When I heard that legendary stand-up comic and activist Barry Crimmins is coming to town, my first thought was of another Barry: Crash. I assume the F.B.I. and the N.S.A. also made the connection, thinking, “Boy, if we can get those two radicals in the same room and spy on both at the same time, we can protect the homeland and save a few taxpayer bucks!” (Little do they know there’s a two-drink minimum.
Crimmins, who performs Dec. 28 at Blue, a nightclub on Congress Street, is the godfather of Boston’s comedy scene. Beginning in the 1980s, he produced stand-up showcases that helped launch the careers of comics like Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone and Bobcat Goldthwait.
Much as I enjoy those performers, Crimmins’ own comedy is more my style: no-holds-barred political satire and the evisceration of sacred cows of all stripes, be they Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter, Pope Francis or George W. Bush. And as Goldthwait documents in a powerful film he directed about his friend and released earlier this year, “Call Me Lucky,” Crimmins backs up his words with action.
In the ’80s, Crimmins traveled to El Salvador to protest our government’s support of death squads. In the ’90s, after coming to terms with long-suppressed memories of sexual abuse he suffered as a toddler, Crimmins started a one-man war against child pornographers and their enablers at America Online. At the time, AOL had an outrageous “three strikes” policy that allowed predators to share images of child abuse via the Internet until they were caught committing their third offense. Crimmins worked undercover to bust abusers using AOL chat rooms, and testified about the problem before Congress. It’s been estimated that he put hundreds, if not thousands of those monsters behind bars.
Like Crimmins, Crash was exposed in his youth to pedophiles employed by the Catholic Church. The fact he wasn’t abused by the priest in his town, and thus missed out on a huge settlement payment, was the basis of a notoriously bad joke Crash told over a decade ago when he was tapped, on short notice, to host a stand-up comedy show at the State Theatre. (Full disclosure: Crash blames me for urging him to open with that joke, rather than some less offensive material, and though I don’t recall doing so, he’s probably right.)
Crimmins also reminds me of Crash in that both are big-hearted, bearish guys who take the atrocities and tragedies of the world personally — too personally for their own good. The madness of modern life literally drives them mad with anger, but both have managed to channel that sadness and rage into compelling journalism, activism and art.
Crimmins was a regular contributor to the Boston Phoenix. Crash worked with me at Casco Bay Weekly, where he wrote a series of undercover exposés about homeless alcoholics in Portland (“Drunken Nights”), the porno-shop sex scene (“Onan the Lonely”), the indignities of working for MacDonald’s (“Want Flies With That?”) and scams perpetrated by the funeral industry (“How Much Is That Coffin in the Window?”).
When I started The Bollard in 2005, Crash began contributing short comic films about life in Eastport and topics including art, censorship and national security. In “Bang-Bangs Invades America” (2006), Crash infamously rowed a boat from Canadian waters to the American shore, while dressed in a burka and wearing an Osama bin Laden mask, to make a point about the pointlessness of “homeland security” measures. If he hadn’t been on the watchlist before then, I assume that was the start.
In subsequent cover stories for The Bollard, Crash took aim at the wind-power industry and one of its biggest cheerleaders, Angus King. But it was his monthly column, One Maniac’s Meat, that made the biggest impression on readers. Crash produced several distinct story cycles over the past seven years, including a series about his stint in the Coast Guard, a job working for a “gentleman” alpaca farmer, and life as a lobsterman on Matinicus (subsequently collected into the book “Tough Island”).
Crash’s last column for my magazine was published this month: “So Long, And Thanks for All the Weed.” He recently released a movie based on his first novel, “Sex, Drugs & Blueberries.” Although it’s fictional, the film is closely based on Crash’s experience raking berries in Washington County back when Maine’s opiate epidemic was beginning to bloom. Like his undercover journalism and his columns, the movie punctures an idyllic veneer and exposes the pain and desperation beneath. It’s ultimately a tragedy, but there are plenty of jokes along the way.
I think Crimmins would be proud. I know I am.