Barry Crimmins Is Not Taking Life Personally

There are a handful of comedians that have been on the scene since the earliest days of the comedy boom of the 1980s, and even fewer who were around before it. Barry Crimmins is one of those few. Crimmins, a native of the quiet town of Skaneateles, New York (pronounced “skinny atlas”), is a political satirist and standup comedian who inspired comedians such as Bobcat Goldthwait, Tom Kenny, Marc Maron, David Cross, and Patton Oswalt. In 2013, he sat down with Maron on WTF to talk about his influence in the Boston comedy scene as the founder of the influential Ding Ho and Stitches comedy clubs. His clubs provided greats such as Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, Kevin Meaney, and Jimmy Tingle with space to develop.

More recently, Bobcat Goldthwait produced a documentary, Call Me Lucky, about Crimmins’ experience combating child pornography and how his own experience as a victim of child molestation influenced his development as a thinker and as a comedian. Riding on the success of the documentary, Crimmins has taken to the road once more and has been performing throughout upstate New York and the Midwest, and will be joined in New York City on October 18th and 19th by comedian Jimmy LeChase.

I recently got the opportunity to chat with Crimmins about how he has learned not to take life personally, what it’s like to watch comedy rise and fall and rise again, and what he thinks could help save comedy from another full-on drought.

Comedy can clearly help people sort through their problems and a lot of people use it almost as therapy. Obviously, in your case, it was very helpful, but do you think that some people might have a tendency to hide behind comedy?

Oh, sure. You can go either direction with it. I really had things fairly sorted out before I talked about them on stage. I would recommend that. Silence is evil’s number one ally, and I’ve got a heck of a sound system to use. It’s an easy way to route evil there, so I don’t pass that up. Hopefully I’m at the point where… It’s certainly good for me, but it’s maybe more therapeutic for some other people, for them to see that you can do it. People who come to my show shouldn’t expect it to be Dr. Phil.

Do you think that the excess of social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Vine, Snapchat, and so forth – do you think that drowns people out?

I mean, the thing about that is we have our choice with it. I don’t tend to pay much attention to someone who takes a picture of every cup of coffee they have, so there’s that. I just think like anything else, it’s irrelevant. If there’s something redemptive about it, it can be employed. But my motives are kind of open on this, because I’ve been talking about it in public for 22 years. It’s not a big deal to me to talk about it. I mean, as soon as I figured out, a big part of the silence is to make particularly victims of childhood sexual abuse and rape feel complicit in what’s done to them. If you continue to be quiet about it, you’re conspiring against yourself basically. A lot of people have the opportunity to know about it by watching the movie. I don’t rehash a lot of it, but for instance I will certainly discuss the Catholic Church and things like that, point out the hypocrisy and those sorts of things.

Pope Francis is praised all the time now for having – relatively speaking – “progressive opinions.” Do you think that’s just a façade?

I think it’s his job to change the subject and not the Church. I think that if you really look at, I mean, really how much can he do about climate change? He can raise a voice and maybe get some other people to open up their ears about that a little bit, but [with regard to child molestation] there’s somethings he can really do something about and he’s not doing anything. He sent his emissaries to the United Nations to advocate that child rape by priests is not torture. I mean, he’s paid a lot of lip service. There’s things he could do, he could literally open up the books and the records and render unto Caesar the guilty parties, or the parties that certainly appear to be guilty so that they could face civil actions for the crimes they’ve committed. He’s not doing that.

He certainly hasn’t done anything about these phony bankruptcies the Church is declaring to cheat victims of the settlements they’ve won in courts of law. Milwaukee and Cardinal Dolan, the former Arch Bishop Dolan, would be a prime example of that; hiding all that money in a burial fund so that the diocese could declare bankruptcy. I mean, anyone who can put two thoughts together won’t believe the Catholic Church is broke, but again and again that’s what they maintain. What they do, the same sort of thing they do with the government and the military, a lot of times they just break chains of command and so that things don’t really get back to culpable parties. They can continue to get away with stuff.

Really, money is very important to the church. If this guy is such a progressive and believes in socialism so much then open up the vault. I’ll help him redistribute the wealth. I’d be happy to. He provides, again, a nice easy story that’s a distraction. We don’t have to keep thinking about the raped altar boys anymore. People, out of both kindness and cowardice, will take that out. They don’t want to live in a world where that kind of thing goes on, they’re afraid of it. We’ve heard it, but not much is done. A few people have been exposed, but mostly it’s just been a lot of cover up. There’s been a lot of mistreatment of abuse survivors by the Church when they tell them, “Oh, we’ll give you free therapy.” Then, basically the therapists are there to be spies, to find out whether the priest crossed state lines or do something that would make the statutes of limitations not applicable or whatever. There’s just a lot of sleazy stuff that’s still going on out there.

I just know enough people who are involved with this. I know what’s been going on and it’s really just, again, this is the biggest issue facing the Church as far as I’m concerned, in addition to its misogyny and homophobia. The biggest is the century-old crime wave against children. If he’s truly progressive, he’d do something about it. People say to me, “Well, he’d be risking his life to do that.” Well, I guess Lincoln shouldn’t have signed the Emancipation Proclamation either. “He can’t just sign a paper. He can’t just sign a paper that changes everything.” Yeah, he pretty much could. There are all sorts of records and files that were whisked away to the Vatican in diplomatic pouches because the Vatican is still a nation, thanks to a sleazy deal the church made with Mussolini. It’s just, I mean, on and on it goes.

If you come to the show, I would say that unless you’re really a dyed-in-the-wool member of the Holy Name society, or Opus Dei, you’ll enjoy me pointing out some of these hypocritical things and have a little fun with my frustration and impatience with what’s going on.

I think that’s a very valid point, that he’s not addressing anything; he’s just changing the conversation.

Yeah. I think that’s what’s going on. To me he’s still the guy who started off by playing footsie with death squads in Argentina. Nothing is happening that makes me feel better about the Church. I’m glad the guy says a few progressive things here and there. I too am concerned about climate change, but the one climate he doesn’t seem to be changing is that of the church.

Do you think that the current trend of political correctness in comedy is kind of akin to that? Like that people are caught up discussing the terms, rather than the actual issues?

You know, everybody seems to be having that problem except me; maybe it’s just my show. Maybe I just bowl through it. I’ll do something in character at times, satirizing something and some people in the audience will start hissing as if I’ve suddenly gone over to the other side. I mean, the people’s coalition against humor, it’s an ongoing problem. They have been for quite a while. I think to handle it what you have to do is practically satirize people just taking everything so literally all the time. Although, there are an awful lot of people who rail against political correctness who in fact are… kids act like they’re rebels because what they’re doing is reinforcing an oppressive status quo. It’s a balancing act.

I haven’t found myself in any situations on stage I haven’t been able to talk my way out logically. It’s not a big problem. I haven’t been playing a lot on campuses lately either. That might be just the long-range effect of all those kids growing up playing soccer leagues you’re not allowed to score in, I don’t know.

For a lot of people, maybe not everybody, really talking about yourself on stage is hard to adjust to. Did having a whole documentary made about you feel weird?

Well, I mean the documentary about stuff I’ve talked about. Here’s the thing, I generally talk about what’s going on. If my life crosses paths with it, then I might talk about myself a bit, but I suppose because of the nature of the documentary, people might get the idea that I do a lot of that. I’m actually doing a little more because now I have these stories and people are interested. It’s an interesting, phenomenal thing to end up having a documentary made by a great film maker debut at Sundance to critical acclaim and having all this response to it. Critics have been very kind and I’ve got a big response, very positive response from the public.

It’s hard to not at that point talk a little more about myself on stage than I ever did. Generally, I never talked about my relationships or the more mundane elements of my everyday life. We go back to the people who are taking pictures of everything they eat, “Mmm, coffee on Saturday morning.” Wow, you drink coffee on Saturday morning? I can’t believe that! That’s amazing. Hey send me a picture of your dinner. So yeah, I mean, if I’m relevant I’ll bring it in. The other way I bring myself in is I’ve always poked a little fun at myself for being passionate about what I care about. I’ve never been afraid to stick a needle in my own balloon now and then, but mostly it’s not, my act isn’t, “And then I says to the guy…”

I think one danger of talking about yourself too much is that you can grow detached from yourself. You just become a character or a series of stories to yourself, instead of feeling whole. I imagine one of the fears of telling your own story over and over would be the fear of growing detached from it.

In this case, it’s probably a bit of a survival mechanism because to have to talk about what I’ve had to talk about in good faith a lot for the past… first of all we’re shooting a movie, and then we’re doing all these film festivals, then the interviews, so on and so forth to promote the DVD, digital release, whatever… If it ends up on Netflix or something, I’m sure there’ll be more. You get the same interview a lot. In my case, I did 130 interviews in August for the theatrical release. I mean, I still remain pretty attached to it, because it definitely took a chunk out of me. Basically, even though everyone is well-intentioned, at some point it comes with the fact I was raped as a very young boy. In a nice way, one way or another they almost end up saying, “Well, prove it.”

Then, the film is running in your head while you’re doing the interview so you have to become a bit disassociated to get through that. Fortunately, I had years of practice being disassociated, so I know how to do it. I’m really excited to get back to work doing what I’ve always done and by the end of the interviews I was saying, “I’d be happy to answer any of your questions as long as they don’t pertain to me.” It was a joke, but many a truth is said in jest.

And that said, you’re working on a book right now as well, right?

Seven Stories, yeah, and it’s late. You can only do so much at once, but as a result I think they’re going to get a better book, and it will be about some of these experiences. Even though they’re my experiences, there are a lot of people involved, so it’s not just about me by any stretch. It’s really about humanity, I guess.

I’ve often joked that if I could have done this film anonymously, I would have. That’s sort of, exactly contrary.

“This mystery man took on AOL in the early ‘90s! Who was it?”

[Laughs] Right. Yeah, there wasn’t a shit-load of us. It’s interesting, I probably learned from the movie and in some ways from Goldthwait, largely from Goldthwait, that there’s just… it’s okay to tell my story. Not just in the sense that of course it breaks silence, you tell the story because people need to know this stuff happens to kids, but it’s also okay to get out in my own way and talk about myself every now and then. I never did a lot of that, it was always more about the cause for me.

You’ve been heavily involved in comedy since before the comedy boom of the 1980s. As somebody who has been there on both sides of it multiple times, what do you think of the current status of comedy? It certainly feels like we’re in another heavily inflated bubble.

I think that with each expansion you get a little more infrastructure to fall back on. I also think that some of what’s happened now is a result of some of the repairs that were made to the just simple, predictable, corporate structure that developed during the last comedy boom. The problem with the comedy boom was that there really were never enough headliners. They developed this product where people going to comedy clubs just cared if someone got over with the audience and really didn’t stir things up. It was almost like you could get in just as much trouble for exceeding expectations as not meeting them.

I think we reached a period with the comedy club that the ones who really got hurt the most by it in the long run were people who exceeded expectations, who were doing stuff that was not so predictable. I think that the demographic at a lot of those comedy clubs were pretty similar to that of professional wrestling. Nothing against professional wrestling, it’s just that not my cup of tea. Their audience isn’t exactly who I want to play to. It’s funny, going back to the political correctness stuff, those people who just reinforce this crap and then get to act like they’re rebels, it always kills me. “I say what everybody thinks!” Bullshit, you say what everybody who’s not thinking thinks.

And still now, a lot of people trick everybody into thinking that they’re saying what nobody’s thinking while saying exactly what they’re thinking.

Absolutely pandering. Acting like pandering is this great rebellious act.

Yeah. That happens all too often. Brian Regan was talking about how you get so many clubs branding themselves as just “comedy” and the people who go out on a limb to go say, “All right, I want to go see comedy.” Then they see a couple of comics who do just that, just pandering, and then they come to the conclusion that they don’t like comedy.

That’s what happens. People don’t like the shit that they get served. If somebody doesn’t like McDonald’s, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to eat. It’s like everything was extruded and formed into the shape of something that looked like comedy, but it wasn’t that. It still goes on, but now it’s both. Now there’s a lot more; there’s some actual cutting-edge stuff these days. There’s alt rooms, different stuff. And, you know, the alt rooms can have their own problems. You get the people who seem to think “I bomb, therefore I am.” That’s not taking us anywhere either. Basically, I’ve learned not to take life personally and comedy is just part of life. People are entertained by the stuff they see at Yuck Huts, 38 locations across the country, that’s good for them. I’d rather host the damn show and raise the common denominator before certain acts get to them, because it’s like… You know, John Coltrane doesn’t suck because he can’t follow Metallica.

And I would say that a redeeming feature of all this social media is that everyone can get the most specific type of comedy that they want.

Absolutely, you really can get to your audience a lot more. I’m seeing so many people with whom I interact on social media and they bring in their friends and so on and so forth. Then there are other people I don’t even interact with but they know me from that and so it’s good. I call myself a political satirist for years, not because I want some haughty title, but just because I wanted people to know that I don’t do that other stuff. I don’t do, “Where you from? What do you do? You’re a homosexual! Why do women go to the bathroom in pairs?” I don’t do that shit. I just, I can’t stay in the room with it. That said, there’s a lot of great comics developing and I think it’s going to last one way or another for a long time. I think one thing that might really help is eventually getting integration of all show business. I like working with musicians, and I like working with people who have actual talent. I had a great woman, Megan, who opened for me in Kalamazoo. I asked for a musician, a good local musician. She was tremendous. It makes for a great night. After doing this for forty or so years, I figure I’ve got enough humor for the night and I can bring enough humor, let’s bring something else.

Photo by Gloria Wright.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.

Barry Crimmins Is Not Taking Life Personally