The only person who'd use the word "lucky" to describe Barry Crimmins' life is Barry Crimmins.

Raised in Skaneateles, Crimmins, 61, went on to be many things to many people: a satirist, a comedy club manager, a crusader.

Capturing them all — and the childhood trauma that largely determined the man Crimmins became — is a new documentary by fellow comedian and longtime friend Bobcat Goldthwait: "Call Me Lucky."

The film premiered Jan. 27 at the Sundance Film Festival and features interviews with Crimmins, his family and Goldthwait, plus a who's who of comedians: Steven Wright, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Marc Maron, Margaret Cho and several more.

All sing the praises of Crimmins in the movie's intro. Oswalt calls him a "whispered-about presence." Maron, a "weird, mythical force."

"In the '80s and '90s there was this wave of comedy that was the truth teller," Cho said. "I feel like people should claim him more, because I think he has much more of an influence than anybody realizes."

After mapping Crimmins' legend, the film moves on to his origins, showing sights familiar to Skaneateles residents: the corner of Genesee Street and Jordan Road, the lake pier at Clift Park. Crimmins' first words about his hometown, however, are less than idyllic.

"Skaneateles is an Indian word that means 'beautiful lake surrounded by fascists,'" he tells the camera. "It's changed over the years: A lot of the fascists have died and new people have moved in."

Speaking over the phone from his home in Corning, Crimmins was kinder to Skaneateles. He and his family — mother Margaret, father Phil and three sisters — moved to 27 State St. when Barry was 6. They'd previously lived in North Syracuse and Kingston, where Barry was born.

Growing up in the lakeside village in the early '60s, Barry recalls playing at Austin Park, biking down the hill by Skaneateles High School and jumping in the lake with friends like John Considine. 

"He was just a great friend, very loyal, very generous, kind. Always for the underdog," said Considine, who now resides in Tully, in a phone interview.

Crimmins also played Pop Warner football in Auburn, No. 33, his name in the team photo listed as simply "Crimmins."

"I was the weird kid from Skaneateles who hitchhiked over to play and no one knew me," he said.

Friends and sports were escapes from Crimmins' service as an altar boy at St. Mary's of the Lake Church under the Rev. Thomas Neary.

Early into that service, Crimmins said, the priest placed his hand on the boy's shoulder, rubbing it. Crimmins met him with a reflexive elbow to the midsection.

After the incident, Neary began abusing the boy verbally. Whether it was ringing a bell or pouring water to wash the priest's hands, Neary always scolded Crimmins for doing it wrong, he said.

Years later, more than 30 people would accuse Neary, who died in 2001, of raping or molesting them when they were children. In hindsight, the accusations clued Crimmins in to what was happening at St. Mary's of the Lake.

"He was trying to drive me off because I wasn't a good mark," he said.

Crimmins has never forgiven the Catholic Church. To this day, he regularly tweets at the Pope, asking to be excommunicated.

"Being denigrated at an altar by this official every morning and no one sticks up for you — you begin to question authority," Crimmins said.

That abuse created in Crimmins an appetite for comic relief, he said. He preferred Jerry Lewis to the monster movies of the time, and found guides for his own voice in the writings of Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper.

One of the first times Crimmins expressed that voice in public was his sophomore year at Skaneateles High School, when he and friends John Brown and Jack Barron performed a spoof of "Rock Around the Clock" as greaser characters.

He crossed the lines between cliques, too, continuing to play football and baseball, and writing for The Skaneateles Press.

"I began to learn about the power of the press," he said. "And I had some leverage I could use to fiddle with things like curfews."

Crimmins graduated from Skaneateles in 1971. He bounced around a few colleges before looking for a career in radio. But as the '70s went on, he gravitated to stand-up comedy, bringing to the stage both his appreciation of wit and his cynicism toward authority.

"I knew I didn't want to work for some corporation," he said. "So while everyone else has to be in a traffic jam and go to work, I'm available to look into other things and convey information to them. I don't think that puts me on a higher plane. It's just an opportunity I have."

As Crimmins scraped for every minute he could get at clubs across the country, he also arranged with owner Skeeter Crossley a regular Wednesday gig at Under the Stone in Skaneateles.

Soon, show partner Steve Leahy had to go back to college, forcing Crimmins to advertise for new talent in The Syracuse New Times. That's when he met a 16-year-old Goldthwait and a 15-year-old Tom Kenny.

The ad included Crimmins' nickname, "Bear Cat," begetting "Tom Cat" for Kenny and, most famously, "Bobcat" for Goldthwait.

"I don't think Barry knew we were teens," Goldthwait said in a phone interview. "I think he really needed acts. Then he was happy that we didn't bomb."

Goldthwait would become a household name, appearing in movies like "Police Academy" and "Scrooged," as well as breaking and burning furniture on "The Arsenio Hall Show" and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." Kenny would voice SpongeBob SquarePants and other characters in more than 200 animated productions.

"Thank god I was nice to them," Crimmins joked.

Shortly after making those two lifelong friendships, Crimmins was hitchhiking to New York City. The rain became so unbearable that when a driver offered to take the rider to Boston, he hopped in. 

It was kismet, Crimmins said.

In Boston, he'd play a packed room at the Ding Ho Chinese restaurant on Memorial Day weekend 1979. Compared to other clubs, it treated him well. So he stuck around, working different jobs and getting to know the staff.

When the restaurant's ownership changed hands, the new boss put Crimmins in charge of entertainment. And when the boss complained about the price tag of its musical acts, Crimmins suggested the Ding Ho book comedy instead.

Within two weeks of reopening Oct. 3 as Constant Comedy at the Ding Ho, the club was selling out, showcasing names that'd include Wright, Goldthwait, Paula Poundstone, Lenny Clarke, Kevin Meaney and many more. It was the first full-time comedy club in the Boston area, Crimmins said.

"We treated everybody well, paid them well," he said. "This really made a big difference. The people responded, and there was this explosion of talent."

Crimmins said his favorite summary of the '80s Boston comedy scene came from none other than Rolling Stones member Ian Stewart. A Ding Ho regular between recording sessions, Stewart once told the comedian that the atmosphere reminded him of the rock boom in mid-'60s London.

Crimmins was also instrumental in opening another club, Stitches. And he continued his own comedy — in part because Ronald Reagan's America wouldn't stop supplying him material. 

"You took our hard-earned taxpayers' dollars and you fixed the (damn) Statue of Liberty? Next thing you know, you'll be defending the Constitution," he quipped in footage from a 1986 gig featured in "Call Me Lucky."

That social conscience made Crimmins a kindred spirit with not just his cohorts at the Ding Ho and Stitches, but also musicians like Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne and Billy Bragg. The comedian would tour with all three.

He also followed his conscience into activism. Once, he said, he was shown on the 5 p.m. news getting arrested for jumping the fence at a nuclear power plant. He walked on the stage of Stitches at 8 "and the place blew up" with applause.

By the turn of the decade, however, Crimmins' comedy could no longer contain his rage toward its targets. The punchlines were slowly leaving his sets, replaced by rants against the government, the church, the corporations — the abusers.

"His fuse was getting shorter and shorter," said Boston Herald columnist Dean Johnson in the film.

Then, at a spring 1992 Stitches performance, Crimmins took a hard turn toward the personal: He revealed that when he was 4, living in North Syracuse, he had been raped several times by a male acquaintance of his babysitter. 

It wasn't some long-bottled secret — Crimmins, then in his late 30s, had only just learned he'd been raped after talking with his sister Mary Jo.

She was 5 when she saw it happen. In "Call Me Lucky" she recalls walking down the basement stairs, seeing her brother and thinking he was dead.

He almost was, Barry said. The man would shove his face into the pillows, suffocating him.

But when the babysitter yelled Mary Jo's name, Barry's eyes met his sister's.

"It's a glance that lasts a lifetime," she said, tearfully. "The whole world has changed for both of us from that point on."

Mary Jo scrambled up the stairs for help, screaming, and bit the babysitter when she tried to stop her. The siblings would never again see the woman, nor the man she brought into their home.

In the climax of "Call Me Lucky," Crimmins returns to that basement for the first time since realizing what had been done to him there.

At first, Goldthwait said, he was reluctant to film his friend's pain.

"His well-being was more important to me than making the movie," he said. "But (Crimmins) said to me, 'You go through a problem, not around it.'"

It's advice Crimmins lives by today.

"I'm not a victim," he tells the camera in the basement. "I was, but I'm not anymore. I am a witness, and my life's testimony. Not only to what happens to kids, but what you can go on to do and become, no matter what they do, unless they kill you. But that was close in my case. It was real close. But I'm here, I made it.

"Call me lucky."

In conversation, Crimmins said he counts growing up in the pastoral scenery of Skaneateles among his charms.

"It's so imbued in me. It's been the infrastructure that's seen me through life," he said. "I had the great fortune to matter-of-factly have been around so much beauty, and I've taken it with me all over the world."

As Crimmins began working through his problems in the early '90s, he disappeared from the club scene, but not from his causes. In 1993, historian and activist Howard Zinn presented him with The Courage of Conscience Award from Wellesley College and The Life Experience School at The Peace Abbey.

Zinn told Crimmins at the ceremony, "You are one of those honorable few, those men and women who use their artistic talents to help create a different culture, a different world."

By 1995, Crimmins was spending more time on the Internet. He'd enter the chat rooms of America Online, hoping to connect with other survivors of abuse.

"I think having suffered such an unjust trauma at such a young age — it made me sort of a tuning fork for agony," he said. "If someone else was hurting, I crept up on it."

Instead, in those primitive online spaces, Crimmins found child pornography.

He reported what he saw to America Online, the local police, the FBI — none took action.

So he did it himself, posing as a young brother and sister who shared the same screen name, and collecting several hard drives' worth of the images he was sent. As the evidence swelled, he lost 100 pounds, so emotionally depleted he was by what he saw.

"You see the kids' eyes and you see the humanity going out of them. It's just crushing," he said.

Eventually, Crimmins made enough noise about the problem that Congress invited him to testify about it. He didn't just describe what he saw — he angrily accused AOL of profiting from the images' sharing because it required so much bandwidth. And he did so seated a foot away from the company's director of government affairs.

Days later, the FBI made 140 arrests related to child pornography.

Crimmins' essay about the experience in The Boston Phoenix gave Goldthwait the idea to make a movie about his friend.

"He is my friend, but I think it's a pretty courageous and heroic tale, and that's what drew me to it," he said. "I was really pleased to find out how many people's lives he's affected in a positive way." 

At first Goldthwait saw it as a scripted project, with actors. It was his close friend Robin Williams who convinced him that only a documentary could do Crimmins justice.

Williams would even front the money for the movie.

"It was one of his last quiet acts of generosity and kindness to put this thing through," Crimmins said. 

Crimmins and Goldthwait were touched when Williams' widow, Susan Schneider, attended the premiere of "Call Me Lucky" at Sundance. The film received standing ovations all week from festival audiences.

Both its director and its subject believe it resonated for the same reason.

"It's about our friendship and about me, but what we both hope is that it's about all of us," Crimmins said. "It's about dealing with what you have to deal with so you can appreciate and enjoy as much of this miracle that's life on earth."

As Goldthwait and producers Type 55 Films plan the distribution of "Call Me Lucky," Crimmins will continue writing for Seven Stories Press, which released his 2004 book, "Never Shake Hands With a War Criminal." He'll also return to the stage, shaping up material for a future comedy special.

And Crimmins will keep helping others, whether it's those who've reached out to him after seeing the movie or anyone else who finds their way into his compassionate orbit.

"The sooner you get around to dealing, the sooner you can get around to claiming your own life," he said. "Part of my story is about this awful stuff that happened to me, but it's amazing how many great things have happened, too."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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