Mark Twain's dictum “Humor is tragedy plus time” has repeatedly been restated as the formula “Tragedy plus time is comedy.” Filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait shows how tragedy plus time is activism as well, in Call Me Lucky, his documentary about comedian Barry Crimmins, opening in San Francisco today, Aug. 14. Making use of interviews with famous comics (David Cross, Margaret Cho, Patton Oswalt, Marc Maron, Steven Wright) and others (singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, activist Cindy Sheehan) Call Me Lucky reveals Crimmins as a cantankerous boozehound with a heart of gold.
Like Twain, he honed his humor into sharp satire, targeting two ultimate goals: “I’d like to overthrow the government of the United States, and I’d like to close the Catholic Church.”
Given his stated desire for excommunication, it may not come as a surprise that Crimmins was once an altar boy. He cannily repelled the advances of a pedophile priest years after undergoing a scarring series of events. His wrath toward authority figures and call for justice formed the foundation for his comedy, and as he was developing his voice, he nurtured many fellow talents along the way.
Crimmins is rightly acknowledged as the godfather of the Boston comedy scene of the early ‘80s. His burly, Black Irish looks and surly manner earned him the nickname Bearcat when he first started performing and producing standup comedy in Upstate New York in the late ‘70s. That’s when Bob Goldthwait and Tom Kenny (the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants) approached him for stage time, introducing themselves as Bobcat and Tomcat in mocking tribute.
“He didn’t know we were in high school until he saw us,” Goldthwait said. “But he thought we were funny.”
Kenny, a Woody Allen fan, would talk to an imaginary therapist onstage. Goldthwait tried to emulate Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman. “Sometimes, props were involved,” he admitted.
And what was Crimmins’ influence on them?
“It was important to be original.” Goldthwait shrugs off Crimmins’ early generosity to the copycat rookies with a laugh. “Guess he had a lot of time to kill onstage.”
Following their high school graduation in 1980, Bobcat and Tomcat followed Bearcat to Boston, where Crimmins had launched a comedy club at the Ding Ho, a Chinese restaurant. Goldthwait continued to subvert audience expectations and never played by PC rules.
“I don’t feel censorship, I’ve always had to deal with people disgruntled by my comedy. People should worry more about comedians who are rapists,” Goldthwait said, laughing.
Crimmins helped found another Boston comedy club, Stitches, and he and his friends started attracting television and film offers. Crimmins racked up TV writing gigs and appearances, and recorded “Strange Bedfellows,” an album featuring himself and three other political satirists — Ding Ho alums Jimmy Tingle and Randy Credico, and San Francisco favorite Will Durst.
But the raised profile did nothing to alleviate the painful secret he’d carried from childhood. Performing at a benefit for the Southern Poverty Law Center at Stitches in 1991, Crimmins shocked the crowd by unexpectedly revealing that at age 4, the boyfriend of his babysitter's mother had brutally, serially raped him.
After confronting his childhood trauma, Crimmins sought out other childhood sex abuse survivors on the Internet to aid in his recovery. What he encountered in AOL chat rooms could have re-traumatized him: Crimmins unearthed a destination for pedophiles to traffic child pornography. This ugly reality spurred him to take action.
Crimmins went online pretending to be a child in order to lure the perps.
“Sitting in chat rooms took stamina,” Crimmins said. At least.
Crimmins diligently gathered evidence to present, but didn’t make any headway until 1995, when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on child pornography in AOL chat rooms.
“It was a release to testify at that point,” Crimmins said. “My government was hearing my complaint.”
Crimmins’ complaint led to necessary policy changes in AOL chat rooms and marked the first instance when online evidence would be used to arrest and prosecute pedophiles. His hard-won victory fortified Crimmins to take on more causes.
Goldthwait describes Crimmins’ life as “a great, courageous, heroic story” that needed to be told.
“That’s what motivated me, a political satirist affected people, then battled with AOL at Senate hearings, embarrassing them,” Goldthwait said. “I originally thought someone would play Barry. I didn’t want Barry to relive events.”
Finally, it was Robin Williams who convinced Goldthwait to tell the story as a documentary, and provided seed money. And it was Crimmins who insisted on going back to the scene of the crime, to face his past in the basement of his family home, on film.
Nominated for Sundance’s grand jury prize, and garnering more film festival accolades along the way, Call Me Lucky transcends being a mainstream valentine to a beloved figure. Crimmins may not be a household name, but he mentored and inspired many famous stand-ups.
According to Goldthwait, “Barry’s the most successful man I know.” Lucky, too.