I ain’t black; this is a birthmark. And I ain’t gay, unless you got five bucks. I like Ronald Reagan ’cause he’s gonna bring back the good ole days—slavery, but at least I’d be workin’.”
With his swizzle-stick hips undulating and his face in a permanent snarl, Charlie Barnett, 29, stands on the street corner and batters New Yorkers with racial and sexual wisecracks. Next spring he’ll be assaulting the rest of America as “Tyrone Bywater, the badass nigger” in a movie called D.C. Cab (also starring Mr. T).
With biting barbs, Barnett has been hustling humor on the streets and the comedy-club circuit for the past six years. His career as a comedian started by accident when he accompanied a folksinger he knew to an audition. The friend, however, introduced Barnett as the act. “I killed ’em,” he insists.
Barnett’s wit developed in the reform schools where he grew up, a slightly built boy trying to joke people out of beating him up. His mother had a drinking problem, and his father was mentally ill, so Charlie was raised by his grandmother in Bluefield, W.Va.
A troublemaker, he skipped out of Bluefield at age 11, one week before he was supposed to enter a reformatory. Heading to Boston to meet his mother for the first time, he admits, “I was pretty hostile.” Then, at 12, his mother gave him the boot. Gangs, heroin, crime and reform school followed.
Leaving Boston at 19, Barnett drifted to New York City and into street comedy. A chance for big money came in 1979 when Barnett auditioned for Saturday Night Live. Yet he failed to show up for the subsequent reading. “I was too scared,” he confesses. “I read good, but I read slow.” Of the man who landed the role, Eddie Murphy, Barnett says, “I think I’m very jealous.”
Jealous he may be, but now that Barnett has signed a three-picture deal with Universal, he is brimming with confidence. “If you took Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams and mixed ’em together,” he declares, “you’d have Charlie Barnett.”