The king of todays investigative comics, has exposed online child abuse, inspired Judd Apatow and Louis CK and is still as funny and as angry as ever
In the elevator on the way down from the studios of radio station SiriusXM in midtown Manhattan, Barry Crimmins the legendary standup comedian and political activist whose sexual abuse as a child was the subject of Bobcat Goldthwaits 2015 documentary Call Me Lucky shakes his head. That was dicey, he says.
An hour or so before, Crimmins stumbled into the recording of Tell Me Everything, the weekly politics and satire radio show hosted by his friend, the comedian John Fugelsang. Fugelsang invited him to stay and join the discussion. On the panel that day was Tony Hendra, the English-born satirist whose 2004 book, Father Joe, chronicled Hendras long friendship with a Catholic monk. Twelve years ago Hendras daughter accused him of abusing her when she was a child. The accusations, which Hendra denies, were published in a story in the New York Times but have never been the subject of a formal charge or police investigation.
Crimmins and Hendra chatted amiably on the air for an hour as Fugelsang prodded them for their thoughts on the US election. Man, Im so glad you two got to meet, the host said as the trio posed for a photo at the end of the show. In the elevator afterwards, the full awkwardness of the accidental meeting between Crimmins and Hendra becomes apparent. He wrote a fawning book about a priest, Crimmins, whose comedic fire is often directed at the Catholic church, sneers.
This is the age of super-slick political comedians, a time for smooth suits, neat haircuts and perfect sentences. Stephen Colbert could be an accountant. Trevor Noah looks like a young associate in the mergers and acquisitions group of a big city law firm. Even John Oliver, whose haircut once came in the bowl formation of a teenager trying to start a grunge band in the mid-1990s, is now clipped and trim in the modern style, his jackets just so, his monologues delivered with the syntactical precision of an intellectual sniper.
Crimmins, a man to whom todays generation of political comics probably owes more than anyone else, is nothing like this. Hes more like a shaggy-dog story in human form. This is partly a product of physical appearance his ursine frame and preference for loose-fitting shirts and comfortable dad shoes but mostly its to do with the way he does comedy: in the key of sustained, righteous, and often discomfiting anger. Crimmins does nothing to hide his anger after the chance meeting with Hendra. He does nothing to hide that anger when he gets up on stage. And he has a message for the younger, newer generation of political comedians: no one wants to hear you broker a compromise.
Crimmins is, unlike many comedians today, unafraid to cause offense and unafraid to pick a side when it comes to politics. He likes what Larry Wilmore was doing before his show got axed by Comedy Central, and hes especially fond of Stephen Colberts epic George Bush-baiting performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. Appeals to bipartisanship are a waste of time, in Crimminss view especially when they come from comedians.
Jon Stewarts campaign for bipartisanship? Youve got to be kidding me, he says, referring to the former Daily Show hosts efforts to get bipartisan support for measures to assist 9/11 first responders. Its like: Lets take the average of dung and manure and say were on the moral high ground. Bipartisanship is bullshit this country only ever goes from the center-right to the far right. Which side are you on, boys?
This is a long way from the polite comedy of, say, Noah. Now 63, Crimmins has maintained the rage and ramshackle offensiveness of an earlier age of comedy one when comedy itself was truly an underground pursuit, the focus of a genuine counterculture, and not the mainstream, crowd-pleaser concern it is today. If Noah, with his predictable politics and thank-you-Mr-Stewart sense of deference, is the Coldplay of satire, Crimmins is its Jello Biafra. This was new in the 80s, he says, referring to political standup. There were no rules. Now everyones a comedian, and thats getting weird its lemming-like behavior.
Crimmins, who grew up in a small town in upstate New York, founded the Ding Ho comedy club in Boston in the 1980s the house that nurtured the talents of Goldthwait, Patton Oswalt and Marc Maron, among others and leapt into the national consciousness in the 1990s with his strident activism on issues as diverse as US interventionism in Nicaragua, the Gulf war and online child abuse images. He faded from the public eye around the turn of the century but in the last few years hes enjoyed something of a revival: Goldthwaits documentary last year introduced him his contribution to the history of standup, as well as his harrowing story of abuse to the Netflix generation, and Louis CK, a longtime friend who was championed by Crimmins at the beginning of his career, has just released a special of one of the older standups extended sets.
This week Crimmins kicked off a three-show run at the Leicester Square Theatre in London his first tour of the UK as a working comedian and things wont stop there, he says: already there are plans for Goldthwait to produce a feature film with Judd Apatow telling the story around Crimminss incendiary 1995 testimony before Congress on child abuse images.
What makes Crimmins unique is that unlike many political comedians, hes not simply been content to fire potshots from a distance hes rolled his pants up and waded into the swamp of political action. Oliver who Crimmins rates, to use the stand-up lingo is the king of todays crop of investigative comics, digging and poking and cajoling answers in the style of a good reporter. But hes never actually taken the digging to the point of becoming an actor in the political process. Crimmins has both through his work exposing the depths of online child abuse images in the early 1990s, and in the more recent work hes done raising awareness of child sexual abuse in the wake of Call Me Lucky. To be clear, the man is not a policy wonk. At one point he lashes the US system of government, because it gives no power to smaller progressive parties, but when pressed on what a better system might be, he says: You know what, I dont know. Present something to me. I just know is that this two-party system is a scam.
This doesnt matter, of course Crimmins is in the laughs business, not the policy sheet business. He doesnt need to have the answer to everything; the responsibility of the comic only goes so far. But its clear Crimmins thinks comedians should provide more than just laughs especially in a time of difficult political choices such as this one. We need peaceful insurrection about a variety of things that are affecting people, he says.
Crimmins, a Bernie Sanders supporter, is equally scornful of the two major-party choices facing voters on 8 November. He says he will vote but insists the electoral college makes it unnecessary. Im in New York state Donald Trump isnt going to win New York even if he cures cancer before the night of the election. Hillary Clinton is a reactionary, he says, offering up some standard Sanders-styled attack lines (shes a foreign policy hawk, shes in bed with Wall Street, there are moneyed interests at work), but unsurprisingly for someone who describes his job as making fun of racists, its Trump that really gets him going. What Trump does is he speaks to our collective self-loathing, Crimmins says. In a country where we dont take care of people whove suffered abuse, this guy coming in and sounding like the worst father in the world What I say goes is the worst possible solution. You cant hate anybody until you hate yourself. Bigotry clicks with these people it gives them a place to channel some rage because theres nowhere else to go.
But how can we speak to these people the self-loathers of America and offer them a compelling political vision in a way that doesnt turn into Trump? On this question, Crimmins does have an answer. Treat them with love and not hate.