Stand-up comedian and comedy writer Kevin Barnett, also known as Bird Luger, passed suddenly on Tuesday, Jan. 22. Memorial fundraiser shows were held at the Bell House in Brooklyn on Jan. 25. Neruda Williams, a friend and colleague of Barnett’s, wrote about the memorial and Barnett’s life for Paste.
I really didn’t want to write this article. I actually just wanted to celebrate my dude’s life and be with those of us who knew him. But unfortunately Kevin was such a good god damn person both Bell House shows were sold out. So I had to use Paste’s media credentials as cover to get in.
You may know Kevin Barnett or you may not. He was a brilliant comedic mind behind some of the funniest and most compelling work on television over the last few years—he co-createdRel, wrote for Broad City and The Carmichael Show, was a cast member on Friends of The People, and did so many other things. The name Bird Luger was born in New Orleans, when he was wearing a bird shirt, standing next to a bird painting, while holding a giant bird book. He was one of kind—a big kid, silly and unapologetically Black. Kev grew up in Florida originally and was a graduate of FAMU. I met him in NYC, in 2010, when I first started doing stand-up. He was already making a name for himself, I believe originally starting in Florida before moving to New York to pursue a career. When I first met him I was intimidated, not just because he was taller than everyone at the mic but also because none of it seemed to phase him. You could see the nerves in everyone waiting to go up, not sure if what they’re about to say on stage is well thought out or even makes sense. He never seemed to care, though. He always seemed to be in on a bigger joke that we were all missing. And that was the fun of being in his presence—you thought for a second maybe you too were in on this cosmic joke.
I remember vividly my last interaction with him. I was walking up the steps of the Creek and Cave headed into the upstairs show room. I had just sat around the open mic downstairs trying to kill time until the show I was on upstairs started and I was going up. As usual I had a scowl on my face and as I was entering the show room I see Kevin sitting at one of the dining tables with Ben Kissell and the rest of the Round Table of Gentlemen, probably after recording an episode of the podcast. I was going to just keep it moving. I never wanted to be an annoyance or a hanger on., so I always just kept my head down and did my thing. Kev noticed, like I think he did all the time. He said “Sup, Neruda.” I was caught off guard for a second then I said “what up Kev.” He asked me how I was and what was going on with me and was just genuinely interested in my life. I was thrown off. Not because it was strange for him to talk to me but because I’m just so used to people in this industry being surface friends, passersby that have a shallow feigned interest in you so long as you can do something for them. And at that moment I was just a comic in my head and he was THE Kevin Barnett. But he didn’t see it like that. He saw me. The dude he knew from 2010. He never separated himself and never let his success cloud his perspective. It’s rare to find truly genuine people these days. In a sea of Facebook friends, Insta followers, cat fishers, and fakers, Kevin stood out and above most.
At 6:00 p.m. on Jan. 25 I hop in an Uber cause I’m always late. When I get to the venue there’s a line around the corner. I don’t have tickets, just a Paste Magazine bomber jacket, but I’m gonna make it work Like Tim Gunn. I get inside the venue and I’m told to speak to Andrew who I assume is a manager or booker for the Bell House itself. I introduce myself and explain that I’m covering the event for Paste Magazine and that I was friends with both the Lucas Bros. producing the show and also most of the comics on the show. He says fine, stamps my hand, and I head back to the show room. I walk in and it’s already packed to standing room only. The first person I see as I approach the back stage entrance is Joyelle Nicole dressed in what can only be described as Black Mistress Goth chic. Petey Deabreu was on stage talking about the Bronx, as he does. Backstage is filled with blunt smoke, as it should be. The hugs are tight, extensive, and meaningful. The space is filled with a who’s who of comedy, laughing, embracing, and remembering the wonderful life we all knew and were going to miss. On stage each comic, from Hasan Minhaj to Hannibal Buress, Ilana Glazer to Michelle Wolf, all spoke about Kevin and his impact on their lives to hilarious affect. At times it was hard to hold back tears even as the rumble of laughter from the show room rattled the green room.
The one anecdote that stands out the most to me was from Mookie Thompson. Though the name Mookie is usually a Black dude’s name, this particular Mookie is a white. He reminisced about the time Kevin made him say “nigger” in public, and how Kev then saved his life when a random Black dude overheard it. A perfect glimpse into what being friends with Kevin was like. He was always fun and didn’t take himself or anyone else too seriously.
Kevin passed away Tuesday Jan. 22, 2019, from a nontraumatic hemorrhage caused by pancreatitis. He was 32 years old. Coincidentally Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer at the same age. Whenever a comic dies it reminds me that in my ten years of doing comedy I’ve known more comics who’ve died than bangers and drug dealers I’ve known my entire time selling drugs growing up in Harlem, New York. The first comic I met who passed away while I was doing comedy was Mike Destefano. We met while I was hanging in the greenroom of Times Square Arts Center, a comedy club in, you guessed it, the heart of Times Square. I was waiting to do a check spot and my extended cousin Greer Barnes introduced us. It was 2011, and later that year he would die of a heart attack. Then Patrice O’Neal, whom I met a few times, died of a diabetes related stroke that November. My friends Jay Smith and Hiawatha Rutland would be next in 2014, then the legendary Gary Marinoff in 2015. Lorde Johnson in 2016, Joseph Rocha and Mike Jacobs in 2017, and this year we lost the great William Stephenson and, of course, Kevin Barnett. Comedy is a contact sport and it lends itself to an unhealthy lifestyle. The long late nights, bad food, drinking and drugging, are par for the course. Sadly it results in the early death of some of the most beautiful people. My condolences to those that knew and loved Kevin; in the short time I knew him he never ceased to bring me joy and I’m sure he had the same affect on everyone who met him.
11:30 p.m. and it’s getting late. The second show is in full flow, I’m finishing my beer, grabbing a couple of the weed candies on the green room table, and saying my goodbyes. As I’m leaving Nimesh Patel comes in directing a group of barbacks carrying boxes. He says chill for a second so I sit back down. As we talk he sees my Paste Magazine jacket and asks if I’m working. I reply yes, and he says that what it’s about, “Working and Bombing.” Nimesh bought us all Popeye’s Fried Chicken and biscuits.
We love you, Kevin. And we’ll always miss you.
Neruda Williams is a comedian based in New York. He is the founder and Executive Director of The Harlem Comedy Festival.