Bobcat Goldthwait got his odd nickname from his comedy club mentor, Barry “Bearcat” Crimmins, the patriarch of Boston’s standup comedy boom of the 1990s and early employer of Paula Poundstone, Denis Leary, and Stephen Wright. Unable to realize his dream of director pal Robin Williams in a Crimmins biopic, Goldthwait instead created “Call Me Lucky,” a documentary about Crimmins, whose act was a political rant akin to Lewis Black’s.
Goldthwait has certainly come a long way since he trashed Crimmins’ place while high on booze, LSD and cocaine as a young comedian. (There’s a brief scene of the young, drooling Goldthwait in those days.) Now decades sober, Goldthwait is a respected actor and director (“World’s Greatest Dad”) with two Sundance Grand Jury Prize-nominated films, 2006’s “Sleeping Dogs Lie” and this new Crimmins doc.
Goldthwait gives us a taste of vintage Crimmins shtick: “I’m not trying to insult you, I’m just trying to inform you,” Crimmins growls, gesticulating with an ever-present beer bottle and heckling his hecklers. (“F–k you! F–k your family!”) When somebody yells, “You’re not queer, are you?” Crimmins retorts, “I’m whatever threatens you: I’m a communist with AIDS, and I bite.”
Rude cartoons illustrate some of his stories, like Crimmins’ attempts to tweet the Pope into excommunicating him, or the time he saw the Grateful Dead and the Band at Watkins Glen on acid, and his umbrella got obliterated by lighting. Top talents like Wright, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, and Marc Maron compare Crimmins to Will Rogers, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Charles Manson, Audie Murphy, Abbie Hoffman, Noam Chomsky, and Popeye’s nemesis Bluto.
In one scene, Crimmins performs leftist one-liners at a Billy Bragg show. Margaret Cho likens it to “a socialist sort-of version of ‘Laugh-In’ where Barry would tell a joke and Billy would go into a song. I guess he would’ve been the Goldie Hawn of it.”
The movie takes a weird turn when it delves into the probable cause of Crimmins’ chronic rage, his oppression as a Catholic altar boy and his repeated, near-fatal rape by a babysitter in his basement, a horror witnessed by his young sister, who busted the rapist. Crimmins’ mean priest, who strongly resembled Christopher Lee as Dracula, invited him into his car for ice cream, but Crimmins said no. Later, the priest was exposed as a serial pedophile. “I’m a Catholic,” says Crimmins in the film, “but it’s in remission.”
“Call Me Lucky” takes yet another startling turn when Crimmins, a pioneering internet chat room haunter, discovers a vast network of real-life monsters sharing child porn via AOL. At a 1995 U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Crimmins treats the AOL representative less respectfully than one of his hecklers.
Goldthwait clearly wants us to think that Crimmins is an unjustly neglected genius, but based on the limited evidence of the relatively sparse performance footage here, he sounds more like a one-note MSNBC haranguer than a genius clown. Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce didn’t necessarily get funnier as they got politically angrier, either. Smarter, maybe, but not funnier.
Not helping Goldthwait’s case are his terrible narrative blunders: He coyly withholds the big reveal of Crimmins’ childhood rape for too long, then features repetitive interviews about it. The victim’s visit to the scene of the crime has no dramatic payoff. There should be more Crimmins performance footage and fewer interviews that only reiterate points already made several times. Crimmins is preaching to the choir, and the film, while fascinating and inspiring, is at least a half-hour longer than it has story to tell.
On the other hand, Crimmins, now rusticated in upstate New York, nurtured most of the tsunami of Boston comedy talent that flooded our culture. When nobody in the US except pedophiles and tech heads got the internet, Crimmins got the connection between the two before anybody else. His youthful wound and stubborn aggression provoked the authorities to indict over a thousand child porn fans.
Crimmins, without a doubt, deserves praise for his activities, but that’s not enough to justify the flaws in this celebration of his life.