Barry Crimmins on life after ‘Call Me Lucky,’ political correctness and the state of comedy today
Barry Crimmins won over audiences at last year’s Free State Festival, where the veteran stand-up comedian, political satirist and activist joined director and comic Bobcat Goldthwait for a screening of “Call Me Lucky.” Goldthwait’s critically acclaimed documentary chronicles Crimmins’ story of survival, from his brutal rape as a boy growing up in upstate New York to his later advocacy against child sex abuse and online child pornography.
The film also serves as a “testament” of sorts, Crimmins says, to the relationships he’s forged with fellow comedians over the years, as a peer and as an owner of the legendary Ding Ho and Stitches comedy clubs in Boston. Among the many now-famous funny people on his “Thank-God I was nice to that kid” list: Louis C.K. The superstar’s production company, Pig Newton, is set to produce Crimmins’ one-hour comedy special, for which Crimmins will return to the Lawrence Arts Center stage June 4.
Lawrence has treated him well over the years, and the comedy special (Crimmins has opted to keep prices low, at $10 for general admission) is his “thank you” to the many friends he’s made here — “It’s my way of saying, ‘I think your town’s the greatest.’ I mean, I just do,” he says. “I really do.”
In advance of the big night, Crimmins chatted with the Journal-World about “Call Me Lucky,” political correctness, the state of comedy today and way, way more insightful and provocative stuff than we could include here. Read on for an edited and condensed version of our interview.
What’s life been like since “Call Me Lucky” came out?
It’s been very busy. I’ve been on the road a lot, doing a lot of smaller dates to get my act together, because I spent almost two years on the movie before that. And in particular since “Call Me Lucky” hit Netflix, I spend a lot of time just sorting through mail and communications from abuse survivors who felt like, I guess, from watching the movie, that I was someone they could talk to. That takes up a chunk of every day. For the first several months (the movie) was on Netflix, it was a big chunk of every day. That’s now quieted down a bit, but it’s still a daily obligation I make every effort to try to keep up on.
Was that a surprise to you, to get that huge influx of messages from survivors?
No, because I’ve been public for almost a quarter century now. I wrote about this in the Boston Phoenix years ago and from that point on. I did the work exposing the child pornography trafficking on AOL, and that kept me in the public eye. I would continue to comment on things, including particularly the scandals of the Catholic Church. I don’t have scientific information about child abuse, but I have an incredible wealth of anecdotal information because I feel like everybody tells me everything, you know? I’m used to it. I knew before we did the movie that this would happen, but it still became even overwhelming for me. It just adds up. You add up five or six really tough stories in a row, and you get a little weary. But then when you hear from people you spoke to a couple weeks ago, and they’re gaining ground and doing well, you get a little shot in the arm. It’s two steps forward and one step back sometimes, but I’ve gotten better also with finding other resources for people and trying not to handle everything myself. But if anybody writes me, I really do try to get back to them.
Do you think we as a society have a problem verbalizing the word “rape” and what constitutes it?
Sure, we do. We really need to call rape, “rape.” We really need to describe what it is and we really need to be able to live with that. People who use the term “political correctness” all the time tend to be some of the biggest censors, even though they’re allegedly fighting for free speech. As Mark Twain said, “use the right word, not its second cousin.”
You remarked in the documentary — and have continued to discuss this issue since — that a lot of these people who pride themselves on being so politically incorrect regard themselves as cutting-edge rebels, but really they’re just reinforcing the “oppressive status quo.”
Well, that’s it. You’re this brave, cutting-edge rebel, and all you’re doing is what’s most convenient for yourself and your narrow view of things. I’m in the comedy business, and I’ll talk about this in the show, but it’s the guys who say, “The world used to be 99 percent based around people like me. Now it’s only 97 percent based around people like me. What’s up with that?” They lose a little tiny bit of work over it, and they’re all upset. I’ve been losing work for decades because of how I speak. I’m not calling myself a martyr over it, but I’m just saying that if their soap pollutes the river, they’re probably not going to let me stand on their soapbox.
What are your thoughts on the current state of comedy?
When I got into it, there weren’t very many comedians. I don’t know if there were 100 comedians when I got into it in the early ’70s. I mean, there are far more comedians in Lawrence than there were in the United States when I started doing comedy. When I was a kid, we all wanted to be rock ‘n’ roll stars, but it turns out you had to be able to do something. Well, there’s not that kind of a threshold for comedy. You just need to be able to think you can do something. I think there’s a problem in comedy right now, in that there are so many people calling themselves comedians that they’re really creating this sort of enormous mountain for the people with some real talent and making it much harder for the people with real talent to be seen and get stage time. There’s really good young comics who are getting buried in this, and that’s who I’m most concerned about. These kids go out and do open mic nights, so they have two minutes. When you’re putting your act together two minutes at a time, it’s going to look like a ransom note. In a way, it’s this huge vindication for those of us who got into it a while back and really sort of made it into something that other people wanted to do. On the other hand, it’s created a real economic crisis for the workers, because basically, everybody’s a scab. There’s a million people waiting to do what you do. It’s like Syria’s taking in comics now. It’s a refugee crisis.
At one point in your career, I think it was the ’80s, you said you were almost ashamed to call yourself a stand-up comedian.
What happened was the comedy boom came and really, at that point, the problem was everybody wanted to open up a comedy club but there weren’t enough comics. There were suddenly 600 comedy clubs in the country, and on a Saturday night, there weren’t 600 people that could headline a show, unless you allowed the headliner to be someone who used every hack premise and lowest-common-denominator thing. And that’s what they did. And the audience that digs that became the audience at comedy clubs. But we didn’t come with a laugh track, you know? It was like, “Come on, when are you going to talk about airline peanuts or women going to the bathroom in pairs?” I’d go out and play the clubs — and I’d just done the HBO young comedians special or something — and they’d put some local, real hacky act on in front of me, just doing all this crotch stuff and whatever, and I would follow and struggle. But fortunately when the comedy clubs got stupider and stupider, I got lucky — Jackson Browne took me on tour with him, Billy Bragg took me on tour with him, and Dar Williams, and I always went out with Steven Wright. And then I was able to develop audiences in these towns kind of free of the comedy clubs, and I could go back and play places like the Lawrence Arts Center.
Mark Twain once said, “the secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow.” Do you think a person has to go through immense pain in order to be a truly great comic?
No (laughs). And if I said yes, there would be people out there hurting themselves right now, so I’d better say no (laughs). I don’t think there are a lot of people in this life who don’t go through some sort of immense pain sooner or later. What Twain’s talking about is sort of constructing humor and not necessarily being eligible to write it or speak it. He’s saying that there’s a dark underside to things that generally the real strong stuff comes from. I agree with that. We all go through some things, but the idea that it’s necessary to comedy. … You could do the same (thing) with insurance salespeople and say, “Well, it turns out every insurance salesperson has been through some crap, which explains why they screwed you out of that annuity” (laughs). I don’t know. Maybe I should be smart enough not to even answer that, because I’m sort of a “see the ball, hit the ball” kind of comic and don’t take it apart that much, you know? I guess sometimes I know more than I realize, but I like to keep it that way.
Recently you tweeted about Jared Fogle and really spoke out about poking fun at the hypothetical situation of him being assaulted in prison.
I abhor all rape, and if I say it’s OK to rape this guy in prison, then a kid who’s in prison on a marijuana rap is going to get raped, too. And that just means there’s going to be more rage and more violence, and it means that I’ve OK’d rape on any level, and I don’t. It’s a horrible thing. I’ve been raped; no one should ever be raped. If I had my way, that would be it. Snickering about Bubba and the soap in the shower and all that crap — forget it. People say that to me all the time and really think I’m going to light up. They couldn’t be more wrong. I’m disgusted. I’m just like, “Why do you presume I’m in favor of rape? I’m not.”
Do you see any situation where it might be OK to joke about sexual assault? Like, for instance, if a survivor wanted to talk about their personal experience?
I think it’s OK to joke about the hypocrisy, the cowardice surrounding it, the injustice for the victims — all those things are good things to go after. Go after the hypocrisy, go after the cowardice, go after the institutions that cover it up, go after the rapists and facilitators, but the minute you get a snickering little joke in there about some child or some woman or man getting raped, you’ve lost me. You have a First Amendment right to do whatever you want. I have a First Amendment right to take you apart after you do it.
Speaking of using comedy to go after institutions, you describe your two big life goals in the documentary as dismantling A, the Catholic Church and B, the United States government.
I do (talk about) it as a peaceful overthrow, but that got left out of it, I guess (laughs). But, yeah. It just means I want to take down oppressive institutions that are not what they seem to be.
Are you any closer to accomplishing those goals?
In a way, the (Bernie) Sanders campaign is encouraging, and as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, I think the new pope’s job is to change the subject and not the Church. I mean, it recently came out that they’re teaching new bishops that it’s not necessarily their job to turn in (suspected abusers) to civil authorities, and I’m a big “render unto Caesar” man on that one. And he sent his representatives to a U.N. hearing on torture to assert that the rape of children, particularly by the clergy, is not torture. I disagree. I’m glad that he’s concerned about climate change. So am I. But he’s not doing anything to change the climate of the Church. He could really make a difference. There haven’t been any of the major fundamental changes the Church needs. I’m glad the guy pays lip service to socialism. If he wants to redistribute the wealth, he could give me the keys to the Vatican vault, and I would be happy to fly over to Rome and start helping on that front.
But I’m a heretic, former altar boy who was abused and humiliated on the altar every morning by a priest who hated me because he knew I probably wasn’t a good prospect to rape, so he was trying to drive me off every day. And he humiliated me in front of a group of people who, had they noticed or said anything, maybe someone would have looked into this guy and found out he was one of the most savage pedophile priests who has ever been documented. He was the guy who would orally rape little boys and tell them they had to swallow because it was like the Eucharist, because he was God’s representative on Earth. I know several people who committed suicide because of that priest, and there’s a lot more stories like that out there.
But we’re getting places. “Spotlight” won the Academy Award (for Best Picture). Granted, it was about journalism, but it won the Academy Award. Things are moving along.