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.
So Louis at the beginning of the special says that you chose Lawrence, Kansas specifically. So why did you pick Lawrence for the special?
Because it’s a really cool town. It’s always remained very progressive since back in the days when it was a hotbed of abolition — and they paid for it with the violent assault by Quantrill’s Raiders who came and killed every man and boy over the age of seven in the town. Except for one guy who’s wife rolled him up in a rug. Good thinking. That’s a good wife right there. It’s just this really very progressive town, but it also has this lovely Midwestern part to it where they’re very progressive but they’re still really courteous and kind and they’re not too hip to be warm.
What was Louis’ input on the special?
He told me, “Look we got time we can shoot stuff. Don’t be afraid to add the two or three extra jokes, you know, don’t pare it down as far as you think you should, but put a little more in. You never know when you’re going to get that extra thing.” That was a good portion of what he had to say. He trusted me.
Since this was like your first special that’s going to be out there on the internet did you feel pressure to include some of your better jokes even if they’re old just because maybe like younger people haven’t heard them?
Well if you write good topical material becomes good historical material. I mean for posterity’s sake I was happy to get some of it down, but I mean whatever. There was so much of it there that really a lot of that became Louis’ editing decision, so there’s some of it in there. Most of it’s pretty new. I certainly knew I was going to use some of the older stuff because it hasn’t been in a special yet. And I’ll tell you most jokes people come up to my shows and I don’t do them, they’re mad.
Right. It’s like a hit song. “Play the hits!” In Call Me Lucky there’s one part where you say, “There’s a lot of pain out there and comedy has nothing to do with alleviating it. It’s just a distraction”–
Well it’s just that old bullshit where [comedy is] the cure-all for everything. It just plugs into this 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.” It was just a short version of that.
Plus I just like saying it because you never hear anyone say it. It’s a switch. It’s a surprise.
Right. I mean comics seem to like being the hero of their own joke recently. As far as comedy, what percentage actually involves changing people’s minds and what percentage involves just a way for the like-minded to commiserate with each other?
Well first off I mean it’s both. I’ve had both happen, but you know this preaching to the choir stuff, I’ve found that the choir’s some of the finest people in the world and there’s no shame in giving them a shot in the arm when they’re out there sort of fighting the good fight forever against rather large odds. You can gather at a million jingoistic events where they’re flag waving and they’re feeling like they’re the highly most moral people in the world, so why can’t we do it as rabble rousers on occasion? Why can’t we celebrate the fact that we’re all right, and also why don’t give people some stuff to respond with? My biggest joke is, “People say if you don’t love this country, why don’t you get out of it? Because I don’t want to be victimized by its foreign policy.” A big part of that response I’m sure in particular from talking to people about it for years is, “Oh, I finally have an answer to that crap. Thank you.” So there’s this release, “Oh I can’t wait till he says that to me.”
You say you have this real problem that’s hurt you in show business, you can feel shame and embarrassment. What are some things that people have asked you to do that you’ve refused?
Well I mean they really almost know better than to ask but I mean they ask me to dumb it down, you know?
And I haven’t. Believe it or not, this is as smart as I get, kind of sad. Just a variety of things. It’s just stuff I see being done a lot. Like, there’s just some real hacky jokes that almost everybody gets pushed into doing sooner or later that I just try not to do. I don’t know. If I say what they are specifically maybe some friends of mine will read this and feel bad, so I don’t want to do that.
Also, I turned down a bunch of commercials early on. One place wanted me to do these pizza commercials and they kept raising the money, and I said, “Look I mean the original money was unbelievable to me, but I just don’t want to be in it.” My whole spot on the thing was I was going to be the “extra cheese” guy. I’m not going to walk through airports the rest of my life having people say, “Hey, extra cheese!” You can’t pay me enough money to get me to be the extra cheese guy, you know?
Looking back on it maybe I should’ve put up with the airports.
I mean that’s sort of the devil’s bargain, you know, like you’re going to work two days a year and get paid a million dollars, but then you have to be the Verizon “Can you hear me now?” guy for the rest of your life. Like have people forgot that part of the bargain because it doesn’t seem like that’s a thing that people talk about anymore.
Well it’s way different now. I mean you really celebrate it I mean rock and roll bands aim towards getting that commercial, but then again back in the day they used to pay you more. They didn’t use to steal everything you did the way they do now. They have people who have already been stealing the special. It’s five bucks. It’s my whole life. I’m finally going to get maybe a decent paycheck out of something if everybody just is honest about it. I just don’t get it. I haven’t stolen a piece of gum in my life. It’s not full of stolen jokes. It’s almost a generational thing where just people kind of think that all art is just in this buffet to be passed around.
Explain your decision to go without the handheld microphone in this.
In real life you talk with two hands, and I think it’s more effective that way. I don’t know. What did you think of it?
I was just thinking it seems like it would be scarier to not have it there with you, like a security blanket kind of thing. Also it seems somewhat “actorsy,” and you even talk about not being an actor, but that seems like a very performer kind of move.
Well first off when I talked about not being an actor that was from the old days when I hadn’t even dealt with my childhood stuff, so I was very self conscious. So I’m making a little sport of myself there. I know how to perform and again I just get tired of carrying that thing around and always having people get mad at me because I didn’t have it in the right place or whatever. Well just put a god damn thing, it’s 2016 have you got a thing you can put on me that will help? Beautiful. It’s just one less thing to deal with while you’re up there.
Do you think it lets you like go to longer points because it feels more like a one man show almost than stand up?
Well sure, it certainly is not restrictive in any way. I don’t do those stupid phallic mic jokes, never did. After that what do you need it for?
On that note, you use notes and I sort of feel like no one in the audience really gives a shit if comics have notes or not. Who convinced comics that the audience cares about that?
I don’t know. First off they learned it from watching TV where everybody always has cue cards. My act changes all the time, and plus I have a compartmentalized memory because of my background and so that’s it. That’s it.
Okay, politics. Is Ted Cruz the creepiest presidential candidate that we’ve ever had?
I think he was. Although Trump really made a run when that tape came out.
Historically, like who else would be in that conversation?
Oh my God, that’s a good question. Well Strom Thurmond would be way up there. Running for president on sending the blacks back to Africa in ’48. That’s pretty bad. Let’s see who else was creepy? I don’t know. Like Cruz is just so ultra creepy because he’s got this religious part in it. He’s like a religious Joseph McCarthy, so that’s really a deadly combination. I think both he and Trump are right up there. Let’s see… historically… I still think those guys. I think we’re reaching new lows as far as that’s concerned, I really do. When they play to their base, it’s real scary. I think that they were slightly more limited in the past. This has all been pretty weird, Democrats too.
Did you get any pushback for the anti-Hillary stuff? Also, how did the Hillary people get away with branding everyone to the left of her a “bro?”
Yeah I don’t know that part. I was busy when that happened, but it was weird. I get a little pushback [for criticizing] her, but I mean generally I just make the point, like, look, I imply if you’re in a state that’s close you probably have to learn how to vote while you’re holding your nose. As far as the bro stuff concerns, that’s a continued use of this phony feminist stuff. She’s just on the side of the patriarchy again and again and again, and she happens to be a woman and so I understand. So all I ever do is I don’t go after anything about her gender, but I go after her for, I mean, I don’t exactly consider Henry Kissinger a part of the matriarchy and she’s pretty tight with him.
I don’t think she’s against the war machine — I think you’re either with Mother Earth or Father Land. I think she’s with Father Land and I’m with Mother Earth, so that’s it. I’m certain that there are dumb asses who did go after her. I mean, I know I saw it. There’s misogynist stuff out there about Hillary all the time. But that’s not my point. That doesn’t have anything to do with it. If anything I’m just further on the continuum away from them then she is, that’s all. Again when you look at Anita Hill and David Brock, and what Brock did to her and so on… you know, it’s pretty weird. It’s just a shame because if Bernie had won I think he would be just trouncing Trump at this point.
That was probably the other problem. She’s never been a very good candidate.
On the other end, how do we marginalize Donald Trump without letting Republicans off the hook for creating him?
Well, I actually think we point out the Republicans have marginalized themselves by being involved with this guy who marginalizes himself. We’ll see what happens. You know never know. Never underestimate the stupidity of the American voter. However, it seems like if they just cross their T’s and dot their I’s they’re going to do away with this guy. And then the Republican party has a lot to think about because if you remember, it went into this campaign worried about a black and Hispanic voter. Now their plan is to alienate the majority gender. It’s pretty hilarious. They’ve really hit bottom, and they deserve to.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. 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.