In the basement that has haunted Barry Crimmins since he can remember, the acerbic comedian’s tongue falters for a moment as he hums and haws in the darkness. Eventually, unrehearsed words pour out and assemble themselves into a poignant justification for Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary Call Me Lucky. Though the film ends up in this strange place, it begins as a seemingly garden-variety portrait of the political satirist and comedy club patron told mostly through interviews with his friends and family. But Goldthwait’s keen directorial eye and editing choices reveal the film’s sinister kernel – one that we won’t fully understand until much later (if ever).
Call Me Lucky opens with home video footage of Barry Crimmins at an anti-war rally protesting Operation Desert Storm. The grainy footage transitions to the gorgeous snowy landscape of Crimmins’ upstate New York residence, and it is clear that Goldthwait has a fantastic attention to detail. Then, comedians Steven Wright, David Cross, Margaret Cho, Patton Oswalt and others ooze praise for Crimmins, the best-kept secret in the Boston comedy scene.
Portions of Crimmins’ standup shows are interspersed throughout the interview sessions, and together they paint a picture of an angry, but brilliant political satirist at the “height of the mass hypnosis of the Reagan era”, to borrow a line from the film. Crimmins fostered much of the Boston standup scene in the 1980s, but was also heavily involved in political rallies (and still is). Like an amalgam of George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Dennis Miller, Crimmins often rubbed people the wrong way with his stylings, but Goldthwait goes to great lengths to illuminate the mark that Barry has left on the world of comedy.
However, even comics bristled at Crimmins’ rhetoric. As he grew more exasperated with the political climate, he took his frustration out on the “comics” with material that he considered hacky: “ ‘Where you from, what do you do? You’re a queer.’ You know, those comics? ‘Why do women go to the bathroom in pairs?’ Because they get hassled by drunk men! WRITE AN ACT!!!”. Understandably, this approach alienated even the most supportive audiences and colleagues. It wasn’t clear, even to his best friends, why Crimmins was so angry, and why he chose to take his rage out on standers-by.
The film abruptly changes directions by offering an answer. Recounting a performance at Stitches Comedy Club on a night in May 1992, comics and critics tiptoe around the subject which they describe with words like, “soul-bearing”, “game-changing”, “nothing funny about it”, and “clearly tortured”. Crimmins explains that his empathy for innocent victims wasn’t merely upper-class white guilt – but a response to his own childhood trauma. The rest of the story details Crimmins’ exploration of that trauma and the steps he took to overcome it. This story is quite different from those spawned from comedy clubs and political rallies, but is far more revealing.
The themes espoused by Call Me Lucky are not related to Barry Crimmins and his comedic talent (which, in this reviewer’s opinion, is abundant). Those who criticize Goldthwait for enshrining a self-righteous curmudgeon as a comedy god are woefully missing the point. As soon as Crimmins makes Call Me Lucky about more than himself, the film becomes something important and precious. This is not self-aggrandizing showmanship. It is a testament to the value and beauty of innocence, and how we must go to enormous lengths to protect it. It calls for honesty and integrity when observing the world, and offers the courage required to oust those who do evil. The subject matter may be challenging, but as Crimmins opines in his formative basement: “You know, if that kid can survive that, if I can survive what happened to me, you can at least hear about it or think about it, you know. It’s not that much to ask.” No, Barry, it isn’t.