Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Boston Comedy Interview: Barry Crimmins

Barry Crimmins
“I’m whatever threatens you.” – Barry Crimmins.

If there’s one line Crimmins has ever uttered that sums up his attitude toward political satire and his career, that is it. The line was provided in answer to a bunch of Crimmins’ old friends from Upstate New York who, upon finding out he had done a benefit for AIDS victims, asked if he were “queer.”

Crimmins doesn’t back down. But he did take a three-and-a-half year break from the stage to write his blog, a break he had intended to make his retirement from regular live performing. But he is back Friday and Saturday at Mottley’s. Boston was the town where Crimmins went through a personal comedy renaissance at the Ding Ho, and he, in turn, helped create a comedy renaissance for Boston, setting standards as a booker and a performer.

He’ll have his friend, author and comedian Dennis Perrin, and Erin Judge with him on the bill. You can also hear him on WFNX Friday morning around 8AM. I spoke with Crimmins by phone earlier this week.

Why come out of retirement now after three and a half years?

Because I foresaw what was going to happen in this election and I knew saps would come out and pay money now to hear me. I knew it would be a good time to fleece the rubes.

Is that generally what you think stand-up has become?

Rube fleecing? Well, if I want to work locally, that’s certainly what it is, considering where I reside. There’s an element of that, I suppose, but in a nice way. You want them to be fleeced by someone good who is going to leave them with a good, positive message. Come back, when I say.

This is going to be fun. All joking aside, I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone. [Read: sarcasm] Make sure everybody come up and talk to me.

Was there anything in particular about Mottley’s that made you make that the first club you’re going to play?

They asked me when they started out if I ever came back if I would do a thing at their joint, so I said sure. And then I checked around, and there was a good word on them taking care of comics. And so I want to support that. I want to support how they are doing things there. It’s not quite a co-op but it’s getting that way. They take care of the comics, and I think people develop better when they’re taken care of, when they’re treated with a kind of respect. In this business, respect has everything to do with handing you some money. Everything else is just lip service. What those lips are servicing and where they’re servicing it, I don’t know. But the preface “auto” might be involved.

There’s a lot I know you don’t like about the club scene and stand-up comedy in general –

And you know, I think that’s an excellent preface. It makes me seem so warm and engaging. So thank you.

But I wanted to ask, is there anything positive you see or anything to build on?

Well, of course. It’s fine. It’s the old painter’s colic thing. There used to be lead in paint, and a guy would paint for years and then all of a sudden open a can up and start puking, because the cumulative effect of the lead had caught up with him or her, but they were men who were painters in those days, basically, and they would just start puking. There’s a certain toxicity to being around an industry full of people desperate to make it. One too many cans of desperation get opened near you, you might start puking. But I think they have very good ventilation at Mottley’s and there should be no problem.

How did you pick who was going to be on the show with you, Dennis Perrin and Erin Judge?

I engaged the New York State Lottery to run the whole thing for me. I have an accounting firm that can talk to you. Perrin, I’m just calling his bluff. “I’m doing comedy! I know comedy! Comedy comedy comedy!” And I know he does, but it’s fun calling your friend’s bluff. So that’s what that is. And then Erin, as soon as she was available, start a baseball team, if you can get Stan Musial on it, you’re gonna get Stan Musial. If Stan Musial was available. I think that’s probably the first time she’s been compared to Stan Musial.

Most probably, yes.

I also like the fact that you probably have to go out and probably figure out how to spell his name.

How are you preparing for your first shows back?

I’m just going to let it go. It’s not… You get me three days after an election, obviously people expect me to have something to say about that. That’s going to be new. You know, I think I still sort of know how to stand out there, and I have a general idea where we’re going. And then we see what we can do. What I’m going to try to do is organize a series of humorous things that will build to the point where everybody thinks it was a good idea for me to be the center of attention. And then leave to tremendous applause and acclaim.

That’s how I’m preparing for it. That’s the result I’m working for. Now, occasionally, you may have to bargain down a little bit. “Well, it didn’t take that many stitches…” But who knows. The sky’s the limit. I know with Perrin and judge there, I’m just the icing on the cake.

I know when we’ve spoken before, you’ve been somewhat wary of people bringing up the Ding Ho and bringing up the past –

The Ding Ho was great and I don’t want to denounce it or whatever, but it’s just sort of this permanent Little League reunion I’m supposed to be at. Or the permanent reuonion of my really good high school team. I love the people that were on that tea, I love how we did, how thing worked out, how a lot of people from that team went on to be very successful pro players. And people who work in the front office and so on. Other elements of the game, coaching, et cetera. The Ding’s great. But I just don’t think about it very much anymore. It’s a long time ago. And I’m a lot more interested in what’s going on now.

And when I think about the Ding, theoretically, I know a lot more now and there’s stuff I would have done differently. It worked out well, but to me, I know some of the mistakes that were made some things that probably could have been done differently and I also know about some stuff that was really frustrating that nothing could have been done about. I don’t know how many other people have something that happens that early on that they always are asked to return to. I suppose it’s true of performers and athletes. It’s very understandable. And I really appreciate that people remember and love the Ding Ho. But it doesn’t have a lot to do with what I’m doing now. It provided a big foot through the door, and then I went through the door, and I’ve done a lot of other things since then.

I think from my point of view, writing about comedy, I can see it’s an era that people care about, it’s an era that probably some people are tired of hearing about, but then on the other hand, there are probably an awful lot of comics out there now, and audience members, who really don’t know anything about it.

Right. And that’s okay. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of people at this show – well, I hope there’s going to be a lot of people at these shows – who don’t know much or care much about the Ding Ho. What they’re going to care about it whether or not I’m funny and if I have anything to say that’s edifying. And that’s good. That’s as it should be.

Here’s the thing about the Ding Ho. Great for everybody and everyone else and however much they want to talk about it. But man, I have gotten more than my share of credit for the Ding Ho and I’m a little uncomfortable sitting around taking any more bows for it. Thanks. It was a long time ago. I was bluffing. I pulled it off. When I started that place I was basically homeless. It was a total, like, dance my way out of a corner operation, and it worked. I had a good idea of what I thought would be fair for comics because I was a comic, and that’s basically what went on at the Ding.

In that sense, a place like Mottley’s, there’s a certain tuning fork that goes off when hear about it. They are trying to do something like that, so that’s good. I mean, anyone who would come to see me because of the Ding Ho – Ronald Reagan isn’t president anymore. I’ve got other things to say.

Do you think that sort of spirit of a club is possible these days in the current club environment?

I don’t know. I don’t know about that. That’s up to people who are going to be in these clubs and really make them what they are. I’ll just pass through, more or less. There’s never going to be a situation where I’m out in the clubs all the time anymore. I’ll show up and have something to say sometimes. Really, you’d be better talking to Steven Wright or somebody else who walks into clubs all the time. I think the Ding Ho was necessary. I don’t know that it was ever possible.

You left the club scene a while back anyway, correct?

Basically, I got out of comedy clubs in 1988. I did a tour with Jackson Browne, and it was just really hard to return to Yukheads after that. I played these really big, really smart crowds, and I think this is changing quite a bit these days, because I think a lot of young, hip stuff has happened and clubs are better to some extent. But there was a large period of time when the comedy club crowd and the professional wrestling audience was really hard to distinguish. I don’t think that’s so true now. I think now it’s much harder to distinguish the professional wrestling crowd from the American voter. Except in Connecticut, where we’ll give them some credit.

Here’s what I’m tired of in the American political system, and that is the “either/or-ness.” Either/or makes it seem like you have this great choice, but really, it’s this narrow choice of two things in a world full of possibilities. And I guess I wish there were a more parliamentary type of government where we included a broader spectrum. And I think that since McCarthyism has been around, there’s been no real viable left in the United States except during Nam. And we benefited from that. Because at that time, the 60s and 70s, we got civil rights, gay rights, a lot of human rights type stuff, environmentalism really sort of took a big step forward. So I think we benefitted a lot from that one brief period when there was a more viable left in this country.

But there’s all these experts telling Obama now that, oh, he hasn’t been moderate enough, and he compromised with these people forever, he paid off the big fat cats with the money that we needed to bail out everybody. This election was really about people who lost their jobs, who were running out of unemployment, who are scared of foreclosure, and they don’t have any rich relatives to bail them out. Or at least that will bail them out. And they’re facing that, or they’re feeling that, or they’re seeing that happen to their friends. And we get Christine O’Donnell in detail.

If and until the electoral politics care more about the real situation, in places like Detroit where there’s literally missionaries from other countries right now, until it considers how many people are ruined, until this country acknowledges that in this late-stage capitalism, we are facing a situation where, the problem with our system is, it runs on screwing people over, and they’re running out of people to screw over. Which is why you can go and see entire cities and towns, states that are just wiped out. And unlike the last depression, the infrastructure to get back to work isn’t necessarily remaining. Because it’s been slow motion in a lot of places. You’re from Upstate New York – how long have they been dismantling this area?

Here I get to the essence, and here’s the real secret to why I’m coming back. We need real hope, not fake hope. We don’t need sloganeering hope. We need real hope, and I think where there’s art, there’s hope. And I would like to be part of a movement of people that promotes the idea of a Renewed Deal. I’ve been talking about this for a long time but I think it’s more important than ever. A Renewed Deal where we begin to take back a lot of what’s sort of decaying and rotten and abandoned in this country and make it something useful again.

So you build arts centers and you build training centers. You can take an old warehouse, and in it, you can start recycling computers, you could build a little theater in there. You could build art studios. You could do a bunch of stuff. And the government should be helping out on that. And then people come and do stuff, and then the next thing you know, some restaurants open in the neighborhood. Other things happen. You have life again on Main Street.

The reason I want to do this is, I don’t want to perform in strip malls anymore. I want to perform in downtown. And I want to give other people the chance to perform in downtown and I want to create centers everywhere around the country where people can get together and talk to one another about what’s real without being influenced by a bunch of sloganeering attack ads from television. Because the big winner n the political ad war this year was TiVo. Things are already bad enough. Who wants the hear the rest of that crap? Even if a lot of it’s true, it’s just so sinister and foreboding. And in the end, they basically are taking checks from the same people. In many cases, anyway.

And these Tea Party people, they’re just frustrated and inarticulate and getting taken along for a ride. They’re window dressing. What really spoke in this election wasn’t the people, it was gigantic amounts of money. Which there still are in this country, it’s just more and more concentrated. We’re still one of the most wealthy places in the world. It’s just that all the money is concentrated among fewer and fewer people.

So when you perform and when you write, is there an educational and informational element to it?

Even if there is, please don’t tell them. Get used to the mediciny taste! It’s not so bad!

The first thing I do, things just kind of come to me. Then I have to figure out what else they’re near, what else they’re like. Did somebody else say this? What’s the story? It has to get past that committee where it’s sort of like, okay, it’s relatively original. And then the final thing is, am I picking on something that’s… Really, I haven’t been onstage since Sarah Palin showed up. I will have something to say about her. And I couldn’t think less of her. But picking on her, there’s not going to be anybody at my show who’s like, “Well, I kinda like Sarah Palin.” I don’t really need to pile on. Maybe I find a couple of things. But it’s sort of like hammering televangelists in a barroom. Well, everybody’s already drinking.

I may challenge the audience the audience a bit, or I have a little bit of a different opinion or I have a bit of a different idea. I’m probably more than ever asking more questions than providing very serious and specific answers. And I think it’s important to ask a lot of questions these days, because by doing that, you’re defining the boundaries of the discussion rather than having it limited to, “Hey, did you hear Rush Limbaugh’s an asshole!” No kidding.

Do you think to some extent these easy targets are set up as such to bait people?

Because it limits the discussion. Exactly. If we’re sitting around all day talking about Christine O’Donnell or, wow, Ann Coulter’s a jerk, or Rush Limbaugh said something I couldn’t believe, and Fox News seems really not to be fair and balanced – There’s people out there who spend their whole lives trying to prove to other people that Fox News isn’t fair and balanced. What I suggest to anyone who thinks Fox News is fair and balanced is to turn on Fox News at any moment during the day and see how fair and balanced they are. If you think that what they’re telling you is fair and balanced, because they keep saying “fair and balanced,” you probably also buy a lot of “new and improved” products. “Wow, this pantyhose grips better than it ever has!” You know, you believe in everything.

That makes the work of a satirist that much harder, when you have to go for something that perhaps the audience might not be that familiar with.

Not really. If you want to take people somewhere… It’s my job to sort of take them somewhere. And so if I have to be a bit of a tour guide and explain where we’re going first, that’s just a chance to say a few more humorous things and provide some context and then there we go. I don’t see it as a big deal at all. The biggest problem is people who are all revved up and want me to help them prove that Glenn Beck’s a schmuck. Okay. Yeah, I know that. And he’s dangerous. Well, yes, on a certain level, he’s quite dangerous, on another level, he becomes more dangerous the more we base our lives around him. Glenn Beck wants us to talk about him.

When you’re looking at harder issues and you’re looking at things like, as you said, missionaries coming to Detroit, that’s not a particularly easy thing to make light of or to find laughs in.

Of course it isn’t because most people don’t live in Detroit, so they’ll just think it’s just Detroit. The point is, everywhere’s turning into Detroit. And that’s the problem. Every closed factory is just another little piece of Detroit. Or Camden. Or Derry. Or Buffalo. You name it, all over the country.

With that many problems that run that deep, and your job is to go out and make people laugh at it.

But not frivolously. My job is to maybe smuggle* some content to them while they’re being entertained. My job is also to not take myself too ridiculously serious. Like this thing, how overblown can we get? Mottley’s is a little place, I hope we fill it up. My first concern is, I’ll tell you what, the reason I’m off doing these shows is because I have to make a buck, because when I left, I had producers, I had editors, who had work for me. And within a year of me leaving stand-up, all those people got laid off. And they became freelancers. Well, guess who gets the gig first? And I don’t blame ‘em for it.

And then you had the Huffington Post turn the entire Internet into a volunteer writing zone. Where they talk about, paying writers isn’t in our financial model. Well who’s your financial model, Kunta Kinte? Then I have to see Arianna Huffington on TV speaking for the workers.

I just wrote this thing about, when I really got into comedy in earnest it was when I realized I probably wasn’t going to get a job in radio. Because when I went to get a job in radio, they had just been through a 65-year hiring spree for white guys. So I had to literally pay for the sins of the fathers, the great white fathers. And I wasn’t really upset about it, I met this musician, Root Boy Slim, who said, “Be a minstrel, that’s what black guys always had to do.” And there I am. I’m a minstrel with absolutely no musical talent.

But I try to do what Root Boy Slim suggested and that was win people over and earn my living one audience at a time. So I’m looking forward to doing these shows. It should be a lot of fun and a lot of laughs. Really a lot of laughs. I know Perrin is going to be hilarious. Erin Judge, I’ve only seen her on TV and the Internet, but she’s just really funny. Mottley’s clearly has a really good vibe to it. And a lot of old friends are going to be showing up. It seems like a real good combination of things happening. The only one who can really screw it up is me. But I have great faith in myself.

*Correction - Due to a transcript error, this original read "struggle," which may also have been appropriate in spirit, but was not what was said.  

1 comment:

Paul Day said...

Hope our show ends before he goes on!