Bobcat Goldthwait’s latest movie, Call Me Lucky, is about his friend, Barry Crimmins. Crimmins is both a seminal figure in comedy – a comic who managed comedy venues that became breeding grounds for other famous and influential comics (Lenny Clarke, Steven Wright, Kevin Meaney, Bobcat, etc.) – and a Capraesque hero, a childhood sexual abuse survivor who spoke openly about his own abuse and risked his health and sanity to warn lawmakers about online child porn and sexual predators in chat rooms.
The first part sounds universally watchable (a retrospective on the eighties comedy boom, how about that!); the second a subject most of us would just as soon avoid and stare at the floor. But the two are inextricably tied up in Crimmins’ persona, and Bobcat isn’t one to soft pedal the truth. He lays them out matter-of-factly in Call Me Lucky, introducing us to Crimmins the prickly satirist, and letting the abuse revelations do detail work. Most filmmakers would’ve led with the abuse part of Barry’s story, but Bobcat doesn’t have time for that. Abuse doesn’t explain Barry, but it is part of the story.
Doubtful anyone could tell it this well. Bobcat has a way of elevating bluntness to a sacred ideal, which allows him to go to the darkest of places without sensationalizing, and to memorialize comedy without the sanctimony that usually entails. As Bobcat says, “I think if people knew how little I care about stand-up comedy, they’d be greatly disappointed. As soon as you start taking comedy serious, I’m out.”
It’s become the hoariest of journalism clichés to say “While you may know him as the growly-voiced guy from One Crazy Summer, Bobcat Goldthwait is also an acclaimed indie filmmaker!” And yet, even after directing Shakes the Clown, God Bless America, World’s Greatest Dad, Sleeping Dogs Lie, Windy City Heat (the subject of cult worship among many of my friends), a bigfoot horror movie, and countless TV shows and comedy specials, it remains impossible not to mention Bobcat’s early rise to fame – the character, the guy who burned chairs, the public figure that was more schtick than person.
One of Bobcat’s most charming qualities is that he never tries to deny what he was in order to be taken more seriously, never pretends that the guy from The Fighter isn’t the same guy from The Funky Bunch. It may have even hurt his transition that he so stubbornly refuses to be full of sh*t. “I could cure AIDS and I still know that my obituary photo is going to be me in a police uniform or standing next to a talking horse.”
That same quality, not surprisingly, makes him a great interview. Back in January, I watched him perform in front of a small crowd in a Sundance bar, where he brought up the fact that in the past year, he’d gotten divorced, lost his best friend (Robin Williams), and broken up with his girlfriend on Christmas. And this, remember, was during a comedy show. “I’m a 52-year-old man and I live in a one-bedroom apartment,” he said, never afraid of things getting “too real.”
I figured Bobcat wouldn’t be offended if I brought up his rough 2014, and I was hoping he might even have a heartening update on the matter. Call me unlucky.
“Are things going better now,” I asked. Bobcat paused to think about it and answered “No,” then laughed. “I’m certainly hanging in there.”
That’s when I found out Bobcat had recently become friends with Rowdy Roddy Piper, who had passed away suddenly last week. Oops. Well, at least his movie is really f*cking good.
So tell me how long you’ve known Barry.
I’ve known him since I was 16, so I’m 53 now. I’ve known him almost all my adult life.
And at what point did you find out about his childhood?
Well, the same time he disclosed it to everybody when he was on stage at Stitches… [correcting himself] Actually, that’s not true because he told me before he did that. Because he says when he disclosed to me that the way I reacted was good for him because I didn’t act in shock or put any weirdness on him. I just was kind of relieved to… you know, now I knew the source of his pain, the anger.
And do you think that gave you more of an understanding of who he was or did it explain some things?
Yeah, 100 percent. Like, “Oh, that makes sense.”
Yeah. He also seems like he’s resistant to…
Yeah, but specifically resistant to using [his abuse] as a way to explain things about him.
I don’t think he wants to be defined by it because as he says he’d like to think that he’d speak up for social injustice even if this event hadn’t happened to him. I definitely think maybe that’s why he’s always stuck up for the little guy. I’m sure that had something to do with it.
At what point did you make the decision to withhold the abuse stuff from the first half in the movie?
Well, I think tonally I kind of suggest that something. I hope that tonally it doesn’t come completely out of left field. But I wanted folks to learn who he was before. Because, I almost feel like if this was on television, I would have started with that.
If this was 48 Hours, it would have been “RAPED AT FOUR: BARRY CRIMMINS,” that would have been the first thing. Seeing that I was making a movie, I kind of wanted people to learn who he was and also relate to him. In all the movies I make, I don’t want to manipulate a crowd into feeling bad for characters ever in my movies, but I do always want them to empathize. I felt it was important that it would have more weight the events that happened in his life, the more the audience felt they knew him before this was disclosed.
I mean, in the beginning, it almost feels like just that part, it feels like it could have been a documentary on its own – about this sort of famous influential comedian. And then it sort of takes a left turn.
I think if people knew how little I care about stand-up comedy, they’d be greatly disappointed. [laughs] You know what I mean? There’s all these “comedy nerds” now, and as soon as you start taking comedy serious, I’m out. It’s like saying… “I’m really into monkeys, I love monkeys. I listen to all of those podcasts that they discuss monkeys on…”
On that note, I was listening to you guys on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and at one point you said something like ,”I was going up there gutting fish on stage.” And Terry Gross says,”Oh, I have never had that expression before, ‘gutting fish.'” Like she thought it was like some insider euphemism comedians used.
Yeah, like I killed [chuckles]. “I was gutting those fish!” No, I just gut fish on stage. You know, my earlier stand-up was always stuff was like that; trying to push things and wasn’t really concerned too much with people getting to know me. I just was more about reaction and less about wanting to be someone they thought was normal.
Out of all the early stuff you did, what do you think you’re most thankful that camera phones weren’t around for?
There’s a ton of that stuff. Although I kind of wish they were, because I think there’s really very little record of my night club act. So people think of that character and they think of Police Academy. They’re not aware of the fact that I actually had material. I don’t spend too much time worrying about what people think of me, because I could cure AIDS and I still know that my obituary photo is going to be me in a police uniform or standing next to a talking horse. I really…I spend most of my time just trying to make my next movie or writing screenplays and then and working and taking other jobs and perhaps just stand-up. Whatever it takes so I can just keep making movies outside the system. I love making indie movies and not having to get notes from people.
It seems like people are always trying to put you in a box as like ‘he’s the funny guy’ or he’s this or he’s that. Did Barry run into any of that when he was trying go before Congress as a comedian and get them to do something serious?
No, but I kind of and I’m just speculating, but I’m assuming that probably the AOL attorney, I’m sure he probably did his homework and was a little concerned about it. But I also think he probably thought he was going to be able to minimize what Barry had to say, and probably didn’t think– he probably wasn’t aware that he was going to get embarrassed.
Yeah, or he didn’t expect Barry to come up with notes, and timestamps and a million files.
Yeah, and just being so articulate. That’s one of the things I kind of like in the movie too; you see Barry react all different ways on stage, and when he shows up on that Senate floor you’re wondering, what’s he going to do? Is he going to tell the guy to f*ck off? You know what I mean?
So, I like that.
You hint that there’s abuse stuff in the first half of the movie, but a lot of it you sort of leave aside — I like that choice and I like the way you didn’t lead with it like you would with 48 Hours. Of course, whenever me or anybody writes about it, it’s really hard not to just lead with the abuse stuff [the way you deliberately didn’t do]. Does us writing about the movie f*ck it up at all?
No. I think it’s good. I think it’s fine. It’s not like a plot to it. It’s just, it’s just a way. If you knew the events and then you went and see the movie, I’d still want you to get up to speed on Barry and empathize with him before we get into the heavier stuff.
You’re not worried about it as a spoiler?
No, not at all. Not at all.
I thought you made Barry endearing in a way that didn’t feel forced. Were there any pitfalls? It could have come off sort of cliché, ‘curmudgeon with a heart of gold’ sort of thing. Were there any things you were trying to avoid specifically?
Yeah, thanks. I mean, I was trying to avoid them so… thanks, if it works. Some folks are saying, “Well, you know you have a lot of people heaping praise on him” [in the movie]. And my thing is, “Well, who should we heap praise on?” I don’t really feel like I was trying to tackle the definitive documentary on him. It’s really kind of like what I was saying. A lot of folks do need him, know who he is, what he’s about, and then tell the story of him dealing with abuse as an adult, and coming through it.
It’s not like a doc where, you know, it’s historical facts and getting it all. I mean the movie’s accurate, there’s no misrepresentation in it or anything dishonest. My favorite biopics are always ones where they tell the story through a chunk of someone’s life and not the whole life. I didn’t want to start the movie with a shot in the hospital, “It’s a boy, Mr. Crimmins!” and Barry’s dad handing out cigars.
There’s a point in the movie where Barry seems fed up with stand-up in general and the direction that stand-up comedy was going. Do you think it’s different now? Is there more freedom or less freedom in stand-up now?
Yeah, there’s more because before there was just only a few gatekeepers. You could get on the Tonight Show or maybe HBO and the morning radio would be the only other way people would be familiar with what you’re doing. So, the fact that people have access to post the material and do podcasts and stuff… I was making jokes about that earlier, but the good part of it is that — Eugene Mirman is an example. I really love Eugene. I worked with him. I think he’s special and he’s got a nice career doing stand-up, and he performs for the people who like him and doesn’t have to worry about regular television, things like that. So I think that’s exciting.
Like he’s not trying to get in front of Carson or whatever.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Which is really horrible because that meant that there was… very infrequently [mainstream exposure to] what the counter culture represented. And it’s like, Carlin and Pryor got through despite what they were saying, not because of it.
Right. I went to the show that you guys did at Sundance a few days before you screened the movie and you guys were just sort of telling stories. One of the stories you told onstage was about being at the Gathering of the Juggalos.
[laughs] Yeah, whoop whoop.
Whoop whoop! I was like..
[laughs] Did you embellish any of that story? I’ve been to the Gathering, so to me it felt pretty real, but could you tell us about that experience?
Yeah, wait – so did you go writing on a piece or were you just hanging out?
We went — we made a little documentary.
You didn’t do the American Juggalo, did you?
No, we did Whoop Dreams.
What is it called? Whoop Dreams?
Yeah, Whoop Dreams.
Is it posted? Is it posted anywhere?
Yeah, it’s on Hulu.
Good, good. [laughter] That’s hysterical. Is it about the following? [laughter] The young Juggalo following? [Bobcat dissolves into laughter and can barely talk]
We just sort of went to go, to see what it was like for ourselves.
You know the thing about American Juggalo makes me laugh, because that’s just in the day time. You know what I mean? [Editor’s Note: I spent three nights there. I know exactly what he means. Night time was terrifying.] I got in to the stage and it was crazy, it was 1:00 a.m. by the time I hit the stage. I’ve done gigs opening for Nirvana, and I’ve done shows for the Hell’s Angels, but the sense of… of… the possibility of being physically injured [laughter] was a really great threat there.
My wife at the time thought it was going to be funny and she said, “Oh, take the gig.” And then when we were there she’s like, “They’re going to think I’m one of them.” Because she has tattoos and stuff. I go, “You look like Zsa Zsa Gabor, are you f*cking kidding me?”
So she put her hair up in [another laughing fit] pigtails and stuff? She acted like it was a wildlife photo safari. I eventually thought I would get up there onstage and explain how magnets work. Yeah, I was going to say “When a negatively charged ion and a positively charged ion share the same space…” — I was just going to break down how magnet works and just explain that it’s not a miracle. And then when I got there, I’m like f*ck this, I’m going to do whatever it takes to get out of here alive. So I was just like, “Yeah, family!”
And did they like it?
Yeah. The show went really well. I mean that’s the flip side of it. It was just the absence of security and path to just drive… just the fact that there’s no light. And people were just lighting explosives. My wife was like, “What was that?” She was like “that was an M-80,” and I’m like, “No, man, that was like a half a stick of dynamite.”
I think when I was there I was riding on a bus and they were trying to drug the bus driver with Seroquel, crushing it up and putting it in his beer when he wasn’t looking.
Sure, why not?
Didn’t you have a story about Upchuck the Clown getting nailed with a full can of beer?
No, Upchuck got cracked right in the head with an unopened Fago. And it hit him right in the head. And he f*ckin passed out for a second. And he was like, “Dude, I’m hurt. I’m hurt really bad.” That wasn’t an exaggeration or anything. It was unbelievable. That was unbelievable. I mean, I’m still a bit of a hypocrite because I did go and did do the gig, but the other part of me was like, “What the f*ck?” You know? But here’s the thing, the reality of it is, more people know who I am at the Gathering at the Juggalos than know that I’m a guy who directs indie movies. [laughter]
I mean, is that — do you take that as a badge of honor, or…
I take it as, that’s just the way things are. To paraphrase the great Bruce Hornsby.
When we were there, it was Jim Norton, and he killed in front of the Juggalos.
Oh did he? That’s really funny. Oh, yeah, I wish I had known because I just saw him the other day, I would’ve talked to him about it.
He walked off with some girl who wasn’t wearing pants.
On your stand-up show that week of Sundance, you got pretty real at one point. You were talking about getting divorced and you were talking about Robin and maybe getting kicked out of your apartment or something?
No, but my girlfriend and I broke up while decorating the Christmas tree. That was brand new, too.
…Are things going better now?
[pause] No. [laughter] I’m certainly hanging in there.
It seems like you’re doing a lot of press for this movie.
Yeah, people like the movie and that’s a bit overwhelming. But not to be like a guy who’s just all bad news or something, but I was friends with Roddy Piper so it’s been a rough week, you know?
Yeah, it’s like, “Oh my God, when am I going to catch a break?”
How did you guys know each other?
We knew each other for probably like the last four years, we just became friends. And there’s a podcast of his I did, which I ended up being really honest on. It was really funny — especially if you cut-in footage of he and I from the ’80s, to think that we had this really heavy conversation. But we had a fairly heavy relationship. I liked him. He was a really good man, and he’s really kind.
Was the podcast called ‘Out Of Character?’
Yeah [chuckles]. It’s just like Emo, and Judy Tenuta, and Gilbert, and me. And Paul Reubens.
So, you said you originally planned Call Me Lucky as a narrative [fiction] film. Do you think if this documentary ever gets popular enough that they might want to turn it into a narrative after the fact?
Possibly, but there’s so many movies I want to make. After World’s Greatest Dad I wrote 11 screenplays, so I’m just trying to get them all done before I drop dead.
Well, I look forward to seeing them.
Thank you. [laughter] I’m glad you didn’t say, “I hope you drop dead.”
Yeah, I hope you don’t drop dead.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.