The Original Jon Stewart

Long before the ‘Daily Show’ host turned political rants into comedy gold, Barry Crimmins perfected the practice. Now his complicated legacy is finally getting its due recognition.

Kenneth Martin/Landov

One key reason the end of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show reign stings so much is because no comedian has done more to educate and—perhaps more importantly—demand an education from his audience; to put on blast the hypocrisy of our culture, political or otherwise; to blend comedy and politics and anger and passion and, through that all, change the landscape of the comedy world altogether.

Well, nobody except maybe Barry Crimmins.

Barry Crimmins is a comedian-turned-activist, and the subject of the new documentary Call Me Lucky.

In the grand tradition of the biggest trailblazers being the ones who go unnoticed, he may have been one of the most influential satirists and politically-minded humorists of all time—as well as one of the most invaluable soldiers in raising awareness and fighting against one of the darkest issues of our time. Though this may be the first time you’ve heard his name.

Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait and one of the last passion projects of Robin Williams before he passed away, Call Me Lucky puts a long overdue spotlight on a comedian whose mad-as-hell, hellfire brand of comedy was the original merciless bulldozer, eviscerating and shaming institutions years before Jon Stewart, John Oliver, or Stephen Colbert turned the practice into a ratings-grabbing, zeitgeist-seizing enterprise.

And like any truly great documentary, Call Me Lucky cuts to the root of the pain that has fueled the fire Crimmins’ work has been fanning for decades: his past as a victim of sexual abuse as a child. Motivated by personal anger, he’s led a public discussion of the issue that has changed the way the world thinks about it.

He’s also, as it were, known for being a bit unhinged.

The likes of Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt, Margaret Cho, and Goldthwait himself all contribute to the documentary, attempting to pinpoint just how influential Crimmins has been and struggling to best describe him. Comparisons abound, a favorite of which calls him a cross between Noam Chomsky and Bluto.

“He had integrity,” friend and fellow comedian Lenny Clark says. “He was a man of his word. But he was a nut job!”

Over a lunch in which everything from prison justice to drug war McCarthyism to Crimmins’ own abuse is passionately discussed, I ask him what he hoped that participating in a documentary about his life and his legacy would accomplish.

“Break some silence. Do some good. Help some people,” he says. “That’s what I wanted.”

And that sums up Barry.

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His outspokenness was legendary. In the comedy world he is as prolific and esteemed as comedians come—though he never became a mainstream name. His work was in the tradition of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, but perhaps angrier, with rants laying into Reagan, gun control, Bush, or whatever subject of the day managed to get him all fired up.

In the film, Marc Maron recalls watching Crimmins and witnessing his frustration at an uninformed, pre-Daily Show era crowd that came for set-up-to-punchline nyuks and didn’t appreciate being expected to have read the newspaper before showing up. At one show Maron remembers Crimmins, exasperated to a breaking point, stopping his set and explaining, “OK. So there’s three branches of government…”

“That was fairly regular,” Crimmins tells me. “It was a joke to tell them to pick up their game. Sometimes they deserved it! So it was in the toolbox.” (In one archival clip from a set, Crimmins tells his audience, “I meant to inform you, but it came out as an insult.”)

“It was very frustrating for him,” Goldwaith tells me, in a separate interview. “He was performing for people who did not want to be distracted.” But it wasn’t comedy of pretention. He just had high standards.

“He never dumbed-down his act for the general public,” Goldwaith says. “Not because he’s an elitist, but because he expects a lot out of people. He’s not cynical. He’s skeptical, but he’s not cynical. He thinks we can do better.”

Demanding that the American public can do better and, especially, that the American government that can do better makes Call Me Lucky’s release when Stewart—who gets much credit for demanding exactly that—has just signed off seem almost poetic.

And though much of the early coverage of Call Me Lucky makes those parallels between Crimmins and Stewart, it’s an association that he’s not entirely comfortable with.

“I don’t want to get in trouble,” he says. “I don’t want to seem ungracious or petty.” He then talks about a dangerous, and largely unhelpful, obsession in modern political comedy with extreme politics: what incendiary and insane thing the most far-reaching, trolling conservatives and liberals are saying.

“This idea that we’re supposed to be sitting around talking about or spending our time saying, ‘Did you see what Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter or some clown said today?’” he says. “No, I’m not an asshole I didn’t see what they said today. I saw them once a long time ago and they’re what you call a troll. And if we’re talking about their outrage statement or whatever the hell they did, then we’re not talking about the other real stuff you never hear about.”

But before he gets into one of his rants—he’d prefer they be called “impassioned pleas”—he wants to make a few things very clear. First is how flattering he finds the fact that people are putting his name in the same sentence as Stewart’s and Colbert’s.

“He’s a tremendous talent,” he says of Stewart. “But also along the way he became a very wealthy guy and slipped into another strata that grays his thinking. My mind’s never been polluted by that.” He laughs. “I’m kidding, Jon.”

But that’s just one pillar of Crimmins’ life. The other is the candid, crucial battle he has waged against child abuse and child pornography.

As is brutally and honestly chronicled in the film, Crimmins was raped by someone he describes as his babysitter’s mother’s boyfriend. In 1992, he decided to talk about the abuse during one of his sets in Boston. A newspaper article attempts to capture the power of the moment:

“Barry Crimmins has been the social and liberal conscience of Boston comedy almost since its beginning. His topical and political humor has always been intensely personal and acidic. Crimmins took both of these to a new level last night in perhaps the most highly charged and soul-baring monologue ever staged in one of the city’s comedy clubs.”

Goldthwait remembers when he first learned of his friend’s past. “There was a sense of relief when I heard that, because I knew my friend was in pain and I was relieved that there was a reason for it,” he says.

Crimmins, to this day, is aggressively candid about the experience—though he never could have predicted the impact it would have on so many people, and, ultimately, his own future. “I knew I had crossed the line, so let’s see where it goes,” he says, remembering that set in Boston. “I knew I had nothing to be ashamed of. People say, ‘You admitted…’ but that’s not it. When you’re guilty you admit things. I had nothing to be ashamed of.”

Years later his personal experience would motivate him to take on what will, comedy achievements aside, be his greatest accomplishment: single-handedly fighting child pornographers and the outlets that aid them. And winning.

After discovering that pedophiles used AOL chatrooms to trade child porn, he first went to AOL to stop it. When that proved fruitless he became relentless to the point that, on July 25, 1995, he testified before Congress, setting off a sequence of events that would alter how we think about Internet safety in the digital age. (Footage of that testimony alone makes Call Me Lucky worth a look.)

“I’m a tuning fork for agony,” Crimmins says when asked about the fight. “If there’s agony going on somewhere and no one’s talking about it I can’t help my degree of frustration.”

That the film succeeds in its hybrid form—a little bit of a tribute, a little bit of investigative journalism, and a little bit of a PSA—is because its subject is so close to its maker. Goldthwait and Crimmins are not just dear friends; Goldthwait credits him for saving his life. When Goldthwait was just starting out, partying too much, and nearing rock bottom, it was Crimmins who reached out, gave him a few hundred dollars, and told him to get his life straight.

“When a lot of people kind of abandoned me he reached out to me and assured me that he was there for me, and that I wasn’t in it alone,” Goldthwait says. “But that’s Barry.”

Goldthwait had first envisioned a film about Barry’s story 20 years ago, but at that time as a narrative feature. It percolated over the years; at one point Crimmins wrote a 300-page screenplay draft. But it was actually Robin Williams who first suggested that they do a documentary instead, and gave the initial money that set off the round of funding for the film in 2014.

“It’s good to see my friend not just in the spotlight, but to have all these survivors coming forward,” Goldthwait says about the reaction to the movie in the months since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. “People with tears in their eyes. I think Barry was ready for it but I wasn’t.”

He starts chuckling. “I’m a bit of a misanthrope and now I find myself hugging people.”

With a movie about his life being released and Jon Stewart’s departure sparking all kinds of conversation about his legacy, Crimmins is having a hard time being retrospective about, in hindsight, his own mission.

But pausing to concoct an answer, what he comes up with is, characteristically, perfect.

“I got to wake up every day and do what I thought I was supposed to do,” he says. “I answered to my conscience. I said and did what I wanted when I wanted. I generally got some kind of audience. And if I die, I was leaving a trail that maybe sometime down the line somebody will pick it up.”