Patrice O'Neal: Elephant In The Room debuts tonight on Comedy Central at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Should there be a comedy handicap for when a stand-up goes into the old trench battle of "men vs. women" material? There's always a funk that sets in once you realize you've entered that portion of the set. There are comics who can get you out of that funk pretty quickly, but so often they're just driving rusty old post-hole diggers between the couples in the room. Now, as far as this applies to Patrice O'Neal's stand-up special Elephant In The Room, I'm not talking about his bits on sexual harassment. I'm talking about the last third or so, specifically set within the context of relationships. They are hardly a hitch in the set—in fact, if people must do that kind of material, they can learn from O'Neal's finesse with it. Yet we might want to put a mild handicap on it, because of how it compares to the beginning of the show.
The way O'Neal begins the set doesn't count as "couple" material either, but as good old fashioned mildly humiliating crowd work. He gawks over a mixed-race couple near the front—"That is a high-level white woman right there!"—to introduce the premise that you can prove the value of a white woman by how long people will search for her if she goes missing. (The audience members O'Neal picks on look like they have to get past some mild disgust and unease, more than the little ritual embarrassment you undergo on an average night at the comedy club, to make the interaction work.) The best part of this bit (as with several bits) is when O'Neal sings, piously intoning that Americans can always remember the white girl who went missing, namely "Natalie Holloway, that an-gel!" It's definitely the funny part of the show.
Where his skill really gets impressive, though, is in broaching the need for a "Harassment Day" in the workplace. While we could probably get lots of people to agree there's some grey area allowed on our perceptions of sexual harassment, it's a grey area where you really don't want to see a comic blundering and slobbering. O'Neal enters that no-man's-land with an almost humble appeal, his face pleading and put-upon where with most comics you could count on a sloppy grin. "Why can't I harass you?" See, on his new holiday—"the Tuesday before Thanksgiving," which I just love—Patrice just wants to be able to bring his female co-worker flowers and ask whether or not she wants to blow him in the broom closet. Just to clear up that unspoken sexual tension. (He doesn't have so many layers to work with when he later goes on to ponder the awkwardness of dental dams, and that one doesn't work as well.) A lot of this depends on the sort of body language that can get lost watching live comedy alone on a screen, but he sets the right tone, letting the words go down easy and letting the weirdness of the situation speak for itself.
O'Neal's most original choice of material here is animal cruelty. That is, the apparently media-promoted stereotype that black men hate animals. He mentions the "sad animal commercials" that come on in between his Three's Company re-runs, on which "White Lady" gives statistics about kittens being stabbed in the face with pencils and says that black people probably did it. Note that once again there's a fair amount of singing in this bit. Singing about kittens being stabbed in the face and puppies being stuffed into a cup. Something about singing just flows nicely with O'Neal's stage presence, which overall is subtle enough that, again, it's easy to miss if you're not there in the room.
Elephant In The Room sticks to its purported mission of getting forbidden subjects out in the open and revealing the debased motives everyone knows are there, except for a dip into subjects like cheating and the ways in which men and women don't click sexually. OK, it's not as daring as missing white women and stabbed kitties, but O'Neal's bit comparing men's mating habits to catch-and-release fishing features some great imitations of freaked-out fish and an interesting conclusion about long-term relationships: "You were the fish that jumped back on the boat." So even when the choice of material isn't a surprise, O'Neal puts some dignity and craft into working some well-traveled ground.
- "Where the magnifying glass? One peanut? Get outta here!"
- For some reason, it's hysterical to me that his imaginary white slaves are named Susan and Philip. Especially Philip.
- When he does his "animal-hating black guy" stereotype, he makes a perfect Mike Tyson scrunchy face.
- "Oh my god, Human Resources, the grizzly bear did grizzly bear stuff!"
- The football bit is worth it just for the image of football players taking socks off of rival football players they've paralyzed.
- Does the "elephant in the room" angle hit me less than it's supposed to just because I'm used to having Louis CK twist the offensive stuff so hard into the crowd?
- Again, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.