Call Me Lucky is Bobcat Goldthwait’s funny and powerful documentary about comedian, political satirist, and activist Barry Crimmins. The film not only documents Crimmins’ life and career as a comedian and political force, but the horrific rapes that he experienced as a child.
While the film does address dark subject matter, Goldthwait does not just hand over his audience into the darkness of sexual abuse. He paces the film perfectly by introducing us to Barry Crimmins and allowing us to get to know him, his family, his comedic talent, and his passion for fighting injustice. Goldthwait weaves together footage of Crimmins’ early comedic performances and his political activism with interviews featuring Crimmins’ friends and colleagues who discuss both his genius and the fact that there was something about him they just couldn’t articulate or identify.
Call Me Lucky is not the tale of a victim, but instead the tale of a survivor who channels his pain and anger into trying to make the world a better and safer place. As Crimmins points out in the film, he is the one who survived it. Now people can be uncomfortable and think about his story and talk it.
Bobcat Goldthwait was kind enough to spend some time talking with me about Barry Crimmins, Call Me Lucky, the loss of his best friend, and the state of comedy today.
You’ve directed a lot of TV, your own films, and comedy specials for people like Patton Oswalt and Marc Maron. So as a director who also, has obviously been involved with comedy, what made you want to make a documentary and what made you want to make this film specifically?
Well, you know it’s interesting. Although I hope I can keep making all kinds of genres and movies, I thought I’d make a narrative of this movie with someone playing Barry. I wanted to do that all the way back from when he first testified at the judiciary hearings on the Senate floor, but that film was never gonna get going, and ya know, Robin Williams was my pal and he was the one, just in 2014, in February, he’s the one who suggested I should do it as a documentary and then he gave me the money that started the film. So, I wouldn’t have made it a doc, if it wasn’t for him. And at this time also, I heard Barry on WTF and I heard him on Dana Gould’s podcast and I felt like okay, I think I could ask Barry [to] relive these events and I wasn’t gonna jeopardize his mental health. That was always a concern of mine.
Not to touch on sore subjects, but you brought up Robin giving you the money to get this started and Robin suggesting that the film be made as a documentary. I’ve heard you talk about him being one of your best friends, if not your best friend. So how did his death affect you making this film? Did it make you want to make the best film you could ever make? Did it make you want to not make the film anymore? That’s such an amazingly huge loss to go through in the middle of a creative endeavor that’s already a difficult creative endeavor, not just because of the subject matter, but because filmmaking is difficult in general. How did that loss play into Call Me Lucky?
Well, it was…you know, the initial shock and everything…the last day of filming was the day he passed away and, I wrapped the movie that morning and got the message. The initial thing was trying to reach out to the people he loved and to be responsible and try to do the right thing when you’re going through that grief. And then, you know, I was left with the “well, what was I gonna do?” and I felt that I just was gonna finish the movie because, as trite as it might sound, I knew he’d want me to. He said the movie was gonna go to Sundance, which is funny because I didn’t dream that it would. And then it premiered at the theater that World’s Greatest Dad did at Sundance, so I felt that I just, it’s weird you know…I sunk myself into this movie like at a very driven kind of pace and I think I may have even used it to deflect some of my own grieving ya know.
And now the movie is finished, and out, and I feel like I’m kind of now getting hit with this wave of, what do I do now, you know? You know, I don’t mean to trivialize his family, his kids, and his wife, his ex-wife, and all these people very close to him. It’s really hitting me now, believe it not, more than the initial. The initial thing was like a bomb went off, but now it’s kinda sinking in. It’s really strange, you know, you have a friend for 30 some years. Actually the last couple of years he and I were on the phone or texting every day. We were really in contact. But it wasn’t that weird for he and I not to see each other for months at a time because he’s on location or something. And it’s just sinking in, almost, that he’s not on location. That he’s gone. And it’s been really hard. This anniversary thing was…I didn’t expect it affect me so hard as it did. Because I’ve lost a sibling; I’ve lost my parents. But his anniversary…it hit me harder than those did.
Well, I think that sometimes, especially with grief and especially with, stuff that’s really unexpected…there’s always people in our life that sometimes are more family than our family is. I mean I know for myself, I just lost my dad a couple years ago and it was super difficult and it wasn’t the immediate time after losing him that was so hard, but it is in those quiet moments or those unexpected moments when grief, which I call grief “a bitch,” because that’s what it is. It’s this nasty bitch that just shows up and hits you when you least expect it. And you think everything’s fine and then you see something or you hear something and all of the sudden you’re just at the lowest of lows.
Ya…well you know, last night my daughter was saying, “you know dad things aren’t going to be normal for you and that’s okay.” I think we spend all of our time trying to get back to some sort of…whatever “normal” is you know. I found it actually comforting when she said that. It’s okay that some days, some weeks, I’m stuck in the middle of it again.
Yeah, and I think sometimes you just need somebody to say that it’s okay to not feel normal.
Well the other day, you know I just have to laugh…the other day I was…I was feeling kinda low and, I’m at the airport and these guys, who are waiting to get an autograph, they shove a stack of 8×10’s and they’re just photos of he (Robin) and I together and they want me to sign them. And I was just like…you know, I have to kinda laugh at that cuz what else am I gonna do? You could get upset, but you know…you can’t expect other people to have any common sense.
Yeah, and that’s the thing, not to stay on sad and hard things but I think that’s one of the things that people seem to lack after loss is common sense in what they say or what they do. Where you just want to shake someone and say, “Why would you say that?! Why do you think that’s acceptable to present me with or talk to me about or even say? You don’t know what I’m going through!”
Well, they don’t. They don’t. They’re just people that, I don’t know what they thought in their mind but it was just really weird. You know it’s like people like that or people who, after 30 years, and after making seven movies, still only know me as the dude from Police Academy. I can’t let that stuff upset me. I just be polite and smile and take the picture.
You’re like, “uh huh…great, thank you” And then you want to say to them, “Hey, let me ask you about your fist wife and let me ask you about the first job you ever had.” I think people forget that in our culture; it’s such a double-edge sword. Because if your career had never changed, if you had always been the guy from the Police Academy movies, you would have become culturally irrelevant.
When those guys come up, cuz last night…this is the third time that TMZ hit me up in different cities and, you know, they only ask me about Police Academy and the first time I made a joke, cuz they wanted me to get mad. They said, “They’re rebooting Police Academy, don’t you think they should use the original cast?” and I was like, “no” and they go, “Why?” And I said, “cuz a lot of them are dead.” And then I said, “They should do what they did to 21 Jump Street. They should make it a comedy this time.” And last night this guy goes, “Why don’t we see you in movies anymore?” and I go, “Geez, they don’t hire me. I just can’t get a job.” Not thinking that for a moment that maybe I’m really thrilled and I’ve never been happier creatively. But because I’m not in pop culture, how could you be fulfilled or happy?
Right, because you’re not a buzzword or a meme or something, they think that you couldn’t be fulfilled or happy. And yet, I’m constantly telling people about your directing career. When World’s Greatest Dad came out, I saw that four times in the theater.
Oh, well thanks.
I took so many people to see that movie. I mean, not to get Fan-Girly, but I’ve seen all of your films. Maron is one of my favorite shows and I think it’s one of the best shows on television right now. And I’m always telling people, “You don’t understand what is happening in this other space in culture” which I think is really important for people to pay attention to.
Ok to shift back to the film, I think that you’re doing a lot of things in this documentary besides telling Barry’s story. And I think that two of the things that you’re doing in Call Me Lucky that are very important are, number 1: You’re documenting stories in comedic history, Barry’s story, part Kevin Meaney’s story, part of your own story, stories that need to be documented because people need to understand that comedy doesn’t happen in a vacuum. People also need to know that people, aren’t just hot for five minutes and then disappear.
But I also think that you’re opening up the conversation about what motivates comedians in their craft. And I think that a lot of people who are outside of comedy have this assumption that, “I’m funny and they’re funny, so I could be a comedian.” I think that’s why a lot of people think they can do stand-up or comedy in general because they think it’s just about being funny.
And I think they don’t understand the motivations behind the comedy. As so many people talk about, in the film, that “there was this missing puzzle piece to Barry that nobody could put their finger on.”
I was wondering if you could talk about some of those things.
Well, I think Barry’s life definitely designed why he was gonna be a guy that pointed out hypocrisy and defended people from bullies. I mean, I think clearly that the tragic events that shaped him…but I think that as far as I could tell, when I was talking to his family, he still probably would have been a comedian, even if these horrible events didn’t happen. But I think, you know, comics are a really weird thing. I mean, people say comics are fearless, but it’s not a truth. (Bobcat begins laughing as he says this.) It’s that our desire to be heard outweighs shame in a weird way.
You know, Barry makes that joke in the movie about shame and show business. There was some pretty silly offers he’d gotten in the ’80s that he declined.
I feel like a lot of podcasts are doing a really good job documenting the stories in comedy. You mentioned you’d heard Barry disclose his story on both WTF and Dana Gould’s podcast…but with the film you’re documenting a lot of comedians that I’ve known most of my life. Besides Patton Oswalt, Marc Maron, and David Cross, comedians that people say “Oh, I know those guys,” there were other people in the documentary that I know, and I really appreciate their craft as comedians. Do you think we’re getting to the space where, I don’t want to say “older generation” because that sounds shitty–
(Laughs) No, that’s fine.
But is this other, older generation of comics is now getting to fill in the silences in their history?
You know, possibly. The difference is, it’s kind of what Patton says, like the internet wasn’t there, so you know, a lot of these comedians, and I’ll ever toss myself in there, people aren’t aware that, not that I’m tooting my own horn, but they’re not aware that there was any content to my stand-up. If people are aware of me, they’re only aware of me because of these movies that I was in that were silly and they don’t realize that, you know, I too had material on the Contra hearings and the hypocrisy of the “Just Say No” culture and, I was saying all these different things in my act but because they weren’t posted people don’t know. It’s funny, I was doing this interview on NPR and the guy who was interviewing me was very snarky and um, and I felt like, “You’re unaware that I’ve had anything to say all these years. And that’s fine, most people don’t know I had anything to say. But you’re also being condescending and that’s because you watched Police Academy.”
Yeah, I mean…it amazes me, especially when we were talking about with the internet culture, that it seems a little bit easier these days for people to move from say, oh, I had a bunch of roles in silly films to now I’m a serious actor or now I’m doing something serious, because there’s that evidence available.
Yeah, well I think we’re in a weird place with comedy, because…well, because Jonah Ray said to me the other day, “There’s a thin line between having a podcast and being on a reality show.”
People can sit down in one night and say, here’s a comedian I’ve never heard of and watch the person’s entire body of work for the past 10 years of their life, or 15 years, and get all caught up. And the consumption for content, I think outweighs the quality of material when people just want to keep consuming podcasts and new specials. The fact that it’s new seems more important to the fan than it does if it’s as funny as something else they have to say. I mean, this is where I sound like an old guy but you used to have to craft your act for years to get it in shape and I don’t think there’s any shame in it. I don’t think Abbott and Costello would have ever done “Who’s on First?” in this current culture.
Right, and it’s funny because I was just talking about this the other day…it’s what they call FOMO, Fear of Missing Out. Exactly what you’re touching on. People would much rather say, “I saw that” than, “That was quality.” They’re about over quantity over quality.
Yeah, right. And the other thing that makes it weird to me is now, for the first time ever, I hear people talking about comedy as if it’s a sports radio show. They’re dissecting it, talking about it in terms of, you know, who’s a pro. Whenever I hear someone refer to a comedian as a “pro,” all that means to me is “well, I better avoid that comedian.” I can’t think of a less disgusting term for a comedian than “professional.” I mean, that sounds horrible. That means, odds are, they’re saying absolutely nothing.
(Laughs) Yeah, I feel like if I heard someone describe someone as, “They’re a professional comedian” I would be like, “Oh…that’s the last person I want to go see.” I have no interest in that whatsoever.
Yeah, yeah. (Laughing)
One of the things in the film is that you are very careful to use the term “disclose” and not the word “admit.”
Yeah, it’s from Barry, You know you don’t “admit” that you got hit by a car. You don’t “confess” that you got robbed. You know, you “disclose” that these events happened. And that’s helping to hopefully change language that people use in regard to people who are victims of crimes…that it’ll just make it a little more comfortable for people to discuss these things, you know, cuz these crimes live in the shadows and the predators they love the dark. They use shame. So, I don’t know, this whole thing has been very strange for me. I was really just trying to make a movie about my buddy and now, I mean I’ll accept it, but it’s pretty heavy, ya know? It’s something that I don’t take lightly. And I would have, at the end of the movie added that, if you’re not a victim of abuse, listen. Because that’s the only thing I’ve been able to give back to people who disclosed to me.
How does it feel to you when people disclose to you after seeing the film?
It’s very powerful. It feels like, um, it’s so big I can’t even wrap my brain around it. It’s like I said, it’s more powerful. This movie is just a weird combination of my love for Barry and the courageousness Barry has and the byproduct ended up being this thing that sometimes helps other people. But I can’t say that that was the goal. The goal was really me wanting to make a movie about my pal and knowing that his story was an exceptional story.
Barry disclosed over 20 years ago on stage.
Yeah, he told me before he said that on stage. He disclosed to me and when he did he said that my reaction was actually surprising because he took it to seem like it was a sense of relief that came over me. There was not anything else. I was kind of relieved and I was like “Oh good, I understand my friend better now and that means we’re gonna roll up our sleeves and start working on this.”
What do you think, at this point, made Barry ready to tell his story this way? It’s a very public forum and it’s a very public way that people outside of comedy might come upon this not knowing anything about who he is and suddenly, here he is.
I think it was a combination of a lot of things. I think it was his work with other people that probably helped a lot, because then he could step back a little bit. I think that’s where Barry gets, and I’m putting words in his mouth, but I think that’s where Barry gets his daily reprieve from the pain of his past.
By helping others?
It was very powerful to see the other survivors who Barry helped in the film and even his neighbor, the mechanic in New York.
It’s a powerful thing. It’s like when I hear Barry speak now, I feel like when he first started talking about it, he was sussing it out in his own head. And now, when I hear him talk about these things, I know he’s doing it as a way to help other people. I think that was what I became aware of, like I could hear it in him. That I felt that he was ready.
In the scene in the film when you guys return to the house and he’s in the kitchen, and then when he goes into the basement, it seems very evident that he’s not just telling the story again.
Oh yeah, I mean, the whole basement, that’s where we had an argument. I was going to film the whole basement and then Barry’s like, I want to go and I was like, okay, well maybe outside the house you can wrap up how you feel about it, and he does a little bit. But, you know, we had a big argument where he said, you know I’m demystifying this place for people, I’m not going to make a shrine to evil and I’m gonna show that it’s just a room. And, as he says, you go through a problem and not around it. So he and I had a big fight and I knew he was already kinda going into shock…so that shot in the kitchen is him…he said, “I’m going down there. You can film it or not.” So I said, well let me just get the cameras ready, so he’s sitting there. He’s waiting while I’m scrambling to get the cameras together. As a storyteller, it’s powerful and I think it shows the audience that Barry has moved on, you know, past it. And I’m glad it’s in the movie, but if I felt it was cooked or looked fake or that I was being I manipulative, I would have cut it out. My daughter always has a problem with that scene. She says, “You look like an asshole. You look like you made Barry go down in the basement.” (laughs)
I don’t think that’s true.
There’s actually a shot I cut out where he walks away, and um, I put my arm on his back. You hear what he says. “I’m not coming back down here again.” And I’m laughing and that’s in the movie, the audio is but I cut the visual out because it was weird. It took away from the power of it and made it a little bit about me and I’m not a fan of that. There are some great documentary directors like Morgan Spurlock and folks like that who are really good when they are in it, but I think there’s a lot of bad directors who put themselves in the story. And I’m not a fan of those documentaries.
Yeah, because this film, it’s Barry’s story.
Yeah and I had to wrestle with that because even though it’s Barry’s story I am a little part of that. I’m not a big part, but I am a little part. So I had to wrestle with how much of me I was going to put in there.
The last thing I want to ask you, it may seem like a really simple question but it’s one I want to ask. Besides the fact that this is your film, why do you think it’s important for people to see Call Me Lucky?
I think it hopefully starts a dialogue about child abuse and adult survivors. And hopefully it takes away some of the…hopefully it helps people on a path to work on their own stuff or who are already working on their stuff to know that they’re not alone. Ya know.
That’s important. Because I think if anything the two things people want to be in this world is seen and heard.
Yeah, more than anything. I think that’s the thing everybody wants.