Barry Crimmins is one of the best comedians you’ve never heard of. The 40-plus year veteran came up with many names you know quite well: Steven Wright, Lenny Clark, Kevin Meaney, Bobcat Goldthwait, Paula Poundstone. He even ran two comedy clubs, The Ding Ho and Stitches, in the 1980s. Stand-up historians and avid comedy geeks know about Crimmins well. A comic’s comic, he never quite broke into the mainstream with his deeply political act. A victim of sexual abuse himself, he became an advocate against child pornography and testified before Congress in 1995.
For decades, he has railed against the government and protested for social justice. Bobcat Goldthwait put Crimmins’s powerful life story on screen in the 2015 documentary Call Me Lucky, which has gained popularity on Netflix.
Still, you likely at best heard his name on your favorite comedy podcast. That’s because many of today’s top comics look up to him, love him, and revere him. Including comedy’s golden boy Louis C.K., who last year ask to shoot Crimmins’s first stand-up special. “Barry is a legend,” the FX darling said in an email to his fans on Oct. 23. “He has been an important voice of passion and reason since the 1970s…HE fostered the comedy scene that I cut my teethh on and later became my friend. More than all of that, I am his fan.” Barry Crimmins’s first stand-up special Barry Crimmins: Whatever Threatens You is now available for download for $5 on Louis CK’s website. While that buffers, read this conversation I had with the man about his revived popularity, his old days running the Ding Ho, and why new comics should try their hand at producing shows.
Congrats on the Louis CK-produced special Whatever Threatens You! How did that come about?
Louis and I spoke the night Call Me Lucky premiered at Sundance and he thought it was really a shame I didn’t have a special out there. He said he wanted to produce and direct a special and release it through his website. He asked if I’d be interested in that. I said, “Of course.” He said, “Well, get on the road and work your ass off for a year or so. Get the act together and we’ll do it!”
So I did that. I kept my promise and he kept his and here we are. I’m very happy with it. I think they did a beautiful job with it. I think it looks great! It looks more like a concert film than a tv special, so I’m really pleased. It took a long time for me to do one of these. In the long run, I would rather do it at this stage of the game, where I kinda know more, than 30 years ago. It’s fun.
I think the question a lot of comedy fans, and fans of yours, are asking is, “Why did it take so long?”
I mean, my career sort of coincided with the corporatization of show business. I’ve always understood that I wouldn’t get certain things because they wouldn’t let me stand on their soap box and say their soap is polluting the river. I think I lost some stuff. It’s not like there was this active plot or anything. I just think that people worry about their jobs, understandably. Signing off on me and then seeing what might happen if someone like me got on a big network somewhere and started a big hubbub, they think, “Well, maybe somebody else.” But I was always greatly complimented by other talent and people and producers and so on. At the same time, they would say, “Well we can’t use you,” or, “We don’t do politics,” or whatever it is. It is what it is. It’s happened the way that it’s happened and I’m very pleased. I think I was ready.
If I’m going to be honest, I didn’t know much about you until recently. I hadn’t seen any of your stand-up until the Louis C.K. email and seeing the Bobcat Goldthwait documentary. You’re like this beloved name amongst comedians that I hear but never see. So when you’re now getting this special and a big Netflix documentary, I think a lot of hardcore comedy nerds are collectively shouting, “Finally!”
Here’s the thing: I’ve gotten to get up and do what I was supposed to do—what I thought I was supposed to do—every day for over 40 years, now. I feel like that’s a form of success. I didn’t have to go sit in a cubicle [Ed. note: he says as I sit in a cubicle] or answer to some jerk or whatever or live under all this other sorts of pressure or do these things that I didn’t believe in. Part of the price for that was, “Maybe I’m not a household name.” But that can also sometimes be a bad thing. I’m sort of a journalist, too, so that I can travel around with anonymity has served me quite well at times. It’s all fine. It’s what it’s supposed to be. And enough of my friends are so successful that I certainly know what not to be jealous of. I get to go back to my place out in the country where people don’t really know what I do. Then when I go somewhere, people know who I am and that’s nice and we sell some more tickets and maybe we can help raise a little more awareness about some important things.
You mentioned a few times phrases like “supposed to” and “was meant to do.” Do you believe in a destiny? That this is your destiny?
It kind of feels that way lately. It’s pretty improbable. I might be the hottest 63-year-old comic in the United States right now. The thing is I know of a whole bunch of other comics who are still really, really good. In a way, I feel like I’ve done something good for our generation. Among other things, I go around and I get along with the younger comedians. I like them. I know what you’re up against. At times, I might know a little more than you and I feel bad. Like right now it’s so tough to do comedy because there are so many people doing it.
You’re telling me.
And you can’t get that mother’s milk of comedy which is stage time. You can’t get enough of it. Which is hard. You go around putting an act together two minutes at a time. When you put it all together it’s gonna look like a ransom note! “What’s a capital T doing at the end of this joke?” One of the things you have to work on is the flow and the sequence. Even in all my years, there’s always been a place where I can do an hour or whatever. I’ve always had that. I’ve been able to work at this a long time and do as I saw fit. I don’t really require a lavish lifestyle. So I get to make the decision to be an artist.
I certainly don’t think ‘lavish lifestyle’ when I think of you. I just think, “Dude just wants to tell his jokes and then go home to chop some wood.”
But of course when Goldthwait shot that stuff, my right kneecap was broken in two places—I got t-boned in a car accident. So I’m trying to chop wood standing on one leg and I discover it’s kind of impossible to do from the stork position. I turned to Goldthwait and said, “Yea this isn’t working.” That meant, “This isn’t going in the movie.” But of course, two minutes into the movie, there I am struggling. I hadn’t hit a stick of wood that didn’t split in years. People saw that and started sending me instructional YouTube videos of how to split wood!
So you say you hang out with the younger comics a lot. Even the older comics say that you’ve been such a mentor to so many. Do you still find yourself in that position with the new generation?
Yeah, to some extent. I also learn from them and figure out a better way to gain access to younger audiences.
I feel like they flock to you with, “Tell us of the olden days before Twitter!”
Well it was a whole different thing! We had to hustle. You didn’t have the Internet so you had to find your way into broadcast and print media and word-of-mouth and flyers. It was a different hustle then.
When you were saying that today’s comics have the challenge of getting stage time, I think, “Well you went ahead and created your own stage time by opening two comedy clubs.”
What you have to do is find something inventive and good that people want to go to. And you have to hustle it. I think it would benefit most comics to spend a little time on the production side of things because you’re going to be dealing with the production side of things for your entire career. Figuring out what goes into putting a show together and you also kind of learn, “Oh, that guy’s being a jerk.” And then you realize, “Oh. No, he or she isn’t being a jerk. I’ve been through this. There’s a reason they’re asking for x, y, or z here.” So once you get on that side of it, that helps you for the rest of your career. You have a better idea of who’s playing you and who isn’t.
Was there a conflict in being a comedian and running comedy clubs?
There wasn’t enough stage time for every slot. But our slots were real! If you were on, we always had at least one person doing 45 minutes, and a couple more were doing somewhere between 15 and 25, and we would stick someone else up there if they were around. And we were paying everybody, too. When you do it that way, you still have a finite amount of slots. You figure out you only have 35 or 50 spots to give out in a month. The thing a lot of people didn’t understand was, am I going to tell Steven Wright, or Paula Poundstone, or Kevin Meaney, or Jack Gallagher, or Steve Sweeney, or Lenny Clark, Lauren Dombrowski, or you name it to stay home? What I did was the people who helped make the club who were still around were the first ones that I booked. When I had something else, I began to work other people in. Then we also hustled road gigs and satellite gigs and whatever so we could start some people out there. But there were other clubs!
The other thing I did that was really pretty unique was I wasn’t turfy at all. If anyone said they wanted to start a club, I said, “Great!” because to me that meant there was more stage time. If my show wasn’t selling out, it didn’t have anything to do with their show. It had to do with what was going on at my place. I just tried to compete with myself. We had such enormous talent and we treated the talent well. So it really blossomed. Guys were able to quit their day jobs just from the money they were making at the Ding Ho! Then other people kind of had to do that too if they wanted to book those acts. And I never told anybody they couldn’t work at another club or whatever. Other people tried that but I never did that. You know, you got a gig, go do that. I’d let them work two clubs in a night if they could because people had to make a living.
When people walked on the stage, they felt like somebody. I think that a comic walking on the stage and feeling like they’re somebody really makes a difference than being treated like, “You’re lucky to be here. You better do well.”
That’s so key that a dude with a restaurant running a comedy night doesn’t understand—needing to feel like somebody and be valued. Even if we’re asking for $20, it’s not that I need that $20. It’s what that $20 represents.
And it’s still a matter of hustling good rooms, getting the right talent behind it, and, I guess these days, making sure you have a great Internet punch behind it. There’s so much comedy now. It was so important to us back in the day to make comedy a viable alternative. There were 10 or 15 music venues to every comedy venue—at least—back in the day. But now what we’re getting to, which I really like, is more integrated shows. I’d like to see more shows with music and comedy. Then you create a weave. You bring in the audience of a couple good singer/songwriters and then a couple of great comics. and next thing you know, some of the comedy fans are going to see those singers at a music venue and some of those music fans are coming to see more comedy. I really kind of see a future of a revue type kind of thing, so you don’t have six people in a row doing the same thing. If you add it all up, there ends up being as much or more work for everybody and we’re not kind of divided and conquered.
Are there any shows amongst the new guard who you think are doing this really well?
One club that I really like what they do is The Creek and the Cave in New York. Rebecca’s done a fine job of trying to take care of everybody that’s there. [Kurt] Metzger and I are doing some shows at the Village Underground, which is of course music part of the time and comedy sometimes. So that’s a good example. I used to do that years ago at the Village Gate in New York, which was a very famous club. You know, I’d be downstairs and upstairs there’d literally be Miles Davis or somebody. A lot of those jazz luminaries would be around a lot.
One last thing about the special. How was it working with Louis, a guy who you once mentored back in the day?
Fantastic! He doesn’t have a lot of time, so he’s the most efficient guy ever. He came in, he looked at the place—bang! bang! I mean, I knew the venue would be really good and that the audience would be good. I just figured it would be a really good place to shoot something. He came in to take a look at it and said, “Oh yeah,” and came up with that look in one afternoon. We shot it and you got what you got. He was amazing. He’s so busy. You know, working with him I literally would check the newswires before I sent him a text. “Oh, he’s in Rome today.” It was fantastic working with him.
Why Lawrence, Kansas?
Why Lawrence? Because Lawrence is an oasis town; it’s a very hip town. It’s in the epicenter of the country. For years, people kept me off things by saying, “Well, they love you on both coasts but what about the rest of the country?” So this is live right from fucking Lawrence, Kansas, so laugh that off!