The name “Barry Crimmins” may sound vaguely familiar, but there aren’t many non-comedians who know Crimmins’ story – at least not the whole story. It’s arguable that this is reason enough for the film to have been made and for as many people as possible to watch it. His is a unique story of personal discovery and public achievement that rewards as it educates, and director Bobcat Goldthwait’s love and admiration for his subject pervades the film. The first half of Call Me Lucky is devoted mainly to Crimmins’ early comedy career, beginning when he was in high school in Skaneateles, New York and peaking (in popularity and influence) in Boston, where he booked for two comedy clubs: Ding Ho, which filled one of the non-line-dancing nights at a small Chinese restaurant, and the more-conventional Stitches. Crimmins booked a number of major comedians early in their careers, like Paula Poundstone, Kevin Meaney, and Steven Wright, and was at the vanguard of what became the definitive scene in New England in the 1980s. His became one of the leading names amongst a vein of comedians referred to as “truth-tellers,” whose acts are devoted to political and social issues of the day.
Much of the documentary is taken up with talking-head interviews with Crimmins’ comedian contemporaries, and one of the motifs that continuously crops up is that Crimmins seemed “troubled,” that the rage he displayed during his sets seemed to indicate something deeper or more personal in significance than could be accounted for by his outrage for the US government. His narrative seems to follow a familiar narrative to those of any number of comedians whose careers were shaded with darkness and self-destructive substance abuse, like Marc Maron, who appears throughout the film (and recently interviewed Crimmins on his WTF podcast), and even the young Bobcat Goldthwait (whose moniker is actually based on Crimmins’ early nickname, “Bear Cat”). The story veers from this well-trod path, however, in 1992, when Crimmins concluded one of his usually-blistering sets with an intense, headline-inspiring monologue about the repeated sexual abuse he suffered in early childhood at the hands of a babysitter’s friend.
The rest of the documentary is devoted to Crimmins’ “second” career, as a crusader against child pornography dispersed on the then-barely-regulated internet, and as an abuse survivor. Crimmins’ relentless pursuit of protection and justice for children eventually brought him to the floor of Congress, where he argued effectively against an AOL representative for stronger governmental regulation and punishments for corporations. As interviewee after interviewee remarks, whether fellow survivors, advocates, or friends from any stage in his life, Crimmins’ self-sacrificing passion and empathy touched everyone around him and helped many to deal with their own issues. The absolute sincerity and authenticity of Crimmins’ outrage as well as his striking kindness are undeniable as he continues to rail against the Catholic church, the government, and anyone who “harms innocence” in footage from recent sets as well as standalone interviews, where he stares unblinking into the camera, a man unafraid to confront real evil, and to insist that we confront it as well.
And because these attributes are so apparent whenever Crimmins is onscreen, the use of so many interviews begins to feel excessive. At times it seems as though Goldthwait is concerned that if not enough recognizable names are recorded praising Crimmins, the documentary won’t be able to overcome the lack of name-recognition for Crimmins himself. The effect is compounded by the fact that every interviewee is introduced with text that includes not only their name and titles, but the titles of shows, films, or books for which they are known. In criticizing the length and repetitiveness of the film I don’t mean to suggest that any aspect of Crimmins’ life and career isn’t of inherent interest, but rather that these extraneous testimonials may be doing a disservice to the subject.
One of the things that makes Crimmins such a brilliant satirist and activist is the unapologetic manner in which he shifts without pause from guffaw-inducing political bits to very dark, serious, and very real discussions of the issues closest to his heart. The structure of the film might appear to mirror this structure, yet in actuality, it relies on building suspense toward the revelation of his personal history of abuse, a couple of short animated sequences, and heavy-handed musical cues that veer into schmaltz and Hallmark-movie territory to essentially soften the blow. Crimmins says that there are some things which must be heard, no matter how unpleasant and uncomfortable they are, and I wonder if the film might have better honored that call to unflinching attention.
Despite these stylistic missteps, Call Me Lucky demands to be seen, primarily to bring attention not only to the issues surrounding pedophilia, the Catholic church, and the American government against which Crimmins rails, but to the man himself. His demeanor and screen presence are undeniably appealing and the film more than demonstrates the veracity of Goldthwait’s insistence that more people need to know about Barry Crimmins.