Newswire: NY Times Looks Back On Comics Who Died Young, Missed One Big Part Of The Story

Newswire  8.17.15

Jason Zinoman’s piece in today’s New York Times was a nice homage to some past and present friends and other folks, too.

NY Times Remembers Charlie Barnett and Others

Charlie Barnett

Charlie Barnett

He does a nice job of reminding us of Charlie Barnett for example, however he misses a key episode of the story which I will share again, here.

First, let me say Charlie was a guy I knew and liked.  Not only was he the king of Washington Square Park street perfomrers, but he did a ton of indoor gigs too and one of those was working with me one night way back when, at Rick Messina’s Rainy Night House in Queens.  After the gig, I gave Charlie a ride home as we were both heading to the Comic Strip, but along the way he asked me to take a detour into a neighborhood up in Washington Heights or Spanish Harlem, I honestly do not remember exactly where he led me.  When we got to where we were going, Charlie told me to parallel park and then  — and this is the part that always stuck with me — he made it very clear I should keep my hands in my pockets while he was away, so that nobody would see that I was White. Forget the obvious, that my head was a dead give away, nonetheless, that is what he told me to do.  He then disappeared for I don’t know how long, leaving me there on some street in a neighborhood he didn’t think I was quite safe in, while he went off to buy some drugs.  I know he came back, because I remember getting back to the club and walking in together and I am still around to relate the story.  But that is not the episode that Charlie is best remembered for by anyone, including me.

Back in 1981 or 82? Charlie Barnett was selected to be the newest black cast member of SNL. It was obviously an opportunity that may or may not have catapulted him into the big time but it would have certainly raised his profile, if he had been able to hold onto the gig.  The problem, as I remember the story, was that Charlie was functionally illiterate and when rehearsals began for the new season, it became painfully clear that Charlie would be unable to keep up with last minute script changes or more importantly be able to read unrehearsed lines straight from the cue cards. That is why Charlie lost his gig and was replaced by another black kid, this one from Long Island, by the name of Eddie Murphy.  Eddie himself would soon be catapulted to the forefront on a night when the show ran short and Producer Jean Doumanian needed someone to fill the last few minutes of air time with comedy.  Eddie took the stage and did some of his stand-up unrehearsed, killed… and the rest as they say is history. A history that might never have been written if Charlie Barnett was able to read the cue cards.

Beyond Charlie, the Times piece also mentions my old friend Rick Aviles, who, while definitely an accomplished street performer did have a great act as Colin is quoted as saying and did work all over the country in clubs and other venues. Not mentioned in the piece is that Rick was also an accomplished actor having played significant parts in ‘Ghost’ and ‘Water World’ among others.

Rick Aviles

Rick Aviles

The piece also mentions Ronnie Shakes, yet another great comic who died young. Ronnie had done the Tonight Show seven times before his very premature death, well deserved credits, well worth mentioning again.  One comic not mentioned by the piece who I would nominate for recognition was Dennis Wolfberg who was also did the Tonight Show, wasa killer on stage and was starting to get more character acting roles at the time of his untimely death from melanoma in the mid to late 90s.

All in all it is a great piece that also puts the spotlight on Barry Crimmins, Bob Shaw, Marsha Warfield, Elayne Boosler and San Francisco’s Steven Pearl, all still alive, well and working.  Good for them. And good on Jason Zinnoman for covering them.


Corrections: The original version of this tale said SNL uses prompters. It actually uses cue cards.  (Thank you, Wayne Federman)  The original version also credited Lorne Michaels as being the producer. Jean Doumanian was Producer in 1981, not Lorne Michaels (Thank you, Joe Rocha).

Addition: The original version of this piece speculated that Ronnie Shakes had at least one, if not more, appearances on the Tonight Show. The total was actually seven. (Thank you, Jerry Stanley)

Covering Comedy

Sam Kinison on the cover of the first edition of ComedyUSA

Sam Kinison on the cover of the first edition of ComedyUSA

On April 1, 1986, I launched Comedy USA magazine with a party and live show at The Comic Strip in New York.  It was a magazine dedicated to rising stand up comedy stars and everything about their business. The conceit that made this publication different was that the people who produced it were also professionals working in comedy. Nothing bothered me more in those days than reading articles about stand-ups in local papers where almost without exception, jokes would be mangled and misquoted by reporters covering comedy as part of an entertainment beat rather than as a passion for the craft.


The idea was to give the magazine away to the growing hordes of fans filling comedy clubs from coast to coast, making money through advertising dedicated to those very same fans.  That was not my original idea. I was actually thinking much smaller. I was just going to start making phone calls to people in the business to confirm and get details on rumors I was hearing every night in the clubs and just kinda sorta become the comedy industry journalist. Eventually, with the entry of competition from bigger, more experienced publishers with deep pockets, I wound up reverting to my original plan in a last ditch effort to keep the enterprise afloat. And that’s how the original Comedy USA Newswire was born.

For those still around who remember that publication, it was low on style but long on original content. With the Newswire, I had created the “Variety” of comedy. It was unquestionably a “niche” but there was a dedicated community that seemed to enjoy it and get use out of it and I guess I could have kept on doing it had I not decided to focus on performing. At the time it was the wise decision that paid off almost immediately.  No sooner did I stop reporting on everyone else’s business in comedy than I started to generate some of my own.   I  finished in the top five of the San Francisco comedy competition two years in a row, decided to move to The Bay Area and wound up with an afternoon drive FM talk radio gig just months after getting settled.

But I digress.


Cover of an old ComedyUSA Newswire. Here’s a little inside dope: Max allowed me to put his ad up there to attract other advertisers. It worked.


The focus here is the Comedy USA Newswire and it’s progeny: The Comedy USA Industry Guides.
As I scan the comedy landscape in 2015, I’ve made a few observations. Almost everyone has a podcast. There are several online publications dedicated to comedians and the comedy business. There are aggregator websites uniting podcasts into networks. And there is a huge appetite for not only stand-up comedy but also for improv and sketch comedy, which admittedly I personally know very little about.  What I don’t see as I scan comedy on the internet is the structure I created in the late 1980’s that united the clubs all across the country in one annual directory as it also did with comedians and comedy professionals from coast to coast and around the world.

93 Industry Guide Cover

And so as I approach April 1, 2015, I am setting out on a journey to either rebuild that infrastructure, culminating eventually with the launch of a new ComedyUSA for the 21st century. Or I will fail by researching the project to death, talking with people who’s opinions I value and documenting those discussions here.

I believe I just read in Wikipedia that it was a Chinese Philosopher named Lao-Tsu, who once said:  “the longest journey starts with a single step.”  And it was Jackie Gleason, a comedy giant who said: “And Away We Go!”