These are strange and unsettling times for us all, possibly even more so for people who make their living performing in public — athletes, actors, musicians, dancers and standup comics.
“We don’t exist anymore,” says comic Mike McDonald, bluntly assessing the world in which he and his peers currently live. “We’d love to exist but… Our job is to bring people together in an enclosed space to make them laugh and laugh big. Now, other than coughing or sneezing on somebody, you can’t spread more droplets of water than by making somebody laugh.”
“It’s the longest I’ve gone in 40 years without performing,” says Jimmy Tingle.
Still, even in a world where there are zero performance spaces open, two things are in play: Comics need to ply their trade, to stay fresh. And there are benefits to be done.
I don’t think any entertainers do more benefits than comics. It’s a community that takes care of its own and others, and that’s especially true here in Boston. The biggest annual shebang is the “Comics Come Home” benefit Denis Leary founded in 1995, featuring many of the locals gone famous or semi-famous plus a few superstars from afar. Those are arena shows with funds going to the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care. It’s the longest-running comedy benefit in the country.
Way before the pandemic hit, Tingle — the veteran comic and former candidate for Massachusetts lieutenant governor who’s made benefits a way of life — was working with McDonald and Bobcat Goldthwait, putting together a benefit show slated for May 3 at the Somerville Theatre. With venues shuttered by COVID-19, Tingle shifted course and is making the transition to Zoom for an online show July 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Tingle will host Leary, McDonald, Goldthwait, Steven Wright, Tony V, Paula Poundstone, Lenny Clarke, Don Gavin and many others in a benefit for Helen Crimmins, the widow of one of their own, Barry Crimmins. Cancer claimed Barry at 64 in 2018. Helen is now battling stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
"The Ding Ho was a club run by a comedian for comedians. It gave a lot of folks a place to work long before we should have been -- amongst them, me."Tony V
Zoom, of course, has its limitations.
“Doing Zoom shows is the non-alcoholic beer of performing comedy,” says McDonald. “It has a taste of real performing but is really just a reminder of what you can’t have and really miss.”
“Make no mistake,” adds Tony V, “standup is meant to be done live and I hope to God, we get back to doing it someday soon, but we take what we are given and make it the best it can be. The pluses: You don’t have to wear pants and you can mute others, which I would love to see be able to happen at live shows. The minuses: You can really tell if you have something stuck in your teeth.”
A somewhat ironic upside to the show, Tingle says, “is that on Zoom we can get everyone all in the same place at the same time and save costs on theatre rental and travel expenses, leaving more money for Helen. So, the circumstances in this instance are working in our favor.”
The Zoom show doubles as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Ding Ho, a long-defunct comedy club in Cambridge’s Inman Square, and a tribute to Crimmins, the oft-acerbic, left-wing satirist and comic. He launched the comedy club that was ground zero for so many Boston comics during the ‘80s boom.
“It was a fun, positive place to do shows and lots of fun hanging out with all these extra funny people,” says Wright. “Barry was one of my most dear, best friends in my life. The characters there were fantastic. We all made lifelong friends.”
“The Ding Ho was a club run by a comedian for comedians,” says Tony V. “It gave a lot of folks a place to work long before we should have been — amongst them, me… Barry was our Obi-wan Kenobi — not as philosophical and unassuming, but just as deadly and looked up to. I am well aware that Barry would hate this analogy. Which makes me want to make it even more.”
Goldthwait — who made the 2015 documentary “Call Me Lucky” about Crimmins — tells a tale he first heard from comic Mike Donovan about how Crimmins got his gig at the Ding Ho, first as the doorman/bouncer and then the booker and wrangler.
"Looking back on it, to me the Ding Ho was like a performing arts school where there were no official teachers. Everyone was learning themselves. Everyone was their own teacher."Steven Wright
“Barry was day drinking at the Ding and he got in a fight with some guy and knocked the guy out,” says Goldthwait. Crimmins, who hailed from upstate New York, was a diehard Yankees fan and the guy was making a joke about Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, who got in an infamous fight with Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk in 1973. “Barry threw the guy out of the bar, and then goes back to get his jacket thinking he’s gonna be persona non grata and [Ding owner] Shune Lee asks him if he wants to work there.”
Before long, Crimmins was booking the club — “Barry did a little headhunting, and guys like Lenny Clarke had their own night,” says Goldthwait — giving a platform to the plethora of comics who made their bones here, many going on to national fame.
“Looking back on it,” says Wright, “to me the Ding Ho was like a performing arts school where there were no official teachers. Everyone was learning themselves. Everyone was their own teacher.”
“The Ding Ho was the same as Shangri-La or Camelot,” adds Tony V. “Bigger than the sum of its parts and mostly routed in truth with side orders of mythology, legend and fond memories — and for sure some lost memories.
“The Ding Ho was a microcosm of Boston itself. Most of us didn’t want to be in show business we wanted to be in The Boston Comedy Business. There was no scene, so we started our own universe. And if the Comedy Connection” — Boston’s first comedy club — “was the Big Bang then the Ding Ho was the first slimy creature to climb out of the primordial soup and walk on solid ground on its own.”
In 1983, Tom Kenny was just 21 and lived in Boston only a year, but he cut his comedic teeth at the Ding, before going on to considerable employment and fame as a voiceover actor. (He’s the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, among many others.)
"It was really just this interesting cross-section of people... Somebody as strange as the performance art-ish style of Bobcat would do just as well as Lenny Clarke, who was man of the people/working-class hero, or Steven Wright who was like a diamond cutter."Tom Kenny
“It was really just this interesting cross-section of people,” Kenny says, of the acts back then. “It wasn’t apple-apple-apple-apple-apple-orange. It was rutabaga-lemon-apple. Somebody as strange as the performance art-ish style of Bobcat would do just as well as Lenny Clarke, who was man of the people/working-class hero, or Steven Wright who was like a diamond cutter. A pretty crazy patchwork quilt.”
The Zoom gig won’t be straight standup comedy, per se. Tingle will be the host and more than 20 comics will chip in. “I plan to interview each one individually on their funniest and/or fondest memories of the Ding Ho and of Barry,” Tingle says. “We'll follow up the interviews with clips of their vintage TV appearances and/or their newest bits, clips and comedic riffs. We'll rehearse a lot as well to make sure it runs smoothly.”
There will certainly be plenty of Crimmins clips and anecdotes. “Barry was a brilliant comedian of very high intelligence,” says Wright. “He was a truth machine seeing through all the bull---- that is handed to us constantly. An extremely sharp mind and able to verbalize it clearly.”
On Tuesday, June 30, Cambridge unveiled a plaque at what’s being called Barry Crimmins Square near the site of the old Ding Ho. Originally, it was to be a public event, but with gatherings limited to 10 people now, it was just friends and family, with Tingle giving a presentation.
Helen Crimmins, who now lives in Portland, Maine, was there. “Barry was my biggest fan and I was his biggest fan,” she says. “We were very much in love and helped each other be better people and be as creative as we could be. I think what he means to Boston comedy and comedy in general is he gave people a stage and time. He could be intimidating but everything was always done out of respect and love.”
When she thinks about Barry now, Helen says, “Obviously he left a lot of himself behind in everybody he was friends with and who he helped along the way. He’s very much around in this life.”