Barry Crimmins on Working With Louis C.K. on His First Special, the Passing of Kevin Meaney, and This Election

It’s been a roller coaster of a week for comedian Barry Crimmins. The comedian who was a vital figure in Boston’s burgeoning comedy scene in the 1980s has his first-ever comedy special released by Louis C.K. Monday morning, just days after the sudden passing of his longtime friend and fellow Boston comedy pioneer Kevin Meaney.

While Crimmins and C.K. were at first hesitant to release the special, Whatever Threatens You, they ultimately decided it’s what the late Meaney would want and made it available on C.K.’s website for the usual price of $5. With its release, C.K. wrote a lengthy, heartfelt email to his subscribers about how both Crimmins and Meaney shaped him as a comedian when he started doing comedy at age 18 in Boston. “Barry is a legend. A great mind, an author and activist and political satirist. He has been an important voice of passion and reason since the 1970s,” C.K.’s email read. “I love his voice. He makes me laugh. He’s always right. There has NEVER been another comic like him.”

C.K. offered to produce, direct, and distribute the special, filmed last summer in Lawrence, Kansas, after Crimmins was featured in Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary, Call Me Lucky. The film details Crimmins’s life as a victim of childhood sexual abuse, his work in comedy, and his ongoing advocacy for victims of child pornography that brought him to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

You can look at Whatever Threatens You as Crimmins getting his due after 44 years in comedy, as well as a sage lecture on his various grievances with conservatives, the Second Amendment, meat eaters, and the Catholic Church. You might not agree with what he’s saying but you’ll appreciate the character with which he says it.

With its release, Vulture spoke with him about his crazy week, the election, and mentoring young comedians.

First, congratulations on the special, but also condolences on the passing of your friend, Kevin Meaney.
Thank you. Yeah. A good friend of mine said to me the other day that I’m the definition of bittersweet at this moment, and it’s pretty accurate.

What have these last few days been like for you?
Part of it is that Kevin would have really been excited. He couldn’t have been more supportive over the years. He was one of those people who really reveled in other people doing well, because he understood that success wasn’t a finite thing and, in fact, it sort of made things better for everybody. He understood the “Room at the top” idea, and so he was really excited about this coming out. I wish he were around. I’d be talking to him.

In his email announcing your special, Louis C.K. said some incredibly nice things about you and Kevin.
That was so lovely. He was just so “on” with his analysis — his understanding of Kevin’s appeal,  and appreciation of his talents. Just wonderful.

The way he described meeting you back in Boston — you being so intimidating — is that how you remember it?
No, but I suppose a little bit of that was self-protective. I probably had to put up some kind of shield or otherwise I couldn’t get in and out of a place without giving my pants away [laughs]. There are myths, and then you meet people. I mean, I really liked everybody. The only time I would get nasty with someone was when they were really trying to push me or embarrass me into something, and I actually liked that because it was like, “Oh good, I can drop the decorum now.” I would show someone my calendar when I was producing and say, “Well, who are you gonna replace? Paula Poundstone? Steven Wright? Larry Clark? Who are you replacing here?” What people didn’t understand in those days was that there was a finite amount of work available on any stage, but if we’re doing the right stuff on our stage, it was going to result in more stages, and it certainly did. Soon, the clubs I got going were gone, but there’s still plenty of comedy around.

How was working with C.K. as a producer and director?
Oh, real easy. First off, he’s so busy. He’s the only person I know that I have to check the AP wire before I decide to bother him with a text [laughs]. He has a very clear idea of what he wants to do and he’s incredibly efficient. Also, in that efficiency is this sort of matter-of-fact approval, endorsement, and encouragement. He gets in there, but he’s not going to sit around and coddle you because he’s got stuff to do. I like to think we’re a couple of old bros working together, although some bros are older than others.

Tell me about why you chose the Lawrence, Kansas, location.
Well, years ago, when I was touring with Steven Wright, I played the University of Kansas one night and like a stupid, elitist Northeast person I was just, “Well, we’ll see how this goes.” And it was great. Then in 2015 they brought the documentary Bobcat Goldthwait did about me to this wonderful Free State Festival that they have, and the response was just so warm. What was supposed to be a 15-minute Q&A ran well over an hour. It’s this really progressive place where everyone’s still polite and thoughtful and courteous and not aloof and too hip for you, and so it’s ultimately extremely hip. So I loved that town and I knew the room — the room where we shot the special was the room where Bobcat and I did the Q&A — and I knew it would be a pretty good place to shoot a special.

You worked on this hour for a long time, touring it around. What was that process like now compared to when you were younger?
Well, there are a lot more comedians. I talk about that in the special. It used to be that you had to be an iconoclast, now there’s just a lot more comedians. In some ways, it’s gotten better because there’s certainly a more vibrant alt-scene now where I can try out a lot of stuff. I’ve done a lot of work in New York at The Creek and The Cave, where I could just come in and work for a weekend on the act. It was great to have a lot of young comics come out, meet them, and see a lot of them on a good path, but also to get sympathetic for what they’re up against. There are some really great kids out there, but they’re just under such a pile of people that are sort of in the, “Who told you you’re supposed to be doing comedy?” club.

Do you often offer your advice, or try to mentor young comics?
Yeah, sure I do. All the time. I switch back and forth between abuse survivors and comedians, and there is some crossover with the two. Because of the movie, I hear from a lot of people who are recovering from trauma and they were encouraged by the movie to see if the guy in the movie is an actor or if he really is on their side. It turns out I am, so I spend a lot of time doing that. Then the next call will be some comic thinking they’re being screwed over and I’ll explain, “Of course you are, it’s your job!”

Do you feel a shift in the audience when you start talking about abuse and politics? How do you get them back on your side?
Well, not a lot, but it happens. It’s very interesting that during this political season, they actually stumbled into having to talk about things that are important: What has more to do with Homeland Security than whether or not a woman can go to work in safety? People say, “Oh, let’s talk about something more important.” It’s a pretty serious issue when a creep is talking to you like how Trump said he was talking to people on that tape. We kind of staggered into that by mistake, but I’m not going to let that go. That’s an opportunity.

Since the special was filmed during the primary race, you talk about wanting Bernie over Hillary and the sea of GOP candidates. How do you feel now that it’s Clinton versus Trump
I mean, if you have to be hit on the nose with an anvil or a mallet, you’re gonna go with the mallet.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Barry Crimmins on His First Special