One of the most unexpected aspects of 21st century has been the rise of Bobcat Goldthwait as an incredibly interesting director. Yes, the guy from the Police Academy movies has been carving out a career as a filmmaker worth following, and he’s not just been sticking to black comedies - although he does them so well, with World’s Greatest Dad being one of the great black comedies of all time. Last year he released the underrated found footage horror film Willow Creek, and this year he’s entered the documentary arena with Call Me Lucky, a totally surprising and absolutely heartfelt portrait of Barry Crimmins.
You probably don’t know who Barry Crimmins is, and the first half of Call Me Lucky makes you wonder if Barry is even still alive (spoiler: he is, and he did press at Sundance). The second half of Call Me Lucky makes you wonder how you weren’t familiar with this guy already, and it gives you a brand new hero to exalt. That’s how powerful the story is - it adds another guy to the pantheon of funny, acidic truth-tellers, placing Crimmins right alongside the likes of Bill Hicks and George Carlin.
Call Me Lucky is an intensely personal film, and it is a bit of a hagiography, but that seems to be what Bobcat is going for. He wants to praise Barry, to help cement his place in the popular culture - a place he has already earned. Crimmins was a kid from Upstate New York who fell in love with comedy early on. He helped Bobcat and future Spongebob Tom Kenny get their starts (Bobcat’s nickname comes from making fun of an early Crimmins nickname, Bear Cat. It stuck with Goldthwait, not so much with Crimmins). Later Barry moved to Boston and helped birth the 1980s standup comedy scene, establishing a comedy club in a Chinese restaurant and discovering talent like Paula Poundstone, Stephen Wright and Kevin Meaney.
Crimmins was funny but he was also acerbically political, working lots of current events into his act, even when he was sandwiched on shows between guys doing “Black people walk like this” and “Why do women go to the bathroom in groups” jokes. As time went on Barry’s work got more and more political, and he eventually crossed the line from comic to activist.
What happened next - well, the movie has it structured as a reveal, so I’ll leave it as a reveal, but Crimmins next became a crusader, testifying on Capitol Hill. There’s the old saw that pain fuels the best comedians; during Call Me Lucky you will understand the source of Crimmins’ profound pain and marvel at the way he took that and used it to help and protect others.
Call Me Lucky is largely a talking head doc; there’s some archival footage of Crimmins performing, but not much. He never put out a record, he didn’t do a big TV special or make a concert movie. Much of his stuff is lost, and what Goldthwait is able to share shows us what a tragedy that is. In a different world Crimmins would be a dorm-room political awakening staple alongside Hicks; at one point Patton Oswalt regularly tells people who are into Hicks that they need to dig deeper back and discover the guy who predated him.
While talking head docs can be a bit dull, Call Me Lucky has the advantage of being a talking head doc full of comics, so these guys can tell stories and spin tales that will leave you gasping with laughter. But Crimmins’ story will also touch you deeply; there’s a lot of darkness in his life, and he approaches it with the attitude of a survivor, not a victim. People openly sobbed at my screening as the laughs gave way to a hard look at some of the worst humanity has to offer… a hard look followed by Crimmins’ shockingly Christlike approach to the people who hurt him. It’s doubly shocking because he’s so goddamned angry all the time, but the ability to cut through his own anger and find forgiveness and tenderness for monsters is part of what makes Barry Crimmins a hero.
Call Me Lucky is an ode from a friend to a friend. Could the film have found people who had bad things to say about Barry? Probably - he’s a hard drinker who is quick to anger. But why would you want that? This isn’t a history lesson, it’s Bobcat Goldthwait campaigning for a good man to get some recognition for the lives he’s touched through comedy and through activism. Barry Crimmins has the kind of story that could have been a footnote, but Goldthwait is determined to give this strong, funny, unique man his own spotlight again. I’m glad he did.
Barry Crimmins is now a hero of mine.