Chattering Class

Bobcat Goldthwait on Comedy Kingmaker Barry Crimmins

The comedian's new award-winning documentary traces his mentor's life into darkness and back again.

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Barry Crimmins appears in a scene from "Call Me Lucky." Image courtesy of Type 55 Films.

Rico Gagliano: Our guest Bobcat Goldthwait made a huge splash as a comedian in the 1980s and ’90s… but he’s since made a name for himself as a filmmaker.  And his manic stage persona is a far cry from his latest project. It’s a deeply empathetic documentary about his friend, the legendary comedian and activist Barry Crimmins. It’s called “Call Me Lucky.”

It was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and, Bob, I’m very glad to have you here to talk about it.

Bobcat Goldthwait: Well, thank you. I don’t know if I am that well known as someone who makes movies, but…

Rico Gagliano: Really?

Bobcat Goldthwait: Yeah. I mean, it’s OK. I mean, “Call Me Lucky” is the seventh movie that I’ve directed…

Rico Gagliano: I know.

Bobcat Goldthwait: …But, you know, my movies make hundreds of dollars. Actual hundreds.

Rico Gagliano: I’m pretty sure you’re understating those figures.  But let’s talk about this movie, which I’m sure will do better than that. What was the genesis of it?

Bobcat Goldthwait: The genesis of this movie… I’ve known Barry since I was 16.  And if you see the movie — you know, Barry’s a political advocate, but it also deals with his child abuse.  Barry took AOL to task in the early ’90s because they were allowing child pornography to be exchanged, and ended up embarrassing AOL all the way to the floor of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

And when that happened, in the early ’90s, I wanted to make the movie then!  Because I thought, “This is a Capra story.” Actually, the earlier draft was called “Mr. Crimmins Goes to Washington.”

Rico Gagliano: He’s not quite like Jimmy Stewart but…

Bobcat Goldthwait: No, no [laughs]!

Rico Gagliano: …it’s a modern twist.

Bobcat Goldthwait: Barry’s got a lot of charm, but it’s not a folksy, down-home charm.

Rico Gagliano: No.

Bobcat Goldthwait: It’s very aggressive, and… he’s actually really fascinating, don’t you think?

Rico Gagliano: I do. Actually, I wanted to– you mentioned that you met him as a teenager. You were a comedian.  I think you met him —

Bobcat Goldthwait: — Yeah, he was hosting a comedy show, and Tom Kenny and I, who, I don’t want to name drop, but that’s Spongebob Squarepants.

Rico Gagliano: He’s the voice of Spongebob.

Bobcat Goldthwait: And a lot of other things.  But yeah, Tommy and I have known each other since first grade. We saw this ad in the Syracuse New Times where this guy was looking for comedians.  And we show up, and Barry’s expecting some men, and it’s two teenage kids!

And he puts us on stage, and — it’s in the movie — that’s the origin of the nickname “Bobcat.”  Because folks called him “Bearcat,” and Tommy and I, being sarcastic little angst-ridden teens, said, “Oh, that’s funny; my name’s Bobcat!” [laughs] “And he’s Tomcat!”  But–

Rico Gagliano: Wow. Your first move is to make fun of this dude in some way.

Bobcat Goldthwait: Make fun of this guy, yes!  Who later on turns into my mentor.

Film subject, political satirist/comedian Barry Crimmins (L) and director Bobcat Goldthwait attend an evening with director Bobcat Goldthwait and Barry Crimmins at The Friars Club on July 28, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images)
Film subject, political satirist/comedian Barry Crimmins (L) and director Bobcat Goldthwait attend an evening with director Bobcat Goldthwait. (Photo by Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images)

Rico Gagliano: Well, tell me about meeting him for that first time. You show up at the club. This is not your typical gent.

Bobcat Goldthwait: It was a club that was in a basement, and he was sitting on stage with a fold-up desk, and he’s got a beer, and he’s smoking. And in my mind, when I think back on it, just smoke was coming out of everything.  Like his ears… it was like his own Blue Öyster Cult show or something.

So, yeah, there was smoke, like, coming out of his nostrils — that was for sure. And he looks up, and he’s like, “Ugh. The kiddie corps.” The first thing he said was actually a curse, and then he called us “The kiddie corps.” Then he put us on, and he said that we did well, and he kept us. I think he just really needed bodies, you know.

Rico Gagliano: Just anyone could have wandered in off the street.

Bobcat Goldthwait: Yeah, anybody who said they were comedians.

Rico Gagliano: Let me ask you about the comedy that he’s doing at that time. Margaret Cho — in the film — mentions that he comes from this little mini-movement of comedians in that era that she calls “truth tellers.” Explain what she means by that, and how that applies to Barry.

Bobcat Goldthwait: Well, Barry’s act, even in the earlier days, still had some political content.  And his nightclub act eventually just became completely political. He really lost all interest in doing any kind of…

Rico Gagliano: Punchlines.

Bobcat Goldthwait: Yeah. Or, you know, “Where are you from? What do you do?”

You know, the joke that most people mangle that’s the typical Barry joke — if you really want to get into who he is — is the line: “People say if you don’t love America, why don’t you leave it?” And Barry says: “Because I don’t want to be a victim of its foreign policies.”

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, he didn’t pull many punches.

Bobcat Goldthwait: Oh, no! No.  And people who were heroes of mine, like Steve Martin, Monty Python, Robin [Williams], and Andy Kaufman… comedy was pretty silly in the late ’70s.  And here’s this guy who is a heavy, heavy political satirist.

Rico Gagliano: Halfway through this movie, the story suddenly changes from being about this revolutionary comic, to being about this guy who very publicly is wrestling with his demons.

Bobcat Goldthwait: Well, right.

Rico Gagliano: In the middle of a stand-up set, he tells people that he was abused as a child. Were you there that night?

Bobcat Goldthwait: No, but you know what’s interesting, too, about Barry? His act, almost never is it personal. It’s always very topical. So, for him to do a set that was so personal was jarring enough.

Rico Gagliano: What do you remember the reaction being of the comedy community at that time?

Bobcat Goldthwait: Oh, it was… people were concerned about him. Like, it was that far, you know?

Rico Gagliano: They thought he was going to lose it?

Bobcat Goldthwait: Yeah, they thought he had lost it.  To do this on stage?  I mean, if you think about that, it’s a comedy show, and then someone discloses this heavy thing about child rape. You know, I truly thought I was going to lose Barry around then. I really kind of did. So, that story alone, him bouncing back, it makes him a fascinating subject.

Rico Gagliano: As I was watching this movie, it reminded me of a movie you made back in 2011, “God Bless America.”

Here, you’ve got a movie about a guy who has rage against the way that his innocence was stolen, and kind of channels it towards being a political activist — fighting for the rights of innocent people everywhere.

Then you’ve got “God Bless America,” which is about a guy who’s also angry at the callousness of the world… and maybe channels his rage in more inappropriate ways, like murdering people.

Bobcat Goldthwait: Yeah. It is a satire, and you shouldn’t be agreeing with everything the protagonist in “God Bless America” does and says, seeing that he’s a homicidal maniac!

Rico Gagliano: I got that!

Bobcat Goldthwait: You know, it’s a very violent movie about kindness, is how I describe “God Bless America.”

Rico Gagliano: But all of that was kind of preamble to my question, which is: Would you say this is a preoccupation of yours, the way people channel anger?

Bobcat Goldthwait: No, the anger is just in me [laughs], and it percolates into the movies I make. But, you know, I think “World’s Greatest Dad” and “Call Me Lucky” have the thing in common — and I guess “God Bless America” too — which is an adult man taking charge of their life, later on in life. Deciding, “This doesn’t work for me,” and changing who they are.

Rico Gagliano: Why does that resonate with you so much?

Bobcat Goldthwait: I think my own story. I do know that 10 years ago or more, I kind of just quit. You know I jokingly say, “I stopped acting the same time people stopped hiring me, so it worked out well.” But that’s really not the truth — I actually stopped pursuing things.

When I learned that I don’t have to go on auditions, and I don’t have to do these things that weren’t making me happy… I believe it’s really important to quit, and quit often. You know, if you quit long enough, you’re going to end up someplace you don’t want to leave.

Rico Gagliano: You said earlier Barry Crimmins is your mentor. What’s maybe the biggest lesson you’ve taken from him?

Bobcat Goldthwait: “Thy own self be true.”  You know, Barry… it’s important [to him] to be able to hit the pillow at night having solace in speaking his mind, even at the risk of alienating a lot of people.

He’s a terrible influence! I mean, it would’ve been much more lucrative if it was just some guy who just wanted me to be funny all the time and have nothing to say in my act. Oh, my goodness! I’d be living in the ‘Bu right now — I’d have a nice spread on the beach.