In recent years, Bobcat Goldthwait has displayed a gift for making light of the darkest of human behavior, but when it came to the story of his friend and mentor Barry Crimmins, he didn’t know the best way forward. All he knew was it was too good not to tell.
If nothing else, his first documentary “Call Me Lucky” feels like a revelation since Crimmins has been one of the comedy world’s unheralded greats for years – a comic’s comic who doesn’t tell jokes so much as wield cutting political commentary that illuminates the absurd. (As one friend says in the film, he has the rare gift of becoming “more articulate the angrier he gets.”) Yet he didn’t just bust down doors for himself, but for a slew of other rising talent, including Goldthwait, during the early ‘80s when he opened The Ding Ho in Boston, a club inside an old Chinese restaurant that served up the likes of Steven Wright, Marc Maron, Lenny Clarke, Denis Leary and Kevin Meaney.
That would be reason enough for Crimmins to be celebrated on the big screen. But as the film bounces between friends and colleagues reminiscing about the volatile funnyman’s heyday of hellraising onstage and visiting him in the present day, his passion for political change unabated yet living a quiet life in a snowy remove in upstate New York, something doesn’t quite add up, leading Goldthwait to reveal the even more extraordinary things Crimmins has done away from standup. If you’re unfamiliar with Crimmins, it would be wise to simply see “Call Me Lucky” before reading any further, but needless to say, Goldthwait has continued his streak of turning the lens on ferociously funny and daring subject matter, finding in his friend and mentor someone whose training and patience as a comedian made him an exceptionally effective activist for a cause few want to discuss, and whose compassion seems to have rubbed off on Goldthwait as much as his wicked sense of humor.
During an all-too-brief conversation on the eve of the film’s release, Crimmins and Goldthwait spoke about going right to the root of the crime that set Crimmins on a path towards helping others — a rape that occurred when he was barely out of the crib, and how the film was structured to reflect his unique voice.
Why was this the right time for you to do this?
Barry Crimmins: Healing is a long process. I’d become better at discussing this – over 20 years experience of going public about this, so I’m very comfortable talking about stuff. And I really believe what I say. I wasn’t complicit in the crimes committed against me. People say, “Oh. You admitted that you were raped?” Think about how stupid that sentence is. Do you “admit” you’re held up, or hit by a car? I was a crime victim, period. I really know that stuff pretty well. I also know that talking about it in a way that’s not hysterical, but can be pretty proud and emotional at time, is important. That shows others that it can be done. I implicitly trusted Bob with my life. I just handed it to him.
Bobcat Goldthwait: I just said,”Hey Barry, can you give me a list of everybody that I could talk to?” Then he would hook us up. He did a great job of not looming, but at the same time, opened up his whole life to me. His family – that’s a biggie for anybody, and here we’re dealing with trauma and abuse, and he says [nonchalantly], “Oh, here’s my mom’s number.” Oh, my God. What were we thinking?
Barry Crimmins: Well, my mother’s cool.
Bobcat Goldthwait: No, I love your mother, but I mean, just me saying to you, “Hey, is it okay if I talk to your mom about you?” I’m talking about anybody.
Barry Crimmins: Most people have. She’s 90.
Bobcat Goldthwait: No. I think your mom was a card. I love the dynamics of her, and then you guys together. I could have cut something for the Hallmark Network. It could have been a series.
Barry Crimmins: We’re not done yet.
While the film has interviews, it’s built around a central standup set by Barry. How did that structure come about?
Bobcat Goldthwait: It’s interesting because I had the structure in my head, but Bradley Stonesifer, my cinematographer, was the one that was lobbying for filming Barry to do a set. I didn’t want to make a documentary where there’s an end, you see him doing a set, and he’s triumphant. I thought I’d be using this material just to prove to folks that Barry’s still funny, and he’s still very relevant. When we got into editing, Jeff Striker, the editor and myself, realized that a lot of the things Barry said on stage really help [the movie] – he becomes his own narrator, which was great because I like the absence of a narrator in a movie.
Bobcat, was it a tricky decision to include yourself in this?
Bobcat Goldthwait: Yes, and that’s one of the fake things in the movie. There’s not a lot of things that are fake, but…
Barry Crimmins: Why was that fake thing in the movie, Bob?
Bobcat Goldthwait: [smiles] I’ll tell you why. I don’t really like Barry. [laughs]
Barry Crimmins: Never has.
Bobcat Goldthwait: No, why it it was fake because no one’s asking me questions, so I’m sitting there looking all earnest. “You know, when Barry moved to Cleveland…” No one [was behind the camera] asking me that. It was even funny. Bradley was like, “Do you need someone to ask you questions?” “No.” So I sat there and interviewed myself.
Barry Crimmins: It’s not bad, just because you know what the questions were. You knew what you needed to be filled in.
Bobcat Goldthwait: What’s interesting is some of the stuff I say in the movie, even though I’m not getting interviewed, I had never articulated it before. When I say that, [Barry is] like a family member. What he thinks of me is really important, and he loves me unconditionally. I had never articulated that. It turns out that I’m a really good interviewer. I cracked myself.
Barry Crimmins: I know that feeling.
Did going to the physical locations from Barry’s past help summon memories? In particular, I can see how it was necessary, but the sequence in the basement where Barry was raped must’ve been a difficult decision.
Bobcat Goldthwait: Barry and I had a big argument. I didn’t want him to go into the basement. The reason we were filming at that house was because I I wanted to just show these spaces. I didn’t want to do any reenactments.
Barry Crimmins: Neither did I. Jesus. I would’ve been testifying in front of the Senate again, if you had. [laughs] That is a tough casting job there. But [with] Bob, there wasn’t one time in the filming of the movie, when if the choice between my well-being and his movie, that my well-being didn’t come first. That’s why we had these reverse arguments [where] you would think a director would want me to go in the basement, and you’d think I’d say, “God, I’m not going in there.” It was the opposite. I’m no moviemaker, but I was pretty sure that was going to be a moment in the film.
Bobcat Goldthwait: Barry’s thing is “You go through a problem, not around it.” He said, “I’m going into that basement. You can film it or not.” That’s why it looks different than the rest of the movie. I was like, “Can you give 5 minutes to set up the cameras?” The camera spun around to catch him going down the stairs. As a filmmaker, I [feel it] addresses the thing, where some people might think Barry still has some residual [anger or pain], that he’s still recovering. To me, that just shows how far he’s progressed. He’s actually shutting the door on it.
Barry Crimmins: It’s weird, but you can be overly dramatic about this stuff. It’s already dramatic. You don’t have to hem it up. I didn’t have to turn this very crazy, sick, and dangerous person who harmed me into some supervillain who could imbue basement walls with evil. It was just a basement. There’s other kids that had been there. There’s other kids that are going to be there. I wasn’t going to think about that place my whole life.
But I had to go. I had no choice when I was kid. If I could survive that as a kid, I could at least go down there as an adult and, among other things, take the onus off the place. It’s an amazing moment in the movie to me. Nobody knows the story like I do, but to look at those stairs, it’s always something to me. As I say in the movie, “We shouldn’t build temples to demons.” That person [who attacked me] had a terrible life. He compulsively had to commit these awful crimes, had to be segregated from society. He served several prison terms, and died there for doing what he did. He came up in foster homes. I’m sure he suffered hate, similar to the one that I had as a child, or injuries similar to the 1 that I had. In this 1 way, bad for him and everybody else is that ruined. That sick, insane, and dangerous. What a terrible way to live.
For whatever reasons, I didn’t become a monster. I became a human rights activist instead. It’s just good fortune that I don’t carry around hatred, toxicity to poison, and revenge. And right now, we’re talking about this, but in a month or so, we’re going to be done with this part of it and I get to go back in my life and not have everything be about me all the time. You can’t take life so personally, you’re just in it. I can go back to being in life. I got a life. I’ve had life. I have life left.
I almost died when I was four years old from what happened, but I made it. I’m incredibly fortunate. I’m not afraid of walking into a basement. If I had not walked in there, it would have given him power. Instead, I walked out of there with more power. It was good for the movie too.
“Call Me Lucky” opens on August 7th at the IFC Center in New York, the Angelika at Washington DC, the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles and the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin, Texas. A full schedule is here. It will be released on August 21st on Vudu, Amazon and iTunes.