The History of Comedy: Five Who Might Have Changed the Game
By Jim Mendrinos
TWO DRINK MINIMUM Issue 10 June 2004

When looking back at a time you've lived through, it's amazing how much you remember that never makes the history books. Often, those that history remembers are not the performers and personalities who dominated the era. Having grown up as a comedian in the '80s, I can tell you there is a handful of brilliant comics whom time has forgotten.

Some were overlooked because they were the last generation of pure standups. They were artists not particularly designed to do sitcoms and movies, but rather were at their best with a mic in front of an audience. Some of these comics still tour, usually appearing in bigger rooms as opening acts. Some have retired or gone into writing. A few passed too soon.

Among those who died in the late '80s and early '90s, there was a core group that was solidly on the rise. They were dominant figures in stand-up comedy, especially on the East Coast. When you were booked with them, you knew you'd watch every show, because each would be a masterpiece and you would become a better comic just by watching them.

Charlie Barnett will be the most remembered of this bunch, but only as the answer to the trivia question, "Why did Eddie Murphy get Saturday Night Live?" "Because Charlie Barnett couldn't read." He wasn't smooth, but he was a performer you couldn't take your eyes off of. Sure, Barnett wound up doing TV and film, and he even did some headline dates in comedy clubs. He was great in whatever medium he was in, but in the park he was fluid. More then any comic I've ever seen, Barnett created a dialogue with the entire audience. Every face in the crowd felt like they were part of the show. Barnett would incorporate every nuance of an audience to give them the exact show they wanted. He never failed.

Rick Aviles was another such comic. He was a gravel-throated fast-talker who kept his foot pressed to the floor the entire time he was on stage. He was starting to make a name for himself as an actor when he passed, most notably as Willie Lopez in the film Ghost, but the true brilliance of Aviles could only be felt on a comedy stage.

The Bitter End was the stage where you most wanted to see him. This Village landmark still did comedy during the '80s, and Aviles was the king of Tuesday nights. Why wouldn't he be? Aviles talked about a young, urban culture, about kids scoring drugs in the park or having to deal with pigeons. He spoke about a life The Bitter End audience could understand.

Even more then the material, the audience connected with Aviles. He was a huge presence on stage: lanky, fluid and often supporting a stingy brim hat like he wore on his HBO special, Aviles was a master of control. Sometimes he would relentlessly pound the crowd with jokes, but at a moment's notice he would weave an elaborate story that mixed comedy and pathos. He was perhaps the best performer of his generation.

Ronnie Shakes was a throwback. His style was rapid-fire one-liners built around a theme, like a smoother version of Dangerfield. Every line was crisp; every joke perfect in both construction and delivery. Even when you saw him break in new material at Catch a Rising Star, it looked polished.

You didn't want to see Shakes in clubs; his act was built for television. He was the perfect six-minute spot: in short sets in front of a camera, Shakes' one-liners told stories. You were lured into enjoying the rhythm of his jokes and the cadence of his voice. The construction of each line could get repetitious at longer club sets, but on television he was perfect.

His first Tonight Show spot might be the best-constructed TV spot ever. Each line seemed to get an applause break. When he was silent between jokes, his twitches and ticks got laughs. There was a logic and flow that many comics have tried to mimic when performing on television, but few have mastered it. In a word, it was flawless.

Dennis Wolfberg was what many comics who came after him wanted to be: an all-around great stand-up comic. Wolfberg used vocal contortions, bulging eyes and short bursts of energy to frame some of the best-crafted material in the world. He was a consummate comic who, even after he became famous, frequently returned to the stage to work out new material.

More often than not the stage he returned to, and the stage that comics wanted to see him on, was The Comic Strip. It was more than a club for Wolfberg, it was a gym. He seemed to be putting new material through its paces every time he hit the stage. Comics would crowd into the sound booth or flood the balcony to watch him. Some nights there would be more comics than audience members.

Wolfberg was fresh every time you saw him. He kept himself interested by constantly bringing new material and new life into his act; you could watch him dozens of times and never see the same set twice. His love for stand up was evident every time he stepped on stage.

Bob Woods was not nearly as accomplished as the other comics I've mentioned, but he was a powerhouse, as well as one of the best-received comedians of his time. He was a huge man who did impressions that sometimes were so dead-on it felt like he was going beyond mimicking; he seemed to be channeling.

You wanted to work with Woodsie at East Side. You'd sit with him there at the bar and pound drinks while he held court and told tall tales. As the audience filed in, they'd greet him like they were welcoming a good friend. Woods was a walking party, and everybody in the audience was invited. The party may have just gotten started at the bar, but when he hit the stage it was in full swing.

Woods did impressions of both men and women. When you'd see a perfect Edith Bunker or Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies come from the mouth of this behemoth, the incongruity would floor you. Woods was a larger-than-life figure in the mold of a Jackie Gleason, and he was always fun.

Each of these performers had their own special way of being brilliant. They are united in the fact that they were each cut down in their prime. Though they may never be as revered as Hicks or Kinison, each left a legacy of laughter and comedy that can still be seen today, even by those who never saw the originators.

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