Comedian and activist Barry Crimmins is a very simple man. He has but two humble objectives in his life; “Overthrow the United States government and close the Catholic Church.” Bobcat Goldthwait’s assured documentary, Call Me Lucky, spends half its running time paying homage to Crimmins’ invectives and the other half illuminating their painful source. It’s hilarious, heartbreaking, and life-affirming stuff from a director who continues his evolution into a serious filmmaker.
Like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin before him, Barry Crimmins wasn’t afraid to add some substance to his stand-up comedy routine. He championed the Boston-area comedy boom in the ‘80s, leading to an increased awareness of stand-up comedians that continues to this day. Perhaps it’s not a stretch to say there would be no Seinfeld or Louie without Crimmins’ efforts back in the day. A ferocious performer who freely mixed politics and punchlines, Crimmins would either inform you or piss you off.
Yet, beneath that fearless stage persona was a terrified child hiding a crushing secret. Years later, and seemingly out of the blue, Crimmins made a decision to come forward about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. This started a new chapter in his life; that of a children’s advocate. Taking early Internet providers such as AOL to task for the prevalence of child pornography being traded on their message boards, Crimmins blazed the trail for many of the regulations and protocols that exist today. His mission became sparing other children from the pain he was forced to endure.
Mirroring Crimmins’ life story, Goldthwait splits Call Me Lucky into two distinct parts. The first part deals with Crimmins early career and his impact on the Boston comedy scene. We’re treated to a litany of classic comedians from that era, including Steven Wright, Kevin Meaney, Lenny Clarke, and Goldthwait himself, as they reminisce about the impact Crimmins had on them. “Barry was like a combination of Noam Chomsky and Bluto from Popeye,” one comedian observes. He nurtured the younger comedians, encouraging them to take chances and experiment with their personal styles. The love and respect they feel for Crimmins is palpable, which Goldthwait amplifies by keeping things fast-paced and funny. Crimmins delivers perhaps the film’s funniest line when talking about his hometown of Skaneateles, New York. “It’s an Indian word that means ‘beautiful lake surrounded by fascists.’”
For the film’s second half, however, Goldthwait slows the pacing and lowers the lights a bit. Whereas the first half of Call Me Lucky celebrates Crimmins’ humor, the second half champions his strength. It’s a tricky transition for the steadiest of filmmakers, but Goldthwait makes it look easy. Because Goldthwait took the time to introduce Crimmins and detail his personal struggles, we form an emotional bond with him that carries us through the harrowing ordeal. It’s a veteran decision that keeps Call Me Lucky from descending into forced melodrama, and makes the last scenes feel like a punch in the stomach.
Sometimes laughter comes from a darker place. Nobody knows that better than Barry Crimmins. He channels his buried, seething rage into a full-frontal assault that’s tinged with humor. “It’s a slow process of learning how to smuggle content to people,” Crimmins admits. Bobcat Goldthwait takes Crimmins’ advice by giving us a documentary that looks thin on the surface—feel-good stories about the grizzled comedian ‘giving the young kids a break’—but ends up being remarkably perceptive about the human condition. Call Me Lucky is one of Sundance’s best documentaries.