“Mondo New York”: Charlie Barnett captivates a “nice mixed crowd” in Washington Square Park

By on May 28, 2018

“In the 1980s, Charlie Barnett performed raunchy comedy in New York City,” says Night Flight’s Pat Prescott in her introduction to a clip of the NYC street comedian, excerpted from 1988’s Mondo New York, which appears in our eighth “Night Flight Highlights” episode (“Rock Photography & NYC Hip-Hop”) on the IFC cable network.

As you can see in this NSFW clip we found, Barnett captivates a “nice mixed crowd” who’ve gathered around the fountain in Washington Square Park in Lower Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood.

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In the year 2018, people who claim to have a good sense of humor are just a bit more sensitive to the overt racial overtones found in Barnett’s street humor than they were some thirty years ago, and so his performance had to be sanitized, using some very clever editing, for IFC’s viewing audience, but you can see the complete, unedited version above.

Mondo New York
was yet another film in the decades-long “Mondo” tradition which began with the 1962 Italian-languge documentary Mondo Cane, presenting a series of vignettes that provided anthropological glimpses of cultural practices and rituals in sub-cultures from around the world.

Its huge international box office success spawned a series of similarly-themed foreign-made sequels, including Malamondo.

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Here in America, the “Mondo” title was applied to exploitation-style hippie counterculture Mondos, like Robert Carl Cohen’s Mondo Hollywood and a few titles we’ve got in our Something Weird collection, It’s a Revolution Mother and The Hippie Revolt.

By the late ’70s, there were even parody Mondos like Michael O’Donoghue’s Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video.

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In 1988, director Harvey Nikolai Keith’s Mondo New York “shockumentary” — distributed by the film’s producer,  Night Flight creator Stuart S. Shapiro — showed the seedier, seamier side of New York City’s underground art scene.

Their Mondo film focused on real artists found on NYC’s Lower East Side, including Lydia Lunch, whose “post-punk spoken word” performance is excerpted in our sixth “Night Flight Highlights” episode (“Hardcore Punk & Australian Invasion“).

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We’ll have more to say about Mondo New York — it’ll be released on DVD or the first time, later this year, by our content partner MVD — so stay tuned to the Night Flight blog, but, for now, read more about Charlie Barnett below.

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According to his former manager in a 2015 New York Times article, comedian Dave Chappelle cried after seeing Barnett perform for the first time, reportedly saying, “I’m never going to be as funny as that guy.”

After Chappelle was booed off-stage at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, Barnett took the younger comic under his wing, even letting him practice his comedy act on his own audiences.

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Charlie Barnett was born in Bluefield, West Virginia, in 1954, migrating up to New York City in the ’70s to pursue a career in comedy.

By decade’s end, he’d become a popular street comic with filthy comedy raps that sharply criticized racial stereotypes and prejudices, telling bigots and racists know they could go fuck themselves if they didn’t like what he was saying.

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He barely made a living “passing the hat” after performing his twenty to thirty-minute sets, gathering local New Yorkers on their lunch hour, loitering winos and druggies and tourists around him by yelling out “It’s showtime! Showtime, motherfuckers!”

Barnett also performed on Bleecker and Thompson, and behind the newspaper kiosk on Sixth Avenue and Third.

In 1980, William Morris Agency rep Greg Mullins signed him up and began getting him booked him into comedy clubs across the country, and also got him an audition for NBC’s weekend juggernaut, Saturday Night Live.”

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SNL‘s producers loved Barnette’s material and had come back multiple times, but he didn’t make their final cut because it turned out Charlie Barnett was nearly completely illiterate. He was only able to read very, very slowly, which meant he couldn’t read cue cards.

His SNL slot was filled by another up-and-coming black stand-up comedian/actor, Eddie Murphy.

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Barnett found work on other film and TV projects, though, including as the memorable “Tyrone” in Joel Schumacher’s 1983 comedy D.C. Cab.

The movie’s impressive ensemble cast included Paul Rodriguez, Gary Busey, Marsha Warfield, Whitman Mayo (“Grady Wilson” on the NBC sitcom “Sanford and Son”), Bill Maher and Mr. T., with a cameo by ’80s soundtrack songstress Irene Cara.

During the film’s production, Barnett lived in NYC and a condo on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, and he also made regular stopovers at the comedy clubs in Miami, Chicago, and Las Vegas.

He was soon landing a recurring role for three seasons as the petty criminal and occasional snitch “Neville ‘Noogie’ Lamont on “Miami Vice,” filming a dozen or more HBO comedy specials, and he appeared in mostly-forgettable movies like My Man Leroy and Beer (both 1985) and Nobody’s Fool (1986).

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Barnett also wrote and starred in his very own sketch comedy special, 1986’s Terms of Enrollment: Charlie Barnett’s Guide to Higher Education.

His appearance in Mondo New York was one of his last performances onscreen, though, and except for appearing on HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam” in 1992 (again, NSFW), he didn’t work in film or TV for another eight years.

By all accounts, his abuse of drugs like heroin and crack spun out of control and he eventually contracted HIV, through the use of dirty needles.

Barnett died on March 16, 1996, from complications of AIDS. He was 41 years old.

His final film appearance — in the extremely low-budget They Bite — was released the following month.

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Watch an excerpt from Charlie Barnett’s performance from Mondo New York in our eighth “Night Flight Highlights” episode on the IFC cable network

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.