Barry Crimmins on comedy, survival, not being a hero, and his friend Bobcat Goldthwait


Barry Crimmins is a legendary comic and activist who will doing standup at Blue on December 28th. The show was organized by Portland Comedy Co-Op, who Crimmins describes as a “good bunch of people doing great things for comedy in Maine.”

Content Warning: Rape

A pioneer in the early Boston standup scene, he was around for and helped kickstart the careers of some of the most incredible, hilarious and influential voices of comedy, and made his imprint on a great deal of others.

Crimmins is also the subject of Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary “Call Me Lucky.” The film [presently available on Netflix] profiles Crimmins’ career as a standup, as a survivor of being raped as a child, and his resultant activism against child predators and the creation and exchange of child pornography.

Of his visit to Maine, he says “I have always loved Maine. We used to come up as a kid. It’s where I learned to get along with Red Sox fans.”

There was too much to fit into just one interview, so more can be found over at Knack Factory. There, Crimmins discusses the role social media played in getting his story in front of Goldthwait and Robin Williams, who was an early champion of the documentary. He also offers advice to people trying to figure out how to speak truth to power and find their own voices. He also offers this gem, which, because I am sad it didn’t fit into this exchange, I will offer here:

“I am not a hero for speaking up; I do it because I have to. I would rather risk the world’s disdain than be guaranteed my own self loathing because I am always here.”

How are you holding up after a year straight of interviews?

Well, I am sick of me but other than that I’m great. I am really enjoying getting back to work as a standup. The movie is great; Bobcat is brilliant. I know the movie is doing well because of who I am hearing from on the website or on Twitter. I hear from a lot of abuse survivors and people who care about abuse survivors. My day is spent trying to direct people to get some help and talking about my experiences with them. There is really something in that because when you’re doing it, you really realize how much progress you’ve made. But after it reaches a certain volume, it catches up with you.

I’m curious to know about what toll doing press for this movie has taken? The subject matter is obviously difficult and touches your life, but as I understand it Bobcat was also going through an extraordinarily difficult time while making the film.

It’s not just the press, but also the screenings. For many, they come because it’s this movie about a comedian but then it’s this very relevant and deep thing they recognize it. They’re moved by it and that’s already done some good, but sometimes you have three or four family members who may have been abused by the same person suddenly cornering you and pouring it out. It’s really sincere and very emotional. I expected it. I kind of knew that was going to happen to an extent.

Bob knew my story. He was a great and supportive friend when I disclosed but I don’t think he had any idea how many of us are out there. I knew there were a lot more out there because I went public over 20 years ago and so many people disclosed to me. I knew Bob was going to make a strong movie and I knew there were some compelling moments. I knew we were going unleash some stuff. But when I wrote about it in the Boston Phoenix years ago, that’s when I started to really hear from people and get a sense of what was going on out there. There’s a lot more of us than people realize and they’re coming up to us at the screenings. I think that’s taken an emotional toll on Bob because he’s such a nice person. There are people sobbing—grown men and other people—and it’s hard to see that and not have it affect you.

I’ve seen you say elsewhere that one of your primary goals has long been to simply acknowledge that rape is an issue.

Silence is evil’s number one ally, particularly through shame that’s imposed. It’s really through terrorization. “I will do the same thing to your brothers and sisters if you tell anyone. I’ll take you away from your parents. I’ll kill your family.” Children are tricked into feeling complicit in the crimes that are committed against them. You know, if you’re a bank teller and you’re held up, you’re not considered an accessory to the robbery. But people say to me all the time, “It took great courage to admit you were raped, Barry.” I didn’t admit anything, I disclosed. I didn’t admit anything. Guilty people admit things. As long as we allow that kind of language to go on, we’re working with the perpetrators of these crimes who install this corrupt software in kids to make them feel like they’re responsible for being victims of a crime.

I will talk to survivors who will write off what happened by saying, I could have done this differently, or I could have done that. If I am physically with them, I will take them over to a schoolyard and show them a kid that is the age they were when they were abused. “See that kid right there?” And I give all the excuses they are making on their own behalf. Suddenly they’re defending this kid vehemently and I turn around and say, “You’re that kid. Start defending yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

That is why it’s important to choose the right words. You say rape. You try not to minimize it. People will say things like, “He diddled little boys.” I don’t even know what diddling means but if two grownups want to do it, it’s okay with me. But there is also a prosecutor you see in the film who says that these people are “having sex with” children. Sex is a consensual act. A kid can’t give consent.

It trains people who have gone through this to despise themselves and to put their hearts at conflict with their minds. Your heart realizes something is wrong but your mind says, “Shut up. Nobody else seems to care about it.” The wobble starts and everything goes out of whack. Out of whack becomes normal and it goes on and on. It’s not just this country; we have a world that doesn’t value children.

I had seen a documentary about child rape in the Catholic Church and I remember a woman saying something about not talking about her abuse to her parents because she felt like the language to describe it was off-limits. As a result, we tell our daughter she can say anything she wants in our house or in our car so that no topic ever seems taboo. Can you please talk about the power of talking about things?

Your daughter is very fortunate. We have to compromise a little bit of our children’s innocence so we can protect the vast majority of them. Kids should never have to be afraid that they’ve been through some sort of trauma.

As instantly as cliched as it is, with his movie we’ve tried to start a conversation. We’ve tried to provide a vocabulary and show how to use that in a sentence. When I first disclosed to some friends, a lot of them were great. Some said, “Are you talking to anyone?” And I was like, “I thought I was talking to you.” A lot of psychologists don’t even know what to do with this. We’ve got to find our own way through this.

Can I ask you about standup?

It’s so great to do it. It’s the one place I am left alone. It’s mine. It’s my place. I’m like Pete Townshend with Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock, you know. “Get off of here!” I get that piece of turf and I still talk about a lot of these issues, but I know how to convey some really horrible stuff and you can smuggle a lot of content through humor. Hypocrisy, greed and cowardice are good targets.

Over the course of your career, especially in the Internet age, it almost feels as though the role of the standup has replaced, at least in part, the role of the public intellectual.

There’s certainly some of that. Some sure haven’t! The challenge the public intellectual standup faces is finding the right venue and finding the audience who will consider what they’re saying. Now they have a sense of who I am and what I will be doing. In the old days, I would go out to some club in the middle of the country and the one thing they’d protest is me talking about things that deserve to be protested. You know, “We wanted to have fun, and you wanted to talk about things!”

Slowly but surely—my dear friend the late Bill Hicks and many others—used the form to not provide more distraction for the American people. I like to think I helped. There’s comics up there who when you see them, you know you’re going to hear something. I try to make it redemptive and try to offer hope. I try to show that it’s fun to know what’s going on and to care. It takes more courage to be kind than to be a bully.

I recently saw Margaret Cho and she had told me about seeing me open for Billy Bragg a long time back and how that turned a light on for her, about how we were actually, as comics, eligible to do something of substance. And now here she is, and she can’t be more helpful, kind and supportive of me.

I feel like I have been turned onto more radical ideas and pursued into ways of thought by people who have made me laugh than by reading, say, Noam Chomsky.

It’s content smuggling. That’s all it is. People can’t protect themselves when they’re laughing. If you get them laughing at something challenging what their mindset was originally, that’s pretty good. A lot of people are doing that now.

Is there something you’d like to say that I haven’t asked you about?

I want to say that Bob made a great film. We are such great friends and we can be a little tough on one another, but not once when we were making it, if the choice was my well being or the film, he always was concerned with my well being. The reason the footage is in there where we visit the basement [in which Crimmins was raped] is in there is he didn’t want me to go in there. I said, “Bob, I’m not going to go into this place and give this object, this building power over me. You can film it or not, but I am going down there.” He wasn’t going to originally even though as a filmmaker, that’s a moment you want. He was just trying to make sure that I didn’t have to endure something that was bad for me.

It was just amazing how differential he was about me. But I have to go through things, not around them.

It’s really beautiful that you have a friend like that, who you can both collaborate with and by whom you can be cared for. Especially in an industry that can be especially exploitative.

It’s amazing. That’s why he’s an independent filmmaker, and one of the best. He took the biggest gamble on me, and it was such an excellent act of generosity. This film could have been called, “Thank god I was nice to that kid!”

For more that didn’t fit into this interview, check out what Crimmins has to say about speaking truth, finding a voice, and the role social media plays in his career over at Knack Factory

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.