In 2016, I walked into the back room of Cole’s, a dive bar in Chicago’s Logan Square, ready to be disappointed by a bunch of white male comedians. So it was a pleasant surprise when a black woman in a tight red dress with leopard print hopped on stage.
She was captivating and hilarious from the jump.
Rebecca, what are you looking for in a man? Nobody asked, but here we go: I’m looking for somebody who can help me get weed easily and pay for my birth control. What I realized—weed and birth control—Rebecca, what you’re looking for in a man is Hillary Clinton, bitch.
At that point, Rebecca O’Neal had already established herself as one of Chicago’s hardest-working comedians. She might have continued climbing the comedy ranks in her hometown if two years of harassment and stalking by an ex-boyfriend didn’t accelerate her decision to move to Brooklyn this past October. By the time the 31-year-old South Side native relocated, she was the host of Cole’s open mic, two weekly shows at Laugh Factory, and a TV show with WCIU, The U. Somewhere along the way, she portrayed herself in a scene on Netflix’s Easy.
On stage, on Twitter, and on television, O’Neal honed an irreverent edge to her humor that encourages audiences to face the absurdity of the world—starting with her own.
O’Neal’s career began with her writing for online publications like Splitsider and Gawker. She tested jokes on Twitter when she wasn’t keeping tabs on comedians whose work she enjoyed. But it was a mention on HuffPost that seemed to place her in the same category as Mindy Kaling that gave her the boost of confidence she needed to try stand up.
“I think I might be funny, so I think I’m going to say these jokes in front of people instead of the Internet,” O’Neal recalled telling herself. She decided to try her luck at Cole’s, where the comedy open mic's past hosts include Cameron Esposito and Adam Burke. Three and a half years later, she co-hosted the same event with Sonia Denis, another recent transplant to Brooklyn.
“She has an incredibly high IQ,” Denis told me of O’Neal. “If the apocalypse were to ever come, I’d want to have her with me because she would definitely survive.”
Denis said her friend’s inquisitive nature was off-putting when they first met. But the pair grew close bonding over a shared work ethic that connected them to comedians like Odinaka Od Ezeokoli, Charlie Rohrer, Bill Bullock and Justin Covington. O'Neal and her peers eventually launched Congrats on Your Success, a monthly BYOB comedy show.
“She was really enthusiastic about whatever she wanted to get into,” Ezeokoli told me. “She was like, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to go for it.”
On a bus ride home from a show one night, O'Neal responded to a call from Maria Bamford on Twitter for female comedians. She was still on that bus napping when she landed the chance to open for Bamford in Milwaukee. She has since opened for established stars like Esposito, Hannibal Buress, and W. Kamau Bell.
It’s not easy to place Rebecca’s comedy neatly into a genre. She will rave about Rihanna for five minutes, talk about quantum particle theories, and manage to insert a few lines about kink all in the same set. Her Twitter account is barely distinguishable from her live act. “I tweet like I’m on a sinking ship. My thoughts gotta get out,” she told me. “I’m very much into comedy, sex,” she laughed before continuing. “Fashion. I’m also a nerd. It all coalesces into some odd shit. But I think it’s working.”
You can’t tell what to expect just by catching a glimpse of her. Her appearance is reminiscent of Jackeé Harry’s on 227, or as she describes it, if Miss Frizzle was a thot and murderous teacher on a CW show.
“People contain multitudes,” she quipped when I recalled her performing a rap she wrote and shared with her classmates in middle school. Everyone was perplexed, and possibly concerned: the rap was in Latin. “I do that every once in a while. I’ll rap in a dead language, why not?” she said.
Most of her audiences do not resemble her, yet the jokes resonate with people who know nothing about being queer, fat, and black, as she describes herself. “The more specifically you can describe your emotions and your experiences, the more universal they will be and the more people who will relate to them,” she said. “I’ve performed in rooms filled with white people who’ve never wore weaves, never been to the South Side of Chicago, never been stalked, don’t have FetLife profiles, nothing. But they all go through the same emotions and they all vibe with it.”
O’Neal has at least in the past included the uncomfortable truth of having been stalked and harassed by that ex into her work. She once told a joke about not lowering her standards to wait for a text when she could look outside her window and find him waiting. Know your worth, ladies, that’s all I’m sayin’.
But even as she made light of it on stage, living in fear was her reality for two years. She didn’t talk much about what was happening at the time, but recalled supporters in the Chicago comedy scene expressing concern when she started to cancel shows. Comedy venues posted his photo, friends offered her a place to stay and rides whenever she needed. She was able to continue what she worked hard for, but didn’t get a semblance of ease until last fall, when a Chicago judge finally granted her an extended order of protection.
Meanwhile, several women—including other comics—shared similar experiences with O’Neal before #MeToo entered the mainstream. “A lot of people have ideas about how women should respond to the shit they’ve been through,” O’Neal told me. “If I responded the way people felt was appropriate every time a man made me uncomfortable or threatened me, I’d already be fucking dead. So, I don’t care. That sounds dramatic, but it was dead-ass serious.”
According to O'Neal, her ex busted windows out of her apartment, threatened to kill her, and chased her down in a car in front of her peers at a show. Eyewitness accounts haven’t been sufficient to stave off criticisms to her response to all that danger, nor questions about just how severe her ex’s behavior really was. She recalled a fellow comic once telling her she was acting like a white girl since she didn’t experience traditional physical abuse. “‘At this point, people’s ideas of what I should be doing to survive does not affect me at all,” she said.
A recent surge in debate about the treatment of black women in comedy—inspired partly by Mo’Nique’s claim she was lowballed when offered a Netflix special—came as no surprise to O’Neal. She’s long expected women in her business to be treated differently, and for the numbers to go even lower if they are black and/or LGBTQ-identified, like she is.
“It’s very easy to walk in and not know what you deserve,” she told me, recalling her early experiences alongside male colleagues in Chicago. “I see a lot of people making those mistakes, and I continue to make them. If you don’t know better, nobody’s gonna tell you better.”
O’Neal has filled up her calendar since moving to Brooklyn—performing nearly every night, she has gone from open mics to being featured in shows at Knitting Factory, Littlefield and Union Hall. She recently performed for 2 Dope Queens and opened for Jak Night at New York Comedy Festival.
As she hustles her way toward mainstream comedy fame, she makes a point to stop and speak earnestly, whether it’s about mistreatment of female comics or the long road she's traveled to get to this level with her craft.
“I’ve never shut up a day in my life and I don’t think I’m gonna start now."
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This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.