Fans of standup comedy suffered a real blow yesterday when Patrice O'Neal passed away at the young age of 41. For those unfamiliar with O'Neal's brand of comedy, it was confrontational, blunt, and unapologetic to the point of arrogance. It was also brilliant. Patrice's comedy would instantly convert half of the room into lifelong fans even as it chased the other half out the door. A staple at various roasts, most recently Charlie Sheen's, Patrice had the unique perspective and gift for pointing out bullshit that could have taken him all the way to the top if he had just softened his image a little, been willing to come across as more agreeable than acidic. That, however, was simply not his style. He wasn't willing to dull the edges of his comedy or his opinions, both of which at times made him persona non grata among casting directors. If he'd had more time to stick around, more time to make public appearances and let audiences get used to him, who knows? He might have been the next big thing. As it is, we can only watch and re-watch his one and only standup special, this year's amazing Elephant In the Room, and wonder what might have been.
Sadly, Patrice is not the only comedic genius to have been taken from us too soon.
8. Greg Giraldo
Hell, Patrice isn't even the only regular from Colin Quinn's Tough Crowd to pass away prematurely; 2010 took from us fellow New York City comedian Greg Giraldo. Giraldo walked out on a law practice in order to bring his meticulously analytical mind to the world of comedy, and his material only got better when it drew on his painful real-life experiences with addiction and divorce. He had maintained sobriety for quite a while when he accidentally overdosed on prescription sleeping medicine at the age of 44. Doubly tragic was the fact that his friend, fellow comedian Mike DeStefano, participated in a Comedy Central tribute to Giraldo, then passed away himself days before it aired.
7. Bernie Mac
Bernie Mac became famous as perhaps the best non-cliched gruff-but-likable father figure in recent memory on The Bernie Mac Show, but he was well-known on the standup circuit before then. To watch his earlier standup is to watch a man utterly at home and fearless onstage, and not afraid to let the audience know it. "I ain't scaaaared a' you motherfuckers!" he proudly proclaimed in a signature bit, and the more defiant he was, the more the audience loved him for it. He died in 2008 at the age of 50 at the top of his game, with a successful movie career in full swing.
6. Richard Jeni
Appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno more than any other standup comedian, Richard Jeni was one of the pioneers of the dry, observational humor which Jerry Seinfeld brought to mass popularity in the 1990's. Neurotic and self-deprecating, Jeni was nonetheless a confident powerhouse onstage right up to his suicide in 2007.
5. Mitch Hedberg
You can't have a list of comedians gone too soon without including Mitch Hedberg, who inherited the proud tradition of the hilarious non-sequitir from comedians like Steven Wright and Emo Phillips and made it utterly his own. Typical example: "I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too." Funny, but not as enjoyable a joke since his death in 2004 from a drug overdose. Mitch never seemed all that interested in show business other than comedy - he famously related it to asking a highly respected chef "Yeah, but can you farm?" - but who knows? Dead at 37 is way too early to tell.
4. Dennis Wolfberg
You might not remember Dennis Wolfberg's name, and that's a crying shame, because you almost certainly would have if he hadn't died of cancer at the age of 48 in 1994 right when his career seemed poised to jump to the next level. You might remember his style: nervous, twitchy, and halting with eyes that seemed ready to pop out of his head. He was a staple on every late-night talk show in the early nineties, had a recurring role on Quantum Leap, and was negotiating a deal for his own TV show when he died.
3. Bill Hicks
A Houstonian since the age of seven, Bill Hicks achieved moderate success in his lifetime, but since his untimely death from pancreatic cancer in 1994, his popularity has snowballed to the point of fervent cult status. This is partly because, although embracing a similar style as other angry white male peers such as Sam Kinison and Denis Leary, Hicks was arguably the best at it, particularly when berating drunk or unruly audience members. He wasn't simply a ball of rage, however; his shows frequently diverted into long walks through the annals of philosophy, religion, and spirituality. Another reason for Hicks' delayed-reaction popularity might be that a lot of the themes he spoke about and the injustices he railed against have become more and more prevalent as America's culture has staggered on. Today he's revered as more of a prophet than a comedian, but don't let that fool you; mixed in with the barbed truth was plenty of delicious comedy. And he was only 32 when he died. Holy shit. That's how old the author of this list is. Ouch. Perspective whiplash.
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2. Sam Kinison
Speak of the devil... which Kinison often did, both as a Pentecostal preacher and then later as a standup comedian. He lost faith in the church, but despite his often filthy and offensive subject matter, he never seemed to lose faith in God, or at least in some force of good in the universe. No, for a man so hated by the religious right of the eighties, Kinison, in retrospect, bears a striking resemblance to a certain Nazarene in the process of booting the money-lenders out of the temple. Raging against modern hypocrisy in general and specifically against the televangelists whose popularity was booming at the time, Kinison took the fire-and-brimstone style of his preaching and adapted it to his comedy persona with wild success. His acting career had just begun to take off with significant roles in film and television when he was killed by a drunk driver in 1992. Sad to the extreme, although one can perhaps take small comfort in imagining Sam as one's own guardian angel.
1. Lenny Bruce
Predating the term "alternative comic" by generations, Lenny Bruce nonetheless was one of the first to fully embody that sentiment. His risque material kept him from mainstream success and his tendency to rant in quick, at times hard to understand bursts of speech kept him from landing sledgehammer punchlines more often than he would have liked. His cerebral wit, however, and his keen insight were undeniable. Laughter at a Lenny Bruce show started off slowly but built throughout, as the audience slowly came to grips with the fact that the man onstage wasn't crazy; in fact, he was making a lot of sense, and if a world this absurd can't be laughed at, what's the alternative? Dead of a drug overdose at the age of 40, Bruce passed away in 1966, just when the country seemed finally ready for his brand of sharp, lacerating comedy. God, we would have loved to have seen what the country would have made of Lenny in the seventies. And what Lenny would have made of disco.