16 years ago last Friday, comedian Charlie Barnett’s life was cut tragically short, the ends to a drug and doubt-fueled means that had reduced one of the most naturally gifted performers of a generation to an AIDS-stricken, debt-ridden smack addict.
Yet in spite of the sordid details of his demise, it is his Barnett’s talent, fearlessness, and generosity — to his audience, his disciples, and his craft — which carry his legacy.
* * *
It took the Village to raise Charlie Barnett.
Born in 1954 to an alcoholic mother and mentally ill father, he lived with his grandmother in the coal mining town of Bluefield, West Virginia until age 11, when, finding little importance in schoolwork, he dropped out and headed north, to be with his mother in Boston. But the socioeconomic obstacles for a black post-pubescent sans education or responsible guardian are nearly insurmountable, and at 19 he is lucky to be alive.
He soon lands in Greenwich Village and begins performing in Washington Square Park which, since the post WW2 Bohemian influx, has served as Ground Zero for some of the most creatively innovative performance art the city/country/planet has to offer, a tradition which continues through the late 70s and early 80s. Each afternoon, artists of every conceivable discipline — poets, jugglers, poet-jugglers — flock to the Park’s amphitheater in search of an audience.
But it is Charlie Barnett to whom the audience flocks. It’s Charlie Barnett who, as the saying goes, “fills the fountain.”
On any given day hundreds surrounded the fountain. Barnett circumnavigates the makeshift oblong stage — his cocksure strut somewhere between that of preacher and prizefighter — and bellows, “I love a New York audience” in a voice as gravelly as the rural Appalachian roads he once travelled just to get here, to this fountain. With most comics, “I love a New York audience!” suggests a trite attempt at audience appeasement, but crowd work is not necessary for Charlie Barnett — they’re chanting his name before he’s said a word — and in his voice there is a palpable sincerity which implies he really truly means it.
His act, an array of outsized characters and one-liners (“I took an AIDS test — I got a 65”), doesn’t contain the underlying sensitivity of Bruce or Pryor’s social consciousness, but instead serves as a modern re-imagining of the blue-tinted Vaudevillian raunch of Foxx and Rickles.
Of course, in Charlie Barnett’s case, the material is more or less immaterial, secondary to the mesmerizing physicality of his performance, with its perpetual motion and jutting limbs and rubber faces. He simply possesses a mindfulness on stage that you are either born with or you are not: One gets the impression that he could perform for an audience of the hearing impaired and his act would lose not an ounce of potency.
In 1980 SNL comes calling. Freshly appointed Executive Producer Jean Doumanian is immediately transfixed by the electric ease with which Barnett prowls the stage. She asks him to return for a reading, an impossibly anxiety-inducing experience on its own, and doubly so when you’re borderline illiterate.
Driven by fear of embarrassment (“I read good,” he later explains to People Magazine, “but I read slow…”) an ashamed Barnett skips the second audition and, in the immediate years following, harbors a debilitating jealousy of Eddie Murphy, the man hired in his stead, whose meteoric rise Barnett feels should have been his.
Shaken, but not deterred, he goes back to work, in the streets. He lands the role of Tyrone Bywater in the 1983 comedy D.C Cab, the first writing/directing effort from Joel Schumacher, after producers happened upon him performing a set on top of a trash can. He inks a three-picture deal with Universal, and lands the recurring role of ‘Noogie’ Lamont on the uber-popular Miami Vice. Finally receiving the opportunities conducive to his gifts, Barnett’s jealousy of Murphy dissipates: Whereas only a few years prior he was unable to read any articles involving Murphy, he now tells Jet Magazine, “Now that I’m making it, I watch Saturday Night Live every Saturday.”
* * *
Unlike Barnett, Dave Chappelle’s rise to comedic stardom was remarkably normal; the son of professors, he began his standup career in his early teens, often arriving to clubs in the accompaniment of a loving and supportive mother. After graduating from DC’s Duke Ellington School of The Arts, Chapelle arrived in Gotham a veritable stage veteran despite having barely reached voting age. A tumultuous showing at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night — where he was infamously booed off the stage — leaves his confidence in tatters. Soon after, he is taken under Barnett’s wing.
In his memoir I Only Roast The Ones I Love, roast master Jeffrey Ross recounts Barnett’s insistence that Chappelle hone his performance skills at the fountain, going so far as to allow Chapelle five minutes with the sizable audience he’d accrued and, once the young comic had taken the stage, offering reassuring mid-set critiques.
“I believe Dave found his voice in that fountain,” writes Ross, a sentiment echoed by Chapelle, who, in a 2002 Punchline magazine interview, credits meeting Barnett as, “another thing that kind of advanced me, skill-wise. Just exponentially. Charlie taught me how to be fearless working outside.”
But as Chappelle’s career took him from the park to grander opportunities, like Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men In Tights, Barnett’s body and career began to irrecoverably wither. His spot on a 1993 Def Comedy Jam went unaired, ending up on the DVD’s “2 Hot 4 TV” extra. Three years later, he booked his final acting gig alongside Ron Jeremy in the low-budget vampire vehicle They Bite. On March 16, 1996, at just 41, he passed away, succumbing to heroin addiction and the contraction of AIDS.
His name would not resurface on the lips of movie executives for almost a decade, when Universal greenlit King Of The Park, a biopic to be produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, helmed by Ace Ventura: Pet Detective director Tom Shadyac, and starring Dave Chappelle, who, after two seasons of groundbreaking sketch comedy and two lauded standup specials (The second of which, Killin’ Them Softly, was dedicated to Barnett) had become arguably the pre-eminent comedic voice of his generation. But the potentially Oscar-baiting film was put on ice following Chappelle’s sudden and infamous departure from public consciousness in 2005.
* * *
In the annals of American culture, Charlie Barnett’s plight is not an unfamiliar one: So it often seems to go that for every Eddie Murphy there is a Charlie Barnett, just as for every Lew Alcindor an Earl Manigault.
But, at its very essence, it is a story of the generosity of influence, of greatness begetting further greatness: Without Charlie Barnett, there is no Dave Chappelle, just as without Woody Guthrie, there is no Bob Dylan.
But though he failed to achieve the stardom that many of his peers would experience, Barnett rose above the next-to-impossible socioeconomic hand with which he was dealt to carve out a more than respectable acting career, shape the next generation’s pre-eminent black voice for the next generation and, on any given day in the streets of New York City, bring comedy to the people.
And most importantly, he filled up the fountain.
Not bad for an illiterate.
Not bad at all.
Conor McKeon is a Webby-Honored writer/editor living in Brooklyn. In addition to being a former CollegeHumor staff writer, he has contributed to The Onion, Yankee Pot Roast, Mental_Floss, and CNBC.com. He tweets here and blogs here.