Barry Crimmins will swear at you if you compare him to Mark Twain or George Carlin. But, when it comes to American political and Social commentary, this Skaneateles native is definitely in the same league. His first and second acts are legendary, but recently his life story has become a real page turner.
SYRIOUSLY: Barry, you started performing comedy in the late 70's. It's now 2017 and you are still constantly touring America. This week, you’re doing the Free State Fest in Lawrence Kansas, and you just did Moontower in Austin. You’re about to do the Boston Comedy Festival. This summer, you’re also doing the Latitude Festival in London and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. So my question is, what don't you find funny anymore?
Barry: Anyone discussing their genitals, bodily fluids, and generally the stuff everyone thinks of who doesn’t think.
SYRIOUSLY: Have you seen comedy evolve from back then to now? Is there a difference?
Barry: Sure, because there were still a lot of people sort of imitating that old, for lack of a better term, schtick, that had that sort of unbearable rhythm to it. There’s a lot more latitude now. On the other hand, it was less filthy then. I mean, I’ve just gotten to the point where I'm not that interested in, “wow, you like to have an orgasm huh? That’s fascinating." Forty-five years of listening to that shit is enough.
If you go back and look at Lenny Bruce, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, they were trenchant and funny. What I wanted to do was smuggle content through humor. All humor isn’t truthful. That’s a lie. People say, “no one laughs if it’s not the truth." Bullshit. You can get big laughs with lies.
When you’re trying to convey what you feel is truthful and it’s something difficult, if you’re funny, you can get people to drop their guard and you get a little more past customs. And in many cases it’s the custom of not having an open mind. I’ve tried to carry on that tradition.
SYRIOUSLY: Do you remember the first time you did stand-up comedy?
Barry: My friend Woody and I were living in New Hampshire. We were going to get jobs working at a ski area and it didn’t snow, so we were just really broke. One night, we went to a talent contest with a friend who was a harmonica player. But at that time no one was interested in a lead harmonica player.
SYRIOUSLY: Not like now.
Barry: Anyway, The harmonica player went on and it didn’t go well. So then I went on and started talking about Leave It To Beaver and shoplifting and killed. It was pretty fun. I ended up doing comedy all over the country before ending up back at Skaneateles.
SYRIOUSLY: That’s where you met Bobcat and Tomcat.
Barry: I was doing a show at The Old Stone Mill. One night, Goldthwait and Kenny showed up. They were kids. They were still in high school and they would go up and do this really sharp, insightful, funny social commentary and rip on the popular culture. They were just hilarious. Then they would get off stage and worry about prom dates, so they were just very dear, wonderful guys from the start. Skaneateles was the test run for Boston.
SYRIOUSLY: What brought you to Boston?
Barry: A guy who picked me up hitchhiking. I was going to go to New York, but it was raining like hell and he was going to dump me in a monsoon in New Jersey, so rather than being carried off by an oil slick, I just said screw it, Boston’s in the American League, I can go there. It was around Memorial Day 1979 and I wrangled my way onto a local comedy show at a place that happened to be the Ding Ho and had a great set and met all these great comics who weren’t getting enough stage time and who I didn’t think were being treated particularly well.
SYRIOUSLY: You are credited with helping create one of the greatest comedy scenes ever.
Barry: What I contributed to Boston was, I was in a position where I could have said well, if you work my joint you can’t work anywhere else. But I knew stage time is the lifeblood of comedy and I thought of myself as much more of a comic than a producer. Producing was just some kind of duty I did. I could see what was being done wrong nationally, and I could see how comics were being mistreated, so I tried to create a better situation, and I think it worked at least for a while where comics in that town pulled together. We were in it together, and when someone new who was talented came from out of town we weren’t threatened by him. We were just like, “Hey, come on in. The water’s fine. If you can swim, great! if you can’t, we’ll fish you out and throw you on the shore.”
No one knew it at the time, but the Ding Ho was one of the most successful comedy clubs in the country. It didn’t last, but as far as developing a scene and whatever and developing talent, the workers seized the means of production, and I think that’s generally a pretty good thing for artistic pursuits.
SYRIOUSLY: Bobcat Goldthwait's amazingly poignant movie about your life, Call Me Lucky, covered some pretty horrific childhood events, but the movie still had a lot of really funny moments. What is it about tragedy that makes such fertile ground for comedy?
Barry: A person’s need to survive. If you’re laughing, you’re still here.
SYRIOUSLY: And now there’s talk of making a second movie about your life?
Barry: Well, there’s a lot to get through, but Bobcat wants to direct it and Judd Apatow wants to produce it, so that’s some firepower.
SYRIOUSLY: What do you want in this life story that wasn’t in the last one?
Barry: This one is more intense and detailed about my battle with AOL about the proliferation of child pornography trading.
SYRIOUSLY: So it’s a drama and not a documentary.
Barry: Well it’s about me, so, obviously you’ll get plenty of light moments.
SYRIOUSLY: Which actor do you see playing the young Barry Crimmins?
Barry: Uhh, Walter Brennan.
Barry: Like I said, we’re still in negotiations. But if it happens, I want to title it, "Call Me Greedy".
SYRACUSE: You’ve started touring with a new show and it’s a bit more theatrical than what you usually do.
Barry: Oh yeah, and I enjoy it. I enjoy getting on a bigger stage and using it, and there are elements of this one that will employ some of my great Thespian skills. Thanks to the use of 60 year old technology, the lavalier mic, both of my hands are freed up and I can act things out a lot more. I’m less tethered.
SYRIOUSLY: So one of the things people should look forward to in your new show is more hand work?
Barry: Yes. I’m making a gesture to you right now.
SYRIOUSLY: You’ve named the show Atlas’ Knees. Is it some kind of Ayn Rand tribute?
Barry: It’s about me literally having bad knees and figuratively trying to carry the world around. When I disclosed surviving rape as a kid, people started coming to me who had survived all sorts of different trauma, but mostly an awful lot of childhood sexual rape and other types of sexual assault survivors. I felt obliged to help out everybody I could. So along the way, I developed this incredible wealth of anecdotal information that has given me a view of things that most people don’t get. Because when you’re public and you disclose, a lot of people who haven’t told anybody anything tell you stuff. Then, when Call Me Lucky came out, I was just inundated. The movie says tell someone, tell anyone and…
SYRIOUSLY: They took it as tell you?
Barry: Yeah, tell Barry. It got to be like Lucy and Ethyl at the candy factory. I just couldn’t keep up with it. It got to the point where I was being dragged back to the same pit I was trying to pull everyone out of and I had to just say, enough.
Then the Trump stuff came along where he basically publicly disclosed on tape that he was either a perpetrator of sexual assault or someone who thought it was cool to lie about being a perpetrator of sexual assault. Either way, not good. Then all these people rushed to his defense and a lot of people I’d worked with over the past many years started checking back in with me and they’re in bad shape because now the whole society is like, no one is going to believe me again, and the load became unbearable.
What it came down to was my self loathing was such an insidious thing, it still lived enough for me to feel, "well I can be healed but only after the rest of the world is." Which is saying you’re never gonna be healed. For 23 years, I was this one person walk-in rape crisis center where 38 door matts were worn out, and 25 of them were me. So I gathered a lot of information that people need to know and now I think it’s important to to convey it, and that’s what this show is for.
SYRIOUSLY: I think the most amazing part of this heartfelt show about a horrific subject is that a lot of is still hilarious.
Barry: I have devised it so that I can keep the current political content fresh. My basic story will be the superstructure of the show, but it will always be flexible enough to remain current, especially since we’re stuck in the back seat of the worst station wagon ride in history. Trump is really such an abusive patriarch. It’s like, “fall into line, or I’ll have the chauffeur pull this car over".
SYRIOUSLY: You have spent a lifetime championing comedy, comedians, and anybody else you run into who is in need. What keeps you going?
Barry: [Laughs] Bills. Lately, it’s been a car with more miles on it than the Mir Space Station. I guess I’m a bit of a shark. If I stop moving, I’m probably dead. I do have hope, and I do see that the area of endeavor that I’m in, which is the arts, as a real hopeful thing. I wish we could have a renewed deal in this country
SYRIOUSLY: Good luck.
Barry: The New Deal was big on the arts because they realized that where there’s art, there’s hope. And where there is art, there’s community, and where there’s art, there’s communication. And so, rather than having everybody just staring at their phone, at the internet, or getting involved in a ridiculous squabble in a comment section, how about more art? The downside of this electronic era is a sort of self-service dividing and conquering. It keeps us all sort of cut off.
SYRIOUSLY: I’m sorry, were you saying something? I was responding to a tweet.