It’s a bit of a cliché to say that cynics are just frustrated romantics, but Barry Crimmins, as one old friend describes him in Call Me Lucky, is like a John Ford character made real — “a combination of anger and sentimentality.”
This begins a sequence in the film in which a cross section of Crimmins’ old friends from the Boston comedy scene (which Crimmins helped form, by producing a long-running open mic that featured a who’s who of future greats) all take their cracks at trying to sum him up. “Noam Chomsky meets Bluto.” “A combination of Ambrose Bierce and Charles Manson. ” “Will Rogers and Mark Twain.” “Audie Murphy and Abbey Hoffman,” go some of the descriptions, with Mark Maron calling Crimmins “A judgemental sage that I didn’t quite get.”
Crimmins inspires these attempts to explain him because he’s so obviously some kind of archetype, a guy whose outward prickliness seems rooted in personal compassion, a frustration with the world for not caring about other people as much as he does. Likewise it must be some kind of Murphy’s Law that the people known for being the most prickly turn out to be the most thoughtful (and vice versa). While preparing for my 8:40 am phone interview with the political satirist, I watched my phone buzz at 8:39. You might have to be a journalist to understand how rare an on-time interview subject is — especially when it’s a comedian, who, as a group are generally only slightly more punctual than porn stars.
It was a good thing, because we had a lot to talk about. Crimmins, a sort of legendary comedy figure for those (extremely) in the know, is having his Anvil moment. Historically underappreciated (“I have this real problem that’s hurt me in show business, I can feel shame and embarrassment”), Crimmins is being rediscovered by a wider public thanks to Call Me Lucky, Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary about him (it’s on Netflix). Louis CK is capitalizing on his sudden momentum to release Crimmins’ first comedy special (which CK also produced and directed), Whatever Threatens You, for $5 on his website. As CK said of Crimmins in an email blast announcing the special, “I am his fan. I love his voice. He makes me laugh. He’s always right. There has NEVER been another comic like him.”
Of course, with Crimmins, who was protesting the Iraq war before it was cool (during the first one) and has said his two greatest wishes are for the overthrow of the American government and the destruction of the Catholic Church, comedy is only ever part of the story. The last third of Call Me Lucky follows Crimmins, who was raped by a babysitter when he was four (he never softens “child rape” with a euphemism) as he testifies before congress, in a desperate attempt to get AOL to stop allowing users to trade child porn in its chatrooms. Few can match Crimmins’ reputation for not suffering fools, and no one was quite sure how the collision between the disheveled nightclub comic and the spit-shined corporate lawyers would play out. “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?”, Goldthwait described it to me last year.
Instead, Crimmins calmly, eloquently eviscerated AOL’s paid lackeys, casually taking a fat dump on each of their excuses. The incident illuminated a number of qualities central to Crimmins, namely, that he’s generally a lot more prepared than he looks, and that he doesn’t fall into many stereotypes, including that of the self-righteous “truth teller.” He’s upfront with his point of view, but he’s not exactly that political comic convinced he’s changin’ the world for the better with every quip. “It’s that narcissistic crap comedians do where they’re sort of like, ‘You know if all it takes for me to make this world a little bit better place is for me to stand in an elevated place with my visage illuminated and my voice amplified where everyone responds positively by laughing and applauding I’m more than willing to make that sacrifice,'” Crimmins puts it.
It’s one more way Crimmins refuses to be reduced down. He’s not a comedian because he cares, he’s a comedian and he cares. His best bits in the special combine that high idealism and plain-spoken honesty. Like my favorite line, Crimmins’ parody of anti-Middle Eastern rhetoric after 9/11: “They’re not civilized like us. They never go to a gas station for pizza.”
In any case, it’s nice to see Crimmins have some success. Because even beyond comedy and his legitimately heroic activism, perhaps the most positive example Barry Crimmins sets is that integrity doesn’t have to be fancy.
I hope I’m not too soon, but the thing is I’ve got a bunch to do, so I figured a minute earlier was better than losing it at the other end.
You’re my first interview subject to be early and I appreciate that, and yeah, I’m ready to go if you are.
Let’s go, baby.
All right. What did you think of Bobcat’s movie about you?
I thought it was amazing, and I’ll tell you, I know it’s done a lot of good just from the people I hear from about it. He’s supposedly making another one, you know that?
Oh I did not know that. What’s that one going to cover?
You know [Bobcat] kept saying he still wanted to make the narrative film and I, you know, we were at the film fest, and I kept saying, “Oh yeah, of course, I haven’t been examined enough yet.” Two days before I shot the special for Louis, Bobcat called me and he said, “Well, it looks like we’re going to take a crack at the narrative.” And I said, “Really? And who is we?” He goes, “Well I’m gonna direct it and then write it; you’ll help with that” and he said, “Judd Apatow is going to produce it.” That’s what those guys are scheming to do now. We’ll see. Believe it when you see it.
Are you worried about any potential creative conflicts?
Just with you and Bobcat disagreeing about any parts of the story?
No. We get along pretty well. This one should be called Call Me Greedy, shouldn’t it? I mean, it keeps me busy. Because having just finished this special I’d be sitting here figuring out what the heck is next to do next and now I know.
Were there any parts of the documentary that were hard for you to watch, like too much self examination?
Well, actually, I led them to people and so on and then let them say what they had to say, but there was certain conclusions drawn by people that I love. And then there were, you know, it’s just sort of “Oh this explains why he just does the work he does.” I would like to think I would have been opposed to death squads even if I hadn’t been raped as a little kid. I’d like to think not everybody else at the Anti-Death Squad Rally had been raped as a four year old.
It certainly informs me and has a lot to do with my dislike for bullies and oppressors and abuse of poor people, but I’d like to think that I would have been a decent person anyway.
Right. I mean Bobcat seems to like you a lot and think a lot of you. Do you think he had to try and make you seem extra curmudgeonly so that the movie didn’t come off saccharine?
Well maybe, I don’t know. I mean you know the thing about a lot of that footage of me, they weren’t there to shoot me, they were there to shoot other people. The one thing that people don’t understand about that, if you remember, I was producing those shows, so one of the main reasons I would go after hecklers the way I did back in those days was because I was responsible for inviting people to do those shows. So if someone was ruining a show or really messed with someone who I really liked that’s the context that we sort of didn’t have for that.
One of the main things that frustrated me about hecklers was my act is always — I got a bunch of new stuff and I’m always interested to see how that does with the audience and if I’m getting my point across. But there’s this natural drama that people feel [during heckler fights] because they think “Well what would I do if oh what if someone yelled at me?” That’s the big moment to them [not the bits]. Then when you handle them or whatever it’s still this big dramatic moment to them and it’s what they remember more than anything. You do all this work working on your act and then you’re remembered for dealing with the 10,000th drunk idiot.
Yeah. I mean is that one of the difficulties of comedy? That you get up there and you’re trying to make it seem like a conversation, but then if the audience actually believes that too much then they start talking back the whole time.
Well there are kind of people that come by afterwards and say, “I was just trying to help out.” These are the same kind of people who come by a brain surgery, “Hey let me give you a hand!” Meanwhile they’re picking their nose. Like, no it’s okay I got this.