While Crimmins’ story is intriguing and worth telling, Call Me Lucky too often puffs up its feathers.
You’ve probably never heard of Barry Crimmins. He was an influential figure in the Boston comedy scene, founding two clubs that would go on to feature the likes of Paula Poundstone, Steven Wright and Bobcat Goldthwait. Early in his career, the hard-drinking Crimmins raised eyebrows with his brash and often vitriolic sets, but unlike a number of the comedian pals whose careers he helped launch, Crimmins never got his breakthrough, at least not in comedy. Call Me Lucky both highlights Crimmins’ up-and-down career and the traumatic past that shaped who was and who he would become.
The documentary begins by building up Crimmins’ mystique, even as his many career flaws are brought to light. Directed by Goldthwait, the film trots out big names like David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Margaret Cho and Marc Maron (for whom Goldthwait has directed nearly a dozen “Maron” episodes), many of whom seem to only have a peripheral history with or second-hand knowledge of Crimmins. They discuss his sets from the ‘80s as brilliant, unpredictable and frequently hostile. He would berate hecklers for minutes at a time and his routines became increasingly fixated on politics. He often said he wanted to overthrow the government (especially when war hawk Republicans held the most sway) and eradicate the Catholic Church. Ultimately, it was his angry political diatribes that sunk his ability to achieve career ascension. After all, a comedian, even a political satirist, needs to entertain. People get tired of shouted rants, even if they agree with them.
Crimmins’ biography took a sharp turn when, during a set one night, he revealed horrific details from his childhood. Initially lighthearted, casting Crimmins cantankerousness more in the vein of Winnebago Man’s Jack Rebney, the film grows grim and somber. Tears are shed by his sisters as they recount painful stories. A grizzled modern-day Crimmins takes center stage to relay stories directly to the camera or through a starkly lit stand-up routine that was likely put on specifically for the film. But Crimmins uses his past trauma to make a difference. No longer hitting his mark in the comedy scene, Crimmins ramps up his activism, to the point of appearing before Congress as a leading voice in stopping early internet providers like AOL from taking a passive stance against the vilest of predators. (It’s surreal to hear a mid-‘90s AOL attorney argue for handling child pornographers with something as loose as a three-strikes policy). Eventually, Crimmins is found standing alongside mid-2000s anti-war activists like Cindy Sheehan and receiving a peace award at a ceremony also honoring Maya Angelou.
While Crimmins’ story is intriguing and worth telling, Call Me Lucky too often puffs up its feathers. One gets the sense that Goldthwait taps his famous pals so there will be familiar faces, but these comics have only vague recollections of Crimmins. Marc Maron flatly says he never really understood Crimmins’ act. And even those who knew him best in his heyday seem to be offering little but the usual “misunderstood genius” platitudes. Call Me Lucky’s tone is all over the place, as would be expected in a documentary that mixes comedy and tragedy. Regardless of these flaws, there’s raw humanity at the film’s core. Much like Crimmins himself, it just takes some extra work to see past the rough edges.