Bobcat Goldthwait’s career as a director (Shakes the Clown, God Bless America, World’s Greatest Dad) continues to reduce our memory of him as a comedian and actor (Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, Police Academy 3: Back in Training, Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol). His latest film, Call Me Lucky, is a powerful, brutal, and yet funny and uplifting documentary about Barry Crimmins, a comedy writer for television and the ill-fated Air America Radio, and an intimidating, underestimated comedian/political satirist who comedy heads might remember better from his appearance in When Stand Up Stood Out (2003), a documentary exploring the Boston comedy boom of the ‘80s-’90s.
Mr. Crimmins ran two legendary Boston clubs, the Ding Ho and Stitches, and was a friend and mentor to a lot of comedians on their way up and out of Boston. More personally, his struggles with a grim childhood culminated, in the days of dialup modems, in a showdown with an AOL flack during a Senate hearing over the dismaying availability of online images of child abuse.
Currently, Mr. Crimmins routinely petitions the Pope on Twitter:
Call Me Lucky was suggested as a documentary to Goldthwait and initially financed by Robin Williams. Goldthwait: “It’s nice to do a movie about your friend, and as you peel away the onion, you find out that he’s even a better man than you imagined.”
We saw Call Me Lucky at the Maryland Film Festival, got at Mr. Crimmins via Twitter, and he phoned us back from the NCAA Division 3 baseball playoffs at Falcon Park in Auburn, NY, which explains why his opening line to us was, “My friend’s kid just pitched a complete-game victory for Oberlin.”
You wanna say who it is, and we’ll make him famous?
Oh, wow, okay, great. Well, congratulations to, uh, to him (laughs).
He was great, this kid—lanky frame, throws hard! Scraped his way through, left the bases loaded, gave up another run, meaningless run in the ninth. Looked great. Yeah, these guys, I mean, yeah, they care. He comes off the mound, he’s all business on the mound, he wins the game, just has this huge grin on his face, it’s great.
I was in Baltimore and saw the film, watching you chop wood.
Oh yeah, I had a broken leg. In two places. But [Goldthwait] wanted to get the shot, you know, so it was pitiful. When I said, “OK, this fuckin’ plan isn’t working,” that meant, “We’re not using this, right?” Of course . . .
It’s the thing that opens and ends the movie.
Yeah, without question.
The movie was great. I had sort of an idea what it was about, but it was incredibly, you know, funny, and shocking, and powerful.
Yeah, I trusted the right guy with my life. And as I continue to say, thank God I was nice to that kid when he came through the door.
Right, and you let him rip off your “cat” name.
Yeah, that was fine. The real story there is there was a chef at the restaurant named Barry. So when they had to call [me] to get on the show, or talk about it, they’d ask for “Bear Cat”; whoever put the ad in put “Bear Cat” because everyone knew me as that, but in my whole life, I’ve never said, “Hi, I’m Bear Cat!” When I played high school football, we were watching the movie The Alamo; at one point, [John] Wayne said about [Richard] Widmark, [John Wayne voice] “He’s meaner than a little bear cat,” [disappointed voice] and somehow, it stuck.
Because you’re mean.
Well, it was a numb, you know, a numb abuse thing. It’s like, “Lemme see if I can feel anything.” And that was in the good old days of spearing. (Laughs.) We did a lot of that.
Spearing! You know. S-P-E-A-R-I-N-G, with your head, you know, just use your head.
The Good Old Days!
Yeah, yeah. I think I sorta remember them. They tell me we had a good time. I’m thrilled to be in Deadspin, I love the sports journalism you guys do.
I’m a marginal part of it—they let me put things up every once in awhile. One more thing: Are you sort of like, I mean, you’re talking to me, because, you know, you were kind enough to get back to me on Twitter, but I listen to satellite radio, and there’s this great show, I dunno if you know this guy Ron Bennington—
Oh yeah, he’s pushed the movie a lot, he’s great. And if you mention it again to him, that’s great, too, but I did a phoner with him for Sundance. When we come in to the BAM Fest, the BAM Cinema Fest in Brooklyn next month, I’m gonna try to stop in, to their show.
I look forward to that; he’s just got a great way of talking with people.
Yeah, I know, and he plays it on several levels. There’s something there for everybody. Including the smart people.
Including the smart people!
Which is rare (laughs).
[Going far off-topic] Not to go too far off-topic with this, but he was running the most meta radio program with that guy Fez, for years, it was just insane, the levels of intrigue.
Yeah, ongoing breakdown. He really did all he could.
Yeah, it was just amazing to listen to.
I would send notes of support to Fez, and he would be pissed about them (laughs).
So right now, do you bill yourself as “Political Satirist”?
And that’s not, because it’s like, looking at that old stuff of you as a Comedian, and I just, I couldn’t help, watching the film, I couldn’t help but—did you ever see that movie [Lenny, 1974, Dustin Hoffman] about Lenny Bruce, with, um—
Remember when he gets to the point where he’s got so much legal trouble he’s up onstage complaining about his legal trouble? Did you have a moment when you were shifting to things that were political—
Well, yes and no. I mean, really, I could get away with a lot of stuff. It was funny, once I started to talk about child abuse, people were happy for me to talk about stuff they didn’t used to want to hear about, like death squads and stuff. So there was a shifting terrain: You could easily find a little chunk of turf to stand on, and eventually make the ship stand up in the bottle, but, okay, that’s enough metaphors.
Did you feel like you were shocking people, that people were mad at you—
I wasn’t trying to shock anybody.
Did you think people were shocked?
At times, but if you do it right, you can bring them to it, and some of the people talked about it—I think there were examples of it in the film—but generally, you bring them along. First, you show them you’re funny, then you sorta get a little pertinent, then you bring it around to something, just try and find common ground, and you don’t take the bait, sort of go along with the conventional disputes, which is the either/or American political debate. I’ve had people say to me before, “Now, I want you to go after both sides.” I said, “I have no problem doing that, I’m going after us.” As I’ve gotten older, it’s a broader view. I used to serve donuts like the headlines a lot. Now I’m just getting a broader view, you know—the headlines repeat themselves. I’m going to be doing a special, I can’t say more, just going to be taping in January, I think you’ll see where I’m at.
Do you think you’re gonna have any other kind of a presence, like a podcast or anything like that?
Yeah, my friend Paul Kozlowski and I are talking about doing something, we’re both in upstate New York and have a lot of fun with our native, uh, area. It’s gonna be called Over ta the Podcast; we’ll speak a lot in the defeated tone of upstate New York—193 inches of snow, I just sat in my house and worked on my alcoholism until I could get the door open again. Using that as a jumping-off point. It’ll take a little getting ahold of, but it should work.
So you identify as an alcoholic?
You’re just an alco-phile?
Yeah, I mean, as Mark Twain said, “When the others drink, I like to help.” I’ve been really busy with the film, and I’m going to be out doing shows in preparation for the special. I also have a book coming, from Seven Stories Press, late winter/early spring, tentatively called Call Me Barry, although I’m not thrilled with that. And it’s a lot of clips, it’s sorta dedicated to Generation X, and there’s a couple of real books following that.
Hey, did you make any money running comedy clubs?
You just did it because you enjoyed it.
I just did it because we needed stage time, you know? My pay was to take care of everybody. I didn’t need any money. I would go out and do dates and make my money. I insisted on zero percent off the top. That wasn’t negotiable. It’s funny, people talk about “when you owned a club”—theoretically I did, you know. The guy that owned the Ding Ho said I owned half the place if it ever came around to it, but then he lost it in a mahjong game. Technically he lost the tax money for the place in a mahjong game. Hold on one second [garbled voices]. Hold on. [To person or persons on his end of the phone] I’m doing an interview with Deadspin right now. [To Deadspin] I’m getting my picture taken with the winning hurler.
[To winning hurler.] Congratulations.
He’s raising his noble right arm to put it around me, so I’m very proud.
Put some ice on that arm.
[To winning hurler.] What a game! [To Deadspin.] We’re back.
How’s your thing going with the Pope? You still a Catholic?
Of course I’m not. The whole point with that is to just demonstrate there’s no fear in their biggest threat. I know what they’ve done, I know what they’re up to. I know this new guy’s job is to change the subject, not the Church. Otherwise he wouldn’t send people to Geneva to say that the Pope is only responsible for the priests at the Vatican, and that child abuse isn’t torture, child rape isn’t torture. I mean, he can take strong stands on stuff he doesn’t have to do much about: “We should help the poor.” Okay, thanks. As I say repeatedly in the movie, sell a chalice. Open up the vault, you know?
What do you think us average Americans should do about child abuse—what can we do?
Talk about it and not be afraid of it, you know—I mean, not be afraid of talking about it. Listen to people. Don’t take the easy excuses to avert your gaze. Follow through. Understand that it provides context for the behavior of a lot of people you thought were kinda off-kilter. Figure out where they come from, there’s sanity at the source. Their unusual behavior might make a lot of sense all of a sudden.
It seemed like Bobcat sorta blindsided your sister, asking about what had happened to you.
I think it was a bit of a misunderstanding. For one thing, it was a reflection of me not trying to influence anyone who was interviewed in the film. I said, “Do you want to be interviewed in the film, we’re making a documentary film,” and for whatever reason, she thought it was weird there were cameras there. I guess she just had a different—I don’t know exactly what she was thinking, but a big part of it was me trying to keep as light a touch as possible, same as I did with Bobcat, it’s his movie. Everyone who’s in it, I wanted them to tell the truth, whatever they thought it was, and let the chips fall where they may. Even with my own sister, that’s the key, in particular with her, she was such an integral part of a horrid moment. But she saved me. I certainly wasn’t looking to set her up. She knew what the story was, but I wasn’t gonna compare notes with her before we did the interview. Probably it’s the journalist in me.
Thank you for your time. I loved Air America, I’m sorry that it’s gone, and I look forward to you doing something like a podcast.
Oh yeah, I will, soon. Something will happen, soon. Everything’s great, and boy did we choose the right name for the film.
Alright man, thank you.
Thank you very much for talking to me.
Photo © Courtesy of Sundance Institute