Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn, RIP

Nearly eight years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing historian Howard Zinn for my Comedy Notes column in the Boston Globe. Zinn dies of a heart attack yesterday at the age of 87.

When I was writing the column, I made a point to try to stretch a bit beyond just what was happening in the clubs, and in this case, I got to explore the relationship between Zinn and political satirist Barry Crimmins. I was thrilled the Globe accepted the premise of the column, which was published in 2002. What follows is the unedited version of the column I submitted, which I believe shows a slightly different side of Zinn.

Where comedy and politics meet
June 21, 2002

In its base form, comedy is about contradictions. Whether it’s an Adam Sandler movie about a rough and tumble misfit in a refined environment or a Tom Stoppard play about lost Shakespearian characters. When comedy turns political, as is the case with comedian Barry Crimmins, that contradiction takes the form of dissent. The job of the political comedian is to question consensus and common wisdom. Crimmins has been doing that since the Reagan administration, taking on subjects from the Iran-Contra hearings up to Enron and Afghanistan.

“Even mainstream humor trades in dissent, whether it be about pop culture, family life or any number of subjects considered by comedians,” says Crimmins. “Sassing back at things that encroach upon our lives is funny. It provides relief and refutation. Different answers to mind-numbing and predictable nonsense make us laugh.”

About ten years ago, Crimmins found a partner in dissent when he met controversial historian Howard Zinn, the subject of a documentary for which Crimmins will host a fundraiser this Sunday at the Green St. Grill. The two began to cross paths in the eighties, speaking at the same rallies and attending each others’ lectures and shows. For his part, Zinn was thrilled to see a comedian with a knowledge of history and politics.

“I had seen him perform, and was knocked out by his combination of comedy and politics, which I hadn’t seen before anywhere,” says Zinn. “That is, not since I was watching Dick Gregory, or, you know, that generation. But in this generation, he was the first comic I’d run into who had political intelligence.”

Zinn’s influence on Crimmins stretches back to the seventies, when his sister returned from studying at B.U., where Zinn is professor emeritus, and turned her younger brother on to Zinn’s work. Later, while Crimmins was helping to create Boston’s eighties comedy boom at the Ding Ho club in Inman Square, he was reading Zinn’s books, including A People’s History of the United States, a landmark work in the alternative history movement.

Neither of them can recall exactly when they first started talking on a regular basis, but they’ve been friends for more than ten years. Though Crimmins left Boston in 1994, he and Zinn still get together to drink coffee and talk about world affairs whenever they’re in the same city. Crimmins cites Zinn as a valuable resource for and influence on his comedy.

“When I think of Howard, it’s been amazing to me that I can read his stuff and that I actually know him and I can call him up,” says Crimmins.

He remembers a specific moment when he sought perspective from Zinn during a presidential election year. “One day years ago I was upset with the late Senator Tsongas because he was standing in front of a sweat shop announcing that we had to turn to these traditional American values,” says Crimmins. “He was announcing in front of the mills of Lowell that he was going to run for president – it was time we got back to these great values. And so I called up Howard, and he said, ‘Oh, Barry you’ve got to learn about the mill girls of Lowell’. And he told me about these horrible circumstances that these women worked in. I mean, I had read about them before, in Howard’s book. But just being able to call him and have him immediately cite it in detail…”

Zinn also introduced Crimmins on his 1991 CD, Kill the Messenger. “A lot of people would say, ‘Hey, I got Bud Freedman to introduce me’,” says Crimmins, referring to the founder of legendary comedy club The Improvisation. “Well, you know, I got Howard Zinnn. That’s pretty cool.”

Crimmins credits Zinn with the ability to make sense of esoteric political ideas in a way that encourages people to dig a little deeper into the issues. “In theory, I try to do the same thing with my comedy,” says Crimmins. “I try to take a very complex set of world affairs that we deal with and make them accessible to people in a way, and give them things so that they can understand things a little better. And it gives them a chance to refute some of the very oppressive conventional wisdom. And history has been nothing but conventional wisdom for a long time until we started taking different looks at it.”

Zinn believes Crimmins is in a unique position to challenge that conventional wisdom through political comedy. “What distinguishes Barry is that he’s bolder than anybody else, politically,” says Zinn. He believes comedy can be an important vehicle for communicating ideas, albeit an underused one. “To me, comedy can serve a very powerful social purpose, and it has its own special power that ordinary political rhetoric doesn’t have. And so, when it’s missing from the scene, then something very important has gone out of the culture. You know, I think we’re feeling some of that vacuum today.”

As for Crimmins, he acknowledges the limitations of art as a means of effecting immediate change, but does think stand-up comedians can have an impact on politics and society.

“We can continue to be provocative, you know, ask questions,” Crimmins says. “And we can smuggle content to people in the form of pop culture. Just the same as pop culture is used all the time to smuggle other ideas to people, like buy this product, look like this, be like this, go along with this. You can do the same thing and present other ideas.”

Crimmins will host a fundraiser at the Green St. Grill in Cambridge this Sunday for Howard Zinn: A Disobedient History, a documentary in progress. Doors open at two, show starts at three. For info call 617-287-5850.

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