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Barry Crimmins, An Anchor Of Boston Comedy In The '80s, Dies At 64

Comedian Barry Crimmins. (Courtesy Bobcat Goldthwait) MoreCloseclosemore
Comedian Barry Crimmins. (Courtesy Bobcat Goldthwait)

Barry Crimmins — stand-up comic, satirist and activist — was an avid social media poster, often using the platforms for witty, barbed political commentary.

But in late January, his Facebook posts took a sharp turn: “I have cancer. My prognosis isn't good. My care kicked in Jan 1. Attitude and emotional state are all fine though. Prayers appreciated — statements of your stance on spirituality or lack thereof are not.”

On Wednesday, Crimmins, 64, succumbed to liver cancer, surrounded his wife of six months, Helen, and his longtime friend, the comic and director Bobcat Goldthwait.

"He was private about it. That was all he wanted people to know [about his cancer]," said Helen, reached by phone Thursday afternoon at the home they shared in Skaneateles, New York.

She said she struggled with how to phrase her tweet. "Barry was all about saying the right words," she said, "and I’m still in shock and don’t know what to say. We loved each other. We constantly laughed together. I made him laugh a lot, every day. Everyone said, ‘I’ve never seen him this happy.’ We were so in sync and knew each other so well. We were very similar — both stubborn and outspoken, I was maybe a little sweeter, but it meshed. Beyond me being his wife, he was my best friend. There’s so much hate out the in the world and here we are loving each other."

'He Changed The Boston Comedy Landscape'

The Ding Ho, a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge’s Inman Square, was where it all began in 1978. It’s where Crimmins launched the comedy club that was ground zero for so many Boston comics during the ‘80s boom.

Eddie Brill, the former warmup comic and booker for David Letterman, was part of that scene. “Barry was really great for comedy and incredible to comedians,” Brill said. “He gave me my first paid spot at the Ding Ho. More importantly, he created a safe space for all of us.

"Everything he did came from a place of love. He never compromised. We all talk a big game, but Barry actually lived it. The last time we talked it was about helping comics. He didn’t want to talk about his illness. He wanted to talk about positive things that were going on. He was about paying it forward. It’s inspiring as a human to be able to have those traits.”

“Barry scared a lot of people,” said another Ding Ho vet Mike McDonald. “There was his packaging -- this big, gruff bear of a guy with wild eyes and a big beard, smoking a cigarette, highly opinionated and high volume. And when you listen to that opinion, in almost every case, he pointed to the truth. He was on the side of the underdog. He dealt with subjects that made a lot of people very squeamish, head on. He changed the Boston comedy landscape all for the better ...”

Steven Wright, yet another famous comic who honed his chops at the Ding, was afraid his short, 11-minute sets couldn’t match the breadth of the sets the other comics were doing. Crimmins told him not to worry about the quantity and to focus on the quality.

Of Crimmins’ brand of comedy, Wright said, “Barry was like a truth machine. His comedy was not funny for no reason, jokes just to get the laughs. The whole thing was based on him pointing out the horror and injustice in the world, what the government was up to. He cared so much about the world. And it was hilarious. I’m very naive to the world’s problems. I have very surface information and he went deep down and pointed out the problems. He was like a genius professor of what’s screwed up.”

A Blend Of Rage And Warmth

Crimmins was well-versed in both pop culture and politics and wove them together seamlessly. He toured with Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Bill Morrissey and Cormac McCarthy. While he had a particular loathing for Ronald Reagan, he was too wary to be basking in or complacent about a Democratic regime. In late 1992, Crimmins mused about the main difference between Republicans and Democrats. He reasoned the Republicans will hit you in the nose with an anvil whereas the Democrats will hit you with a hammer, adding "My friends say, 'Barry, we could use you at the hammer party!' "

He railed at the myth of America's good old days, citing the writings of his friend, the late Boston University professor, historian and activist Howard Zinn: Nothing was ever too rosy here in the USA if you weren't part of the favored class. "Could I be a slave?" chirped Crimmins, bouncing about the stage one night. "An indigenous person? A woman with no rights? I wanna work in a sweatshop!"

Crimmins’ ability to blend rage, political activism and warmth, said Boston comic Tony V, “seems convoluted but it’s not. The answer is simple: That was his heart. Anybody who does anything well in comedy, it comes from the heart. On a personal level, he could be very difficult; he didn’t suffer fools gladly. On a larger scale, he could find the nugget of good and truth in everything and put his spin on it. And that goes back to the early days before he became super-charged political.”

Last December, Jimmy Tingle, Jack Gallagher, Goldthwait, Wright, Clarke, McDonald and many others held a benefit at the Armory in Somerville for Crimmins’ wife, Helen, who is battling stage 4 cancer. (This was before anyone knew Barry also had cancer.)

“Shortly after that, a week and a half later, I got a call from Bobcat," said Tony V. “He said, ‘Barry’s complaining that he’s not feeling well and was diagnosed with liver cancer.’ Even when we knew it was coming we thought he had a longer time.”

“I saw him a couple of weeks ago,” said Gallagher, a comic and playwright who also got his start at the Ding. “We laughed and we told stories. I knew when I went to see him he wasn’t doing well — he’d lost a lot of weight — but he was up and about and he was still cranky. [The cancer spread] faster than anybody thought.

“Once in a while, somebody in your life comes along and changes the way you think about things and a lot of people thought that about Barry, not just me," he said. "Everybody thought they were Barry’s best friends, because that’s the way he was.”

When reached in Colorado, comic and actor Lenny Clarke spoke through tears. “When I woke up and got the news it was like when Kennedy died,” said Clarke, another Ding Ho vet. “I loved that prick. I am f------ sick. He was a guy who came in and shook this whole f------ town up. We had the utmost respect for each other. He made us rock stars. He had the place humming seven nights a week. He encouraged you to create and be better. He wanted Boston to be better than any place in the country. Before Crimmins it was New York and LA and he put Boston on the map.”

Crimmins came from a hard left point of view; Clarke comes from a hard right. “We couldn’t be further apart on politics and it killed him,” Clarke said. “But we had the utmost respect for each other. I thought he was brilliant. He had an incredible way of getting his point across. I’d go up after him and say, ‘And now for the opposing point of view …” and he would heckle me from the crowd. We’d be battling each other politically, but we never lost sight of the fact we loved and respected each other very much.”

In 1988, Crimmins told me his inspirational source was Mark Twain. "My tone, the surface is not pleasant,” he said, “but I would hope the results would be more pleasant in the long run. I still care — standing up against hateful nonsense."

'From A Place Of Love'

In 2015, Goldthwait, who broke out of the Boston comedy scene, directed a movie called “Call Me Lucky” about Crimmins’ journey through the past. The first half of the movie had to do, mostly, with comedy, but it pivoted sharply as it dealt with the molestation Crimmins endured as a young child.

“The title comes from Barry,” Goldthwait told me after making the film. “He was putting his life in perspective and said, ‘The guy who did this to me died in prison and I’ve had this life, all these friends and I’ve been able to do these things so call me lucky.’ ”

“Part of it was I didn’t really malinger and go 'Woe is me' and that’s why it’s called ‘Call Me Lucky,’ ” Crimmins said. “I became a human rights activist rather than a perpetrator of human rights offenses for whatever reason. Who knows? Your life gets skewed by this stuff, but would I have as much compassion for other victims of injustice as I’ve had? That fortified me and made the weave of my life stronger so I could handle things I needed to handle.”

Crimmins merged a rare comic sensibility that allowed him attack and be compassionate. A typical Crimmins set consisted of a whole lot of grim or tragic material and a (not unrelated) dose of the bittersweet or funny. It was his job — his calling — to process the everyday hypocrisies, the horrible stuff and wrest some knowing laughter out of it.

“Everything he did came from a place of love,” said Brill. “He never compromised. It’s inspiring as a human to be able to have those traits. We all talk a big game, but Barry actually lived it. The last time we talked it was about helping comics. In order for this business to work we have to be good to each other. There’s insecurity and our security came from what we shared as performers. He didn’t want to talk about his illness. He wanted to talk about positive things that were going on. He was about paying it forward.”

“Seventy percent of our talking was laughing and joking,” said Wright. “We’d feed off each other. You could never predict what he’d say when we were hanging out. It was a high-quality joking around — we’re both quality comedians, so the hanging out was another level. It just was. It was a joy to be around him. He was an automatic oasis of happiness.”

Comics often share a secret code or language. They bust each other’s chops, but it’s all about the love. “This will sum up my relationship with Barry to a T,” said Tony V. “Around when they were making ‘Call Me Lucky,’ we were texting back and forth about something and I jokingly put in an emoji in the text. Barry texted back: 'Grown men don’t use emojis.' So, periodically I would just send him a string of emojis, three dozen in a row with no explanation. He would send me back this tirade of filth: ‘How dare you?!’ and then he’d end with, ‘Love you, brother.’ ”

Comic and actor Ritch Shydner posted on his Facebook page Thursday: “We're all going to die, and rarely talk about it ... The real measure to me is the reaction to getting the due date. All hail those who can crack funny from the death bed. I got to visit [Barry] and his wife Helen last week. There were tears, but also laughter. I can't remember the funnier jokes as much as some of the straighter, classic Crimmins lines.

"When I walked in the house, CNN was on the TV. I asked, ‘Anything new?’ Barry, 'Nothing. Everything chews on itself.' In obvious pain, he asked me if I wanted something to drink. He pours me a glass from the tap. 'Buying bottled water in Skaneateles is coals to New Castle.' … At one point, Barry went out back to have a smoke. Totally understandable. I was ready to start smoking with him. He mentioned a mutual friend and I told him the guy had just called me and asked if Barry was still smoking. Barry took a drag and said, ‘Tell him I can't die any more than I am.’ "

Helen Crimmins said there will be a memorial in Skaneateles, but nothing is set yet.

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Jim Sullivan Twitter Contributor, The ARTery
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for The ARTery.

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