Whatever Threatens Us


Anger can be righteous while comedic, though the balance is usually off, and it’s a rare person who navigates the difference. Barry Crimmins was a rare person who managed it, to the degree that he did.

I knew Barry over the last decade of his life. He emailed me from out of the blue, having read a blog post of mine satirizing US nationalism. A friend of his thought Barry wrote it under a pseudonym. Barry said he was honored by his friend’s mistake. “I love your stuff. Just love it,” he wrote, giving me his number. “Call me sometime – in fact anytime. Brilliance like yours is in extremely short supply.”

We became fast friends, talking several times a week. We were both off the grid — Barry in upstate New York, me doing janitorial work in Michigan. I’d empty cubicle garbage late at night while Barry riffed into my earpiece, attacking the surrounding madness between sips of beer. These were intimate performances. I’d add a few cents of my own, but Barry set the tone.

There were few casual conversations with Barry. When he rang, you had to be ready for an emotional outpouring. There were times when I ignored his calls; I simply lacked the energy to engage. Most times, Barry knew I was dodging him and let me have it on my voicemail. His putdowns could be poetic. But there was love. Barry showed me lots of love.

He also demonstrated his faith and support. When Barry roused himself from exile, he brought me along. As my marriage fell apart, I went back onstage trying to reclaim an earlier version of myself. Barry understood this and opened doors. His endorsement went a long way. Through him, I met and connected with some truly remarkable talents. I performed on stages that otherwise would have been closed to me.

When Barry returned to the Boston stage, he asked me to open for him. I said he was nuts. First, this was Boston, his home turf. Second, my sets were more autobiographical than comic. Surely he’d want someone attuned to the comedy of the moment. “Fuck ’em,” he replied. “D’you wanna do it or not?”

I did, and it was great. Barry stood in the back, laughing with, at times without, the audience. He gave me notes while lauding my effort. Then he went on and blew away the room. His energy carried the material. Even if you weren’t sure that what he was saying was funny, Barry made you a believer by the punchline.

That’s what stuck with me — Barry’s ability to close. No matter how seemingly detached his ad libbing, Barry brought it all back on a dime. It was amazing to watch. And then things changed.

Barry wrote a screenplay called CALL ME LUCKY for his best friend Bobcat Goldthwait to direct. It became a biopic depicting Barry’s insanely rough life, from childhood rape to showbiz marginalization. Barry helped launch the careers of numerous famous comics, while taking down AOL’s child porn chat rooms. It was a long overdue, much deserved tribute. For once, the lone spotlight was on him.

This, based on my personal experience, triggered Barry in various ways, the most prominent feature being entitlement. Barry was owed this. His ship had finally come in, as it was bound to, setting in motion the next phase which would put Barry back on top.

I applauded and supported this. Yes, Barry should be as big as Chappelle, Rock, and Louis C.K. He forged the path. I was fully in Barry’s corner. We spoke often as he prepared for a stand up special to be produced and directed by Louie in Lawrence, Kansas. The iron was hot.

Barry played small venues in order to sharpen his act. I caught up to him in Queens. He seemed distracted. A couple of younger comics flattered Barry as we said hi to each other. He drained a beer then grabbed another and went onstage.

The audience loved him, laughing and clapping as Barry ranted and raved. And that was pretty much what he did that night — rant. There were no punchlines, at least none that I recognized. Each rant ended with “Fuck you!” and “Go fuck yourself!” and “Get the fuck outta here!” The young crowd ate it up. I was confused. Was this what Barry intended for the special?

Afterward, Barry and I talked about the set. I wasn’t honest with him, not that it mattered. His younger fans were impressed, and Barry went off with them into the night, smoking a cigarette, mumbling goodbye. He looked lost in their admiration.

I next saw Barry in Lawrence. He seemed upbeat but angry, which was nothing new. Only this anger was different. Barry could be and often was extremely angry. It’s why people who knew him rarely crossed him, regardless of intent. Barry would make you pay. He had plenty of hurt to spare.

I experienced this. I know many of Barry’s friends did. I’ve had late drunken nights with Barry where he probed and poked and tried to get a negative response. He sometimes screamed in my ear. I refused to scream back. Eventually, it was laughed off as a test. Barry testing you was a privilege. It meant he took you seriously.

In Lawrence, the tests bordered on abuse. I don’t know what the fuck was up with him; he acted like he was a big star. In a way, he was, but he really pushed it. Lawrence was his town. Everybody there loved him. He couldn’t walk down the street without people asking for his time. Barry stopped short of talking about himself in the third person, but he didn’t have to.

He busted my balls up to his first show, and then became friendly again, asking for my feedback. The first show was tight and moved well. It helped that there was a time limit, as a second show audience was waiting outside. They got the untethered Crimmins experience. Barry was all over the place, doing bits from the ’80s, occasionally repeating punchlines. It seemed like every joke he ever told came spilling out — his Greatest Hits. Barry put everything he had into that set. By the end his exhaustion was evident.

He sat on a stool in his dressing room, slumped forward, sipping a beer. “You look like Ali after his third fight with Frazier,” I said. Barry brightened. “Yeah. Ali. I like that.” He leaned back against the wall and sighed. The night was over. I went back to my room and crashed.

I left Lawrence early the next morning. Barry later texted, thanking me for my support. He expressed love and promised to talk soon. When he next reached out, it was through a very terse text. Barry claimed that someone told him I was bad mouthing him behind his back. This was news to me, so I asked what I supposedly said. Barry replied that I knew precisely what I said, and that my denial only made things worse.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I texted. “If you have a quote, please share it.”

Barry said that he was too busy to deal with such formalities. I clearly betrayed him and he wanted nothing more to do with me. Then he vanished. I never spoke to or saw Barry again. This broke my heart.

I never understood why Barry behaved this way. I was told that he’d done the same with other friends. Maybe he did; it wouldn’t have surprised me. A year later I heard he was sick and didn’t have much time. When I learned of his death, I wept and thought of all the unnecessary pain Barry endured and meted out. He was truly tortured, and though capable of tremendous love and caring, Barry could also be thoughtlessly cruel and petty.

When he was making CALL ME LUCKY, Barry insisted that I be interviewed for the film. I didn’t see the point — he had far more famous friends than me to testify, but that’s what Barry wanted. So I came to the set, was interviewed on camera by Bobcat, drove Barry to a store to buy beer, then went home.

As I expected, my segment didn’t make the final cut. But if you watch the film’s ending closely, you’ll see me next to Barry, smiling. It was fitting, I suppose. And now he’s gone, and that’s the way it goes.