He wasn’t from Boston, but Barry Crimmins accomplished more in the 1970s and 1980s to make the metropolitan area an artistically and financially profitable hub for comedy than any comedian, booker or club owner.
He wasn’t Nicaraugan, but Crimmins traveled there to perform for the Sandinastas and rail against then-President Ronald Reagan, at a time when comedians just didn’t do that sort of thing. He’d do the same thing a generation later, standing with Cindy Sheehan outside then-President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch to protest America’s invasion of Iraq on false pretenses.
He was abused as a child, though, and he did more to spread awareness about the threat of pedophiles in real life and online during the Internet’s early Web era, testifying before Congress. All of this was documented in the poignant and beautiful film about his life, Call Me Lucky, released in 2015 and directed by one of the comedians he most directly inspired, Bobcat Goldthwait.
Crimmins died Wednesday from cancer. He was 64.
Crimmins and Goldthwait sat down with me a few years ago to talk about how they met in their native upstate New York, how Crimmins decided to move to Boston and start a comedy club inside the Ding Ho restaurant in Cambridge, and also opened Stitches in Boston, paid the comedians and kickstarted a creative explosion in stand-up comedy there (documented in another film, When Stand Up Stood Out).
His last couple of years were perhaps as headline-making and roller-coastery as his first
After Call Me Lucky premiered at Sundance, he went on tour, eventually making his first and only stand-up comedy special, thanks to Louis C.K. As Crimmins told me in 2016, CK had reached out to him on the night of his film’s Sundance premiere. “I want people to know about you.” Crimmins recalled him saying. Crimmins said he was glad in the end to wait until 2016 to film his stand-up for posterity. “This special would have been shot before I had an awareness and done a lot of work on my issues, so I’m glad for that, too,” he told me. “At the time, my act was about taking a break for every downtrodden person, and then when it turned out I was one of them,” he said, “I chose not to be a hypocrite about it and my work is better for it.”
Whatever Threatens You filmed and released that year on LouisCK.net, where CK wrote:
Barry Crimmins’s special was shot in Lawrence, Kansas in July 2016. I produced and directed the special; this is not a thing I usually do but Barry is one of my favorite comedians of all time. He is a rarely intelligent and hilarious political satirist and obviously this being an election year it’s a particularly good time to hear what he has to say.
When I started out in the clubs in Boston, Barry was one of the Titans. One of the great comics of the time and he was singularly responsible for fostering a massive standup comedy scene in Boston that begat some of the best comedians of the last 35 years.
Most importantly, Barry is hilarious and brilliant.
A lot of comedians fall into categories or clusters but I’ve never seen what Barry does repeated anywhere. He has an approach to American life, American leadership and the people here and where we have been and where we are headed and why we do what we do that just blows me away.
I think that his comedic voice is essential. That’s why I made his special.
Not long after that, Crimmins was seriously injured in a car accident while on tour. He also had fallen in love with and married Helen, who was diagnosed herself with stage-four non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Just this January, Crimmins revealed he, too, had cancer.
But none of this stopped him.
Barry and I last spoke in 2016.
“I probably don’t idealize it as much as a lot of people do, because I had to do a lot of the work. The Ding was a great place, it was a wonderful moment,” Crimmins recalled to me in 2006. “We really put Boston comedy on the map. But we also created a lot of innovations. We booked people in advance. We at least let them know how much they could make…if not more…they could live and survive and become professionals. Being a comedian is a great job, but it’s a stupid hobby. It’s a horrible hobby. Especially for the comedians who have to hang around the hobbyists.”
Crimmins joked and fought til the end. On Feb., 19, he wrote to friends and fans: “Update: doing well. I love you all. Spectacular friends continue to astound me with kindness. Ane then there’s the greatest wife ever. What a life! So much class and decency at a time when a classless cur allegedy leads us. I get mine at home. Big love to all. It’s the key.”
Please use your First Ammendment right to join me by freely saying: Fuck Guns. Fuck the NRA. Fuck paranoid clowns whose "hobby" threatens innocent lives and domestic tranquility. Fuck the Second Amendment.
— Barry Crimmins (@crimmins) February 20, 2018
In a joint statement, the Trump Administration and Russians have denied collusion.
— Barry Crimmins (@crimmins) February 21, 2018
A week ago, his wife updated her GoFundMe page which raises money to cover her own medical bills to notify us about Barry’s illness.
— Helen Crimmins (@hcdarling) February 13, 2018
I’m happy to report that I have been getting better, but I am absolutely devastated to report that Barry now faces his own cancer diagnosis (the #1 reason for my delayed response). Thankfully, his health insurance through the Writer’s Guild kicked in on January 1st, so we are both receiving the best care possible at a significantly lower cost.
For now, we are enjoying each other every day and are incredibly grateful for the friends we have helping us navigate all of the madness.
While I don’t wish this on anybody, there are times when I can’t help but think that there are individuals who deserve this rather than us. The only reason Barry didn’t see a doctor right away is because he didn’t have adequate health insurance and he didn’t want to rack up huge medical bills while we were already dealing with my huge medical bills. I lobbied for him to go despite what it would cost, but he had made up his mind to wait until he was covered. The American healthcare system really screwed both of us. Maybe the individuals who decided that profit over people was the way to go deserve this crap?
Thoughts, prayers, positive energy, etc. are all welcome. Questions, psychic predictions, a doctor who promises a miracle cure if you subscribe to his newsletter, etc. are not welcome. Anybody who needs the details about what is happening already has them and the other stuff is just silly and totally useless to all of us.
You can see and hear some of Barry’s fans in Britain who rallied for him recently.
Call us lucky, for we not only knew and were inspired by Barry Crimmins, but we still have the opportunity to carry on his legacy and his fight for justice and comedy, and sometimes justice in comedy, too.
Rest in peace, Barry.