“What’s good about crack? Do you want to know? Do you want to know?” [You’ll have to watch the videos to find out].
Old school New Yorkers will remember Washington Square Park’s raunchy master of ceremonies, street comedian Charlie Barnett, who died 16-years ago from AIDS complications and drug addiction. From the late seventies onward, several times a day, Barnett would jump up onto a park bench and shout “It’s showtime!” and do a 20-minute stand-up set that had the whole park in stitches. Roaring. Crying with laughter. I must’ve seen Charlie Barnett do 30 such performances over the years. I was in the Washington Square Park area a lot back then and I’d always stop to watch his act. The guy was one of the best stand-ups I’ve ever seen in my life. Spontaneous. He said whatever came into his head. Breathtakingly fearless performer. Shocking, even. No topic was off limits, which is why Barnett was perhaps better suited for street performances than the comedy clubs.
When he was on the mic, the man simply owned Washington Square Park. Truly, he was a fixture of NYC life in the 1980s. At one point, it came down to Barnett or Eddie Murphy who would become a cast member of SNL, but Barnett’s inability to read—he was a functional illiterate who read very, very slowly—saw Murphy get the nod. Barnett did have some notable roles (“Tyrone Bywater” in D.C. Cab, “Noogie” on Miami Vice) but he never really made it and died in 1996.
I haven’t thought about Charlie Barnett in years, but there’s an interesting short essay about him over at the Splitsider comedy blog by College Humor’s Conor McKeon:
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.
Another notable aspect of Charilie Barnett’s time on the planet was his nurturing of one of this generation’s greatest comedic talents, Dave Chappelle, who was due to play Barnett in a 2005 feature film about his life that sadly never got made. After a young Chappelle was booed off the stage of the Apollo Theater, Barnett took the bruised comic under his wing and showcased him to the crowd in the park. Roast-master general Jeffrey Ross was also heavily influenced by watching Barnett work the crowd.
Although I would imagine that there must be hundreds, even thousands, of videos of Charlie Barnett that were shot by tourists over the years, few of them have made it to YouTube. This clip from the cult film Mondo New York, captures Barnett working the fountain exactly as I recall him doing it, circa 1986. Comedy dates quickly, of course, but Barnett’s work from 25+ years ago retains an edge that is as sharp as ever. This clip still has something to offend everyone:
This particularly over-the-top performance from a 1993 Def Comedy Jam taping was never aired on TV, but did surface as a “2 Hot 4 TV” DVD extra. By this time Barnett’s health was starting to visibly deteriorate, but his comedy was still blistering, crude and rude.