Standing Up: Bobcat Goldthwait salutes outspoken comic Barry Crimmins in ‘Call Me Lucky’
Robert Francis Goldthwait and his friend from first grade, Tom Kenny, made their standup debuts on one of the comedy nights at the Old Stone Mill in Saneateles, New York, hosted by Barry Crimmins. The deal was sealed over the phone, so Crimmins was slightly startled to see he had hired himself a couple of 15-year-olds. Nevertheless, being comedy-savvy himself (back then, he was a well-known wit and comedy-club proprietor in the area, nicknamed “Bearcat” because of his thick hair and mustache), the show went on with his protégés, newly dubbed “Bobcat” and “Tomcat.”
Kenny dropped the “Tomcat” and became the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, but the “Bobcat” stuck to Goldthwait, as did the high-pitched, quivering voice and geek persona that went with it until he tired of it himself and jettisoned it for good.
Turns out, what Goldthwait really wanted to do all along was direct, and to that end he made his directorial bow with a film he wrote and starred in, Shakes the Clown.
He followed that with a TV-flick in which he played a director, Windy City Heat, then a Sundance nominee called Sleeping Dogs Lie, and an intriguingly off-center Robin Williams vehicle he wrote and directed, titled (ironically) World’s Greatest Dad. Of late, he has busied himself directing TV shows like “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “Maron.”
Now, Goldthwait has helmed his first documentary, Call Me Lucky, and his choice of subject is right out of Androcles and the Lion: his comedic mentor, Barry Crimmins—the guy who started him down the showbiz path in the first place. And there’s more to Crimmins’ story than the righteously raging firebrand we are introduced to here.
In his prime, in newsreel footage, Crimmins tempered angry anti-war rants with fierce intelligence, fortifying his points with well-researched facts he twisted into cynical jokes. (“I used to say, when they’re not laughing, ‘Don’t worry, there are credit hours available.’”) It’s like watching a heated Jason Robards, Jr. in The Iceman Cometh.
Crimmins was vehemently across-the-board anti-war, but indeed there was something else pushing his rage: “Even if I’d not been raped as a kid,” he asides, “I’d still be opposed to needless war. If people say, ‘What would you do about World War II?’ I say, ‘Don’t start World War I. When was the last time you were upset about an archduke?’”
As a four-year-old, Crimmins had been repeatedly sodomized by the man escorting his babysitter. “My parents would leave, and he’d show up a half-hour later. I don’t have harsh feelings for the babysitter. It was probably her or me. She was a kid, too.”
One night, by chance, Crimmins’ eight-year-old sister happened to walk in on the ordeal in the family basement and bolted up the stairs, with the rapist trying to grasp her foot (like, one might imagine, that terrifying scene in the basement in The Night of the Hunter). She was able to convince her parents—without going into any specifics—to switch sitters as soon as possible, and the incident was laid to fester.
“It was never anything I would keep secret,” Crimmins says. “I just hadn’t put it all together with my sister, and, when I did—and because I did—other corroborating stuff came out. I first discussed it publicly when I was in L.A. writing the Dennis Miller show. The Rodney King stuff went down, and there were demonstrations. Everybody was blaming all the kids for rioting. I said, ‘Kids come from somewhere.’”
Crimmins later wrote about his molestation for The Boston Phoenix, and The Syracuse New Times picked up the piece. “A social worker in Syracuse, who had a good idea who the guy was because of where he had been, got my number. Ten seconds after he was identified to me, I learned he’d died in prison the year before.
“I would have loved to have spoken with him—behave in a civilized fashion, in a large part, to demonstrate that he hadn’t affected me. I wanted to find his grave and put flowers on it rather than piss on it—just to show I was a human being. ‘I didn’t become you. I feel sorry for you. You had a bad life.’ I became a human-rights advocate rather than a perpetrator. I was lucky to have escaped all of that.”
Hence, Call Me Lucky, a title Bing Crosby also used (for entirely different reasons) for his autobiography. Given that childhood trauma, it’s interesting that Crimmins turned to healing humor for a career. “I had to turn several years of being a fuckup into research. I knew I could never work for anybody, so I got back into a corner and I said, ‘Hey, somebody give me a microphone,’ and I talked my way out of this.”
In the 1980s, Crimmins shifted operations to Boston and founded two comedy clubs, The Ding Ho and Stitches, where he could perform as well as present new talent. An old talent, Goldthwait, trailed him there after he turned 18 and solo comic.
“I’d always wanted to make a movie about Barry,” says Goldthwait. “I didn’t think of a documentary because I didn’t feel like having Barry relive all those events. I just always thought it would be a traditional narrative with someone else playing him.”
He liked to tease Crimmins that he could see Moe Howard doing the part, but in truth he was writing the film with someone else in mind: “Robin Williams was my best friend, and he was a fan of Barry’s. He knew Barry’s story and that I was interested in making this movie, but I was frustrated in writing the script. Two Februarys ago, Robin suggested just doing it as a doc, and he gave me the initial money to start filming the movie. That made us pull the trigger and we got going. Then MPI, the company that is putting it out, came up with the rest of the budget.”
Comics whom Crimmins first gave a hand up filed forth with sterling testimonies on the man and the comedian: Kevin Meaney, Paula Poundstone, Steven Wright, Marc Maron, Margaret Cho, Patton Oswalt, Lenny Clarke, David Cross—and Tom Kenny.
The most moving segment is with Crimmins’ sister, Ginny, who is caught off-guard on camera and asked about that indelible nightmare from her youth. “I didn’t want to skew anybody, so I just said, ‘Bob is making a movie about me.’ I didn’t tell her because I just wanted her to tell the truth, to tell what the story was, and she did.”
Goldthwait was rattled by the sequence but had no trouble defending it: “I thought it was key that she was in there because people want to discredit adult survivors. We had to have someone bear witness to Barry’s story. My daughter is always uncomfortable with that scene, but I’m very glad that it is in the movie. The events that happened in their childhood and in the movie show his sister’s heroic nature.”
Equally heroic (and then some) was Crimmins’ decision to return to the scene of the crime. “He basically insisted he was going to go there and I could film it or not,” says Goldthwait. “That’s why that scene’s in there. My daughter squirms because it looks like I forced my buddy, but I was always concerned about him going through shock.”
Crimmins seconds that. “Throughout the film, whenever the choice was between what would be good for his movie or good for me, he chose me—I had to watch him on that, in fact—but in this case, I wasn’t going to give that place any kind of power.”
It was his first time as an adult in that basement, and it was painfully the way he remembered it. “The stairwell is what the picture in my head was. They haven’t changed it. It was the same color. Bob got a good shot of me staring at the stairs.”
Following his own breakdown and eventual breakthrough, Crimmins started helping others traumatized by child abuse. In the Internet’s infancy, he stumbled across an AOL chat room catering to kiddie-porn enthusiasts and took the case to the Senate, causing the site to be shut down and leading to pedophile prosecutions.
“I learned how to operate in a state of shock,” he reflects. “A lot of people couldn’t have sat through that stuff I did on AOL, but I know how to operate in a disassociated condition. I know how to function so I seem like I’m there when it’s like most of the factory has shut down. I wasn’t at all disassociated when I was in front of Congress, because I was representing those kids. I got a huge benefit out of that, because it’s the most major part of my feeling. When you deal with something like this, it’s like an anvil has been taken off your solar plexus and the wind is whistling through you.”
Goldthwait has a cinematic word for Crimmins’ one-man stand against corporate AOL in the Senate. He calls it Capraesque. “Part of telling Barry’s story was the fact that he was always this gruff guy with anger, so it has been interesting to me to see this shift in him where, after he had done the work to help others, some of the rage went away, and the other rage was aimed a little more perfectly at the right targets.
“I hope Call Me Lucky is part of a broader discussion about this topic. If we’re just a small piece of helping people discuss it, this would be a wonderful byproduct. On a more personal level, Barry and I have been to a lot of festivals and screenings, and we’ve had so many adult men come up and, for the first time, tell of their abuse.”
Not an easy thing to do, insists Crimmins. “If you take your eye off the issue, it serves the perpetrators by continuing to allow the victims to believe they’re somehow complicit. It’s easy to place the blame and responsibility on a child. ‘You did this, too. Your whole family is going to die.’ That, literally, is happening to someone right this second. That’s why I’ll get a little hot if someone says, ‘You know, you admitted you were abused.’ I didn’t admit anything. I disclosed. I testified. I did not admit anything because that makes me complicit. Guilty people admit. You don’t say, ‘Oh, he admitted he got held up at gunpoint.’ You don’t admit you got raped. You disclose—first up, because it’s nothing for you to be ashamed of and, secondly, because the more people that come forward, the more people will know that somehow their lives are being touched by people who went through the kind of thing I went through as a child. And you might be a little kinder to everybody if you see someone who’s behaving in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you. If you can figure out where they’re coming from, you can always get the source.”