These days, Crimmins regularly tweets at the Pope, asking to be excommunicated. The centrality of comedy to American cultural and intellectual life--from "The Daily Show" to "Louis" to "WTF" to "Inside Amy Schumer" and beyond--has everything to do with the fearlessness of its best practitioners. Last week, the Friars Club hosted a screening of "Call Me Lucky," a documentary that comes out tomorrow, about the brilliant comedian Barry Crimmins, a cornerstone of the truth-teller comedy tradition who helped launch the Boston standup scene in the eighties, became its instigator and its conscience, and then, in the nineties, made a surprising and personal revelation onstage that changed the course of his life. The film is funny, shocking, and deeply moving; it was a big hit at Sundance, and it deserves to be seen. Before the screening, in the red-carpeted hallway between the Milton Berle Room and the bar, the movie's director, Bobcat Goldthwait, watched photographers take pictures of Crimmins, and he smiled.
Goldthwait, the veteran comedy writer and director (and a regular on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me"), is an old friend of Crimmins's. He is popularly remembered for his eighties incarnation as a squeaky-voiced nut--his wild-eyed, long-haired standup, the hapless Zed in the "Police Academy" movies--whose scared, weird way of talking was the sound of familiar human fears. Onstage, he would warble a terrified question--"Gosh, how come there have been so many airplane crashes lately?"--and then growl out a politically incisive answer. He expressed both an existential crouch and a howl of reason, an appealing position in that era. In junior high, I was in awe of his Bono impression, which I first saw on the MTV Video Music Awards: he slicked his hair back, threw his arms above his head, sang the "My hands are tied" bit from "With or Without You," and made us see ridiculousness that we hadn't yet articulated. His playfulness and observational acuity are on display in "Call Me Lucky."
Before the movie began, Goldthwait, who has a shaved head these days and wears glasses and a hat, stood at a lectern in front of the room. "Hello, everybody!" he said. The room was quiet. "Tough crowd," he said. "This is a movie about comedians, made by comedians. That means it's out of focus." People laughed. "No, I'll get serious. It is a heavy subject, but there are comedic elements to it. " He told the audience that, years ago, he had considered having his best friend, Robin Williams, play Crimmins; Williams was an early supporter of the project, and the movie is dedicated to him. Goldthwait said he'd see everyone at the Q. & A. afterward, and left through a pair of tall, arched wooden doors, shutting out the light. "Now we're going to lock you in," he said.
"Call Me Lucky" begins with a characteristic shot of Crimmins. It's a gray day in 1990, and he's at a Persian Gulf-related peace rally in Boston Common, curly-haired, rumpled, heavy-lidded, shaggy, and yelling about Henry Kissinger. (He later told me that he was in a green room with Kissinger once, and avoided being introduced: "I have a policy about not shaking hands with war criminals.") "They tell us it's not another Vietnam, and then they wheel out Henry Kissinger to tell us about it! What, was Goebbels unavailable that day?" he says. "Göring wasn't around?" He goes on, "Unlike the U.S. government, I have never supported Saddam Hussein. Nor have I supported the Shah of Iran, Sharon, Suharto, Chiang Kai-shek, Cristiani, the Samozas, the Duvaliers, Marcos, Batista, Diem, Rios Montt, Pinochet, General Zia, the Sultan of Brunei, Assad, King Fahd, Franco, Savimbi, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, P. W. Botha, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, or George Bush!" The crowd roars; Crimmins, breathing heavily, looks like he's just getting started.
The film introduces Crimmins in a succession of old clips--dark-haired and hollow-eyed, with a frown-shaped Meathead mustache--railing against ignorance and injustice while drinking, smoking, and whipping himself into a profane frenzy. These are interspersed with recent clips of comedians--David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Stephen Wright, Marc Maron, Margaret Cho, and others--talking about him.
"He was a guy who you heard about before you saw him," Cross says.
"Barry Crimmins was this weird mythical force," Maron says. "A judgmental sage of some kind that I didn't quite get." Cho says, "I feel like people should claim him more, because I think he has much more of an influence than anybody realizes." Friends and peers describe him as looking like Ambrose Bierce, Charles Manson, Fidel Castro, "a cross between Noam Chomsky and Bluto." Maron says that Crimmins was "troubled," "fragile," and "volatile." We see him explode at audience members. "Fuck you, fuck your family!" he yells. The crowd at the Friars Club ate this up.
Crimmins, who now lives in the woods upstate, says in a recent scene that there are a couple of things he still wants to accomplish, to "put my little tile in the grand mosaic of life. And those two things are, of course, I'd like to overthrow the government of the United States. And I'd like to close the Catholic Church."
Throughout, you can feel Goldthwait having fun, and we're having fun too. After Crimmins declares his two goals, the movie's title is shown over shots of the Pope being heralded by the masses.
Crimmins grew up in Skaneateles, New York, which, he says, means "beautiful lake surrounded by fascists." He talks about a despised priest who looked like Dracula, treated him cruelly, and also gave him the "pedophile shoulder rub," which he fought off with an instinctive elbow jerk. His sister talks about his early comedic ability, his habit as a kid of talking to their mother like John Wayne.
In his twenties, Crimmins hosted an open-mic night in Skaneateles. Goldthwait and his high-school friend Tom Kenny, who were in their mid-teens, saw an ad for it in the newspaper, with a photo of Crimmins, intense and hirsute, with the nickname "Bear Cat" printed under it. They started calling themselves Bobcat and Tomcat in spoof-homage, and they performed in the show. Doing that show and "getting the validation of this guy Barry Crimmins--that did change the whole course of my life, I think," Kenny says. Kenny is the voice of Spongebob Squarepants.
In the early eighties, Crimmins moved to Boston and started a comedy show at a Chinese restaurant called the Ding Ho. He booked people like Paula Poundstone, Stephen Wright, Denis Leary, and Goldthwait, and he was both blunt and supportive. As the years went on, he became an activist of sorts, travelling to Nicaragua to perform political satire about the U.S. government and the Contras.
"I sometimes feel cheap that I'm just up onstage making people laugh," Jonathan Katz says. "And I think he has always felt that way as a comedian."
In the early nineties, Crimmins's behavior began to intensify. One night, at the comedy club Stitches, after a long and scathing speech about American culture and politics, "a clearly tortured Crimmins suddenly shifted topics," a newspaper report said. He said that he'd always identified with victims, and he'd recently begun to understand why. As a kid--a sweet, happy kid, by all accounts--he had been raped by a man who knew his babysitter. "This guy would come over, he would take me down in the basement, and rape me," Crimmins says. It was violent and it happened a number of times.
In the film, his fellow-comedians, many of whom Crimmins had been strikingly compassionate toward all along--talk about the shock and sympathy they felt after Crimmins's revelation, and how it shifted their perspective. Later, Crimmins moved to Cleveland, and in seeking support groups and fellow-survivors online, he inadvertently discovered that there were chat rooms for pedophiles on AOL--a great many of them, categorized extensively. In those days, the Internet was widely unregulated; when Crimmins tried to alert AOL he found the company to be unresponsive. Then he contacted the police. In 1995, Crimmins testified about child pornography in Congress, using his superior rhetorical skills against AOL's director of government affairs in front of an audience that included Strom Thurmond and Russ Feingold. The hearings led to heightened awareness and a zero-tolerance policy for pedophiles on AOL; the police district http://scottygotanofficejob.com that Crimmins contacted has since made more than a thousand indictments related to Internet child porn.
These days, Crimmins regularly tweets at the Pope, asking to be excommunicated. The film reveals that his despised local priest had sexually abused many local boys; three of his victims, it says, have committed suicide. Crimmins wonders--if I'd been raped a few more times, or a few years later, would I have become an abuser myself? "Spiritually, I feel like I have this huge debt to pay," he says. He survived just about intact. That's why he's lucky. "I have some sort of a gift where I can convey things to people they don't generally want to hear about," he says.
Before the film ends, we get one final good blast of Crimmins's particular form of empathy. "You know who the biggest suckheads in the world are?" he asks an audience. "People who think they're clever by being like, 'Well, I happen to be politically incorrect!' And now you get to act like you're a cutting-edge rebel because you're reinforcing the oppressive status quo! You sack of fucking rancid horse assholes!" I've often felt this way, but I never knew quite how to put it.
Cross says, "He's a reminder that you have power."
Oswalt says, "We cannot surrender being the rude, funny, obnoxious truth tellers. We cannot surrender that. That's our best weapon."
"We have to take care of the innocents in this world," Crimmins says. "So tell the truth. Tell everyone the truth. Tell anyone the truth. People who can't be heard really depend on it."
When the movie ended, the huge doors opened, and Goldthwait returned, to a standing ovation. "Please, everybody, welcome my big brother, Barry Crimmins," he said. "And a brand new Friar!"
Compared with old footage of himself, the brand-new Friar looked healthier, calmer, grayer, kind, and a little haunted.
Goldthwait said, "It was terrifying to do a movie about someone you love. I don't know if it comes through, but he's not afraid to express displeasure."
During the Q. & A., people thanked both men, and asked thoughtful, respectful questions. Crimmins said that the current Pope--popular, populist Pope Francis--gives the Catholic Church a way to change the conversation without changing itself: he's a distraction from the church's history of abuse and its unwillingness to confront it. Then one question-asker, an older man with a bald head, stood up and asked the kind of left-field showstopper that everybody dreads. It involved "Moslems," "homos," and seventy-two virgins.
Goldthwait and Crimmins stared at him for a second.
"Well, you've hit on the real message of the film," Crimmins said. People laughed with relief, and Crimmins carefully laid out an articulate takedown of the man's world view, which ended in a satisfyingly lewd crescendo. Later, after answering other people's questions, Crimmins turned back to the man and apologized for mocking him. It was a moment of extraordinary grace.
Afterward, the audience members mingled in the bar. Goldthwait and Crimmins sat at a small corner table beneath a black-and-white group photo of Robin Williams, Chevy Chase, Quincy Jones, and Sammy Davis, Jr., and talked about their hopes for the film. Goldthwait said that he wanted to help "take the power away from the topic." People can't even use the word "rape," he said. That needed to change. If you can't talk about it, you can't deal with it. (Case in point: Bill Cosby.)
Crimmins said, "I would just like people to get in touch with themselves. And write the Pope."
"Hey, is that Tim Kazurinsky?" Goldthwait said. Across the bar, waiting to say hello, fresh from "An Act of God," on Broadway, was his old friend--Zed's pal Sweetchuck, from the "Police Academy" movies.
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