Humor and poignancy collide in this surprisingly moving doc about the best comedian you’ve never heard of.
Call Me Lucky
Comedy has always been in close proximity to suffering. Whether it’s a tragic news headline serving as the butt of a joke or the hidden inner turmoil of the actual joke-teller, the two opposing sentiments seemingly go hand in hand. It calls to mind the Looney Tunes principle of laughter derived from extreme misfortune, or the notion of the “Sad Clown.” But anger has also played a role for some comedians bearing their demons and grievances onstage and many a man and woman have since been enshrined for their sharp-tongued antics (Such as Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, George Carlin and Bill Hicks among others). In Call Me Lucky, Director Bobcat Goldthwait asserts that one comic has gone missing from that list of greats and there’s much more to his story than that of a funnyman who never got his due.
The name of this unsung comic is Barry Crimmins. You’d be excused for not recognizing him as he’s has been out of the public eye for some time, but for comedy buffs who grew up in a certain time and place, he’s something of a legend. The mid-1980’s was when he came to prominence, setting up two clubs in Boston and fostering a tight-knit community of young, burgeoning talent. His personal brand of stand-up centered on anti-consumerist, anti-authoritarian political satire (something that didn’t always resonate with audiences lulled into a lack of social consciousness by the hyper-patriotism of the Reagan era). Described by one interviewee as a cross between Noam Chomsky and Bluto (from Popeye), he was a curmudgeonly firecracker on stage, drumming himself up into a surprisingly coherent rage over the numerous egregious acts perpetrated by his country.
While lauded for his incredible comedic chops, Crimmins was more than someone who merely entertained with harshly humorous truths. He drifted into genuine activism, delivering stirring, fact-studded tirades at anti-war rallies and lending his support to badly afflicted South American countries. In a time without Internet, he was remarkably knowledgeable about the injustices and intergovernmental dealings taking place around the world and took pride in making a stand against them. By the time the ’90s rolled around, Crimmins’ impact had been felt by an entire generation of comedians and left-wing demonstrators, but it was a haunting realization of long-suppressed childhood abuse that sent his life in a new direction and refreshed his sense of purpose.
The power of Call Me Lucky is in its evolution from a humdrum comedian profile to an emotionally involved journey of survival and positivity born from pain. Expectations are initially set low by an opening act that ticks all the boxes necessary to qualify as an average bio doc. The film takes us through the bullet points of Crimmins’ early life in typical “who/what/when/where” fashion, filled out past the point of reason with several anecdotes from friends and famous admirers (Like Marc Maron, Tom Kenny, Patton Oswalt and Margaret Cho, to name a few). The humorous yarns are somewhat cursory, but as told by professional storytellers, they prove to be one of the film’s most entertaining aspects. Crimmins himself doesn’t appear that often through this first portion of the picture, and aside from a series of fluid firsthand accounts describing his personality, the key details of his early life are skimmed over rather quickly.
It isn’t until almost halfway in that the film finds its footing. Goldthwait simultaneously narrows his focus and broadens the story’s scope as he hones in on the boisterous comic’s sexual assault as a child, poignantly addressing the effect it had on his perception of the world and the role it played in his compulsion to expose its ugliness. Topics that were vaguely mentioned in passing earlier suddenly spring to life. The problems and struggles of separating oneself from victimization are discussed. Barry’s attraction to comedy is a defense mechanism and the film gets to the heart of why humanitarian issues resonate so strongly with him, exploring the very roots of his notoriously impassioned fits of anger (To paraphrase what he says at one point: “There are entire countries that feel abused, like I do”). It’s deep, dark stuff and Goldthwait thankfully surrenders most of the commentary to Crimmins, who makes for a highly thoughtful, illuminating speaker.
Despite the sudden shift in subject matter, Call Me Lucky does not make itself about wallowing in the doom and gloom of past trauma. Instead, it takes an inspirational route, chronicling Crimmins’ renewed sense of responsibility and his resulting crusade against Internet child pornography in the ’90s (a mission that would ultimately carry him to Washington D.C., where he confronted a criminally enabling AOL leadership). Coupled with the testimonies of friends who benefited from Crimmins’ support through their own intensely personal crises, the film’s final act tastefully caps off a loving portrait of a genuinely good man with a soaring celebration of his enduring, unbroken spirit.
While the film benefits from its powerful structuring, it also undoubtedly benefits from the inherently compelling nature of the story it tells. In other words, Goldthwait doesn’t always make the best directorial decisions. His indulgence in talking heads is the film’s most strikingly negative aspect. Those lingering anecdotes from the first act really bog down the pacing, and we get the feeling that Goldthwait couldn’t resist including some of his pals’ wild tales (regardless of their relevancy), but the worst examples of this nepotism come toward the end of the film when Goldthwait leans heavily upon the praises of those who personally know Crimmins and the film devolves into a string of sentiments essentially adding up to “Gosh, isn’t Barry just the greatest?” There’s no doubt of the truth of their words, but it feels forced when so much of the man’s actions and experiences speak for themselves.
Such indulgences come from the heart, though, and no matter how much they hinder the film’s conciseness, one cannot deny the empathy that Goldthwait generates. It may not always be the most eloquent piece of work, but Call Me Lucky is as moving and life affirming a documentary as you will find.