earlier days, you would practically have to beg him to plug shows. He wanted to go on there. He really loved doing radio. He loved to talk, loved thinking and debating and all the things he would do. But when it came to saying, "I'll be at whatever club on Friday," he just did not want to do it. I'd say, "But you have to!" And he'd say, "Ah, if people want to see me, they'll find me." But how? He just hated the idea of the business side of entertainment, but he loved being an artist.
TH: Yeah, even on podcasts, he was always so reluctant to self-promote.
VD: But that's the reason I didn't have to do anything to get in his Twitter account. I already had his Twitter account because he didn't want to tweet. The stuff that you'd see him tweet about football or whatever funny stuff that was happening, that was definitely him. But anything that you saw like, "Hey, I'm gonna be at Caroline's or wherever this weekend," ...that was me! Anything that had anything to do with promoting or any type of business, that was always me. He was always positioning me to do business for him and a lot of the leg work stuff, because he couldn't stand it. And he hated... really, really hated Hollywood.
When he went out to The Roast of Charlie Sheen and the whole red carpet deal. It was this and that, pictures, publicists... All that stuff really got under his skin. I forget the exact number that his Twitter follower count jumped while the Sheen Roast was airing. It was several thousand. I don't want to just make up a number in my head, because I don't remember, so don't quote me on the exact number, but thousands and thousands and thousands of new followers on his Twitter account. And he hated it.
VD: (Patrice) said, "I like the people who already know what I am." When he did the VH1 show, Web Junk 20, he hated the fact that more people would come to his comedy shows wherever he was headlining and expect the Web Junk guy. Moving into the new seasons of that show, it didn't really work out because they wanted to change the format a little bit and make it even more of what he wasn't, so to speak. And he was like, "You guys don't get it! The reason the show is working with me hosting is because I'm making fun of the videos. I'm not saying, 'these videos are great, check them out.' I'm saying, 'look at these idiots.'"
TH: What about Patrice's work on shows like Arrested Development or The Office? Was that a similar situation?
VD: His issue with flying out to California to do The Office... You would think... like myself as an actor, would be like, yes, I'll go and spend fourteen hours a day shooting one line. Sure, I'll be skipping around town, doing backflips. But for Patrice as an actor and performer, his perspective was: "Wait a second, you want me to fly all the way to LA and give my all...?" And you have to understand, as an artist, people take for granted all the work you put into even one line as an actor. Patrice even said at one point, "What you put into something really takes from you and takes from your soul." It drains a part of your soul. Then, you look at the finished project like, "That was about two seconds of all the effort and work I put in."
TH: Sure, absolutely.
VD: Not that Patrice didn't want to do it. But he was just coming to a place where he said, "I have to do my own thing. When I'm putting a hundred percent of my soul into a project, it's my project and I can get out of it what I'm putting into it." It was the same with Chappelle's Show. He liked doing Chappelle's Show. He liked doing The Office. However, he did not like... the amount, because he would put his all into everything he did. Patrice was a perfectionist. He just felt like, "I can't be flying all over the place, putting all this effort into something when I'm not getting what I need in return."
And it's not necessarily a fame thing or a money thing. It's that someone else is deciding what's a good take, and he didn't agree. He'd be like, "It's this watered down version of what I did. But I really gave them some awesome stuff that will never be seen, because you took a piece of what I am, but not really what I am. That character could be so much better, but no, here's just a tiny piece."
That's when Patrice started working more on his own projects and he felt much more satisfied. In his head, the best thing he ever did was The Patrice O'Neal Show - Coming Soon, his web series about a show that was never gonna happen. It was way ahead of its time.
TH: Where do you start when you're telling someone's story in documentary form?
VD: I know we do want to cover every area of Patrice's life from the very beginning. I spent the last ten years of his life with him but there was certainly a whole lot of Patrice that happened that made Patrice into Patrice before I even met him. I'm gonna learn things along the way that I didn't know by talking to people maybe that I've never even met, who were in his life before I was. We want to go far back as we can and his Mom is going to be a huge help in that area, in the beginning of his life and all those things, leading all the way up to the end. I don't like to put it that way... the end. I was searching for a word but... no. It is what it is.
MF: Listen, we want to tell a very comprehensive story and obviously the goal of it is that we get to interweave the story about a life full of struggle. He had many struggles in his life. He had a struggle of success versus non-compromise. He had physical struggles you know , disease... (O'Neal was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in his 20's) ...so, he handled it all such an amazing way. And all the stories from all of his friends.
He was so loved by so many people and that's a great part of the story to tell. He was loved in different ways by everybody. He was loved by Von in one way, his mother in another way, Von's daughter in another way. All his buddies in another way. And maybe all in the same way at the same time. There is such great contrast in his life about how he was perceived and how he was as a human. There's so much depth to his character. I'm excited to tell this story in a way that makes people go, "Wow, that's something I never knew."
Jason Steinberg just found two half-hours that Patrice did on Dutch television that nobody has ever seen. We're digging deep. We're looking for his voice in every corner.
TH: What was the most important thing Patrice taught you about show business?
VD: Patrice would say something that always spoke to myself as an artist. He taught me so much about everything in the business as well as being a performer, but one of the things that really stuck that I have learned personally along the way, just with my own experience with my own stuff... He used to say, "They always want you to be you... but a little bit less you."
TH: Oh wow.
VD: You know? "Like, can you do exactly what you do, but not as much of you?"
VD: And I really, really understand what he meant by that.
Check out (and donate to) the Better Than You IndieGoGo.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.