Last January, Barry Crimmins was beginning maybe the most prolific year of his life.
That's saying something considering his credentials: Raised in Skaneateles, Crimmins, 62, would become a pioneering political satirist, a founding father of Boston's stand-up comedy scene and an outspoken advocate for trauma survivors.
His friend Bobcat Goldthwait captured it all in "Call Me Lucky," a biographical documentary that made the film festival rounds last year, from Sundance in January to Syracuse in October. While Goldthwait's filmmaking collected several awards, his depiction of Crimmins' own trauma collected outreach from fellow survivors — and, with the film now on Netflix, it continues to.
I spoke to Crimmins over the phone Monday about the people who've reached out to him since seeing "Call Me Lucky," his return to stand-up, what kind of material the 2016 presidential race provides him and more:
Q. How has the reaction to "Call Me Lucky" been from Skaneateles and the people you know there?
A. Everybody's been very generous about the movie, and it's had some of the same effect here it's had a lot of places. I've heard from some local people who want to talk about various issues or what they're going through, or they might need some help. Our area isn't exempted from trauma survivors. Every time you're dealing with one of those people and helping, you realize that you get a chance to measure your own progress. And once again, the name of the movie kicks in.
Q. I see on Twitter you're contacted by dozens of people a day, reaching out about the movie or about trauma in their lives. Does it ever get overwhelming?
A. The emails I get through my website is the real busy one. I've had to kind of build a bit of a support structure. If it's not something I can really help with, or am qualified to help with, I have places to send people, people I can refer them to. In most cases, there are places to refer people, and I can still say, "Remain in touch and let me know how it's going." Some days are much tougher than others. But in the end, it's all pretty redemptive. It's funny, you call me on (Martin Luther King Jr.) Day — this is a human rights movement and it's in its very early stages. You can compare and contrast it with other efforts, so that's what I've been doing today, is thinking about the Rev. King and the great, long trail laid out in front of them, in front of all of us, as regards civil rights in this country. I'm very appreciative of the superstructure he created that you can apply to other issues. Certainly, the issue of children's rights and safety and the circumstances of trauma survivors — there's been plenty of stuff that applies to that. But it seems like things are really starting to catch on, with people understanding this has a large effect on society as a whole, and I think a lot of people are starting to realize that if they're not directly affected, they don't have to go too far among friends and loved ones before they find someone who is. I think one of the things the movie's really done is say that one of the bravest things they can do is listen to people tell their stories.
Q. I also noticed on Twitter you voiced your displeasure with "Call Me Lucky," or more specifically Bobcat, not getting recognized by the Oscars.
A. I'm not in the movie business. I'd have to be pretty greedy to want any more out of this film than I've already gotten. But Bob's a wonderful filmmaker. I saw a lot of the documentaries this year — I spent the year at film festivals — and our film stands up with any of them. I think "Spotlight" is a wonderful film. It's like that apartheid film about the circumstances in South Africa — the white people catching on to the fact apartheid was a horrible thing. I think "Call Me Lucky" is more about the abuse survivors. There's a good buffer zone between the actual abuse the church committed by priests and the coverup and the victims. It reminds us why it's important to have viable media and why it's important for them to do their jobs and stay with it and stay on task. It's a great movie in a million ways, but it provides a little more of a boundary between the viewer and the abuse than "Call Me Lucky" did. I think it's very encouraging in the overall sense of our awareness about this stuff that "Spotlight" has done so well and that they made it. I just think "Call Me Lucky," and Goldthwait, were a little more direct. But I was really disappointed that (the Independent Spirit Awards) couldn't do anything for him because he embodies the spirit of independent film. He literally invests everything he has into his films. Every piece of what he does is so he can make his next film. He could make a lot of money if he would just cede his autonomy to corporate show business, but he doesn't. They should have him there getting a lifetime achievement award at this point.
Q. You've also been performing again over the past year — how have you found that? Is it like riding a bike or is there rust to kick off?
A. It's just about finding the right venues and the right audiences. That's always been my battle. Right now, there's more good comedy clubs in country than there might have ever been. When the big boom happened, they started cookie-cutting them. Back then, if you exceeded expectations, you were in as much trouble as if you didn't meet them. You got a lot of people saying we came out for fun and this guy talked about something. Now, there are a lot more hip rooms. I got some fine new representation and, hopefully, that will result in me shooting a special this year. What's really nice is that a lot of the young comics are coming out to see me and it's a chance to meet a bunch of people who are moving forward in this racket. They're also really up against it. Our struggle was to establish a beachhead. Their struggle is that there's almost a refugee crisis — there are so many comedians. They say there's 35,000 comedians in New York City alone. I've been joking that the United Nations should step in and bring in emergency tents to set up open mics in. Because stage time is the lifeblood of comedy, and it's really hard for them to get enough stage time. When we needed time, we'd toss up some more rooms.
Q. Any chance you'll perform in Auburn or the Skaneateles area?
A. I hope, if we can make a deal. I'd love to play Auburn. If not Auburn Public Theater, then somewhere else. I'm a working comic — if there's a gig that works with my time, then I'll show up. I'd love to do something where we bring various artists, not just comics, up here in the summer and show the place off. Bring some art to these beautiful surroundings, too. But that's down the road. This year's really a lot of touring. After two years of working on the film, it's fun to be back out doing shows. I can't say it's fun to be on the road again. The stage and the road are two different things. After all the attention of the past year, I'm reminded once again that the one place I can feel comfortable and almost relax is when I'm on stage. The rest of my life is — with all due respect — lots of interviews. And, of course, this duty I have to follow through when people see the film and speak up to me. I'm obliged to listen and do what I can. So it's nice to get an hour or two a night when I'm on the stage doing what I'm doing. It's also nice to turn stuff off and just work on my act.
Q. You being a political satirist, I imagine the 2016 presidential election is providing you a lot of material.
A. If I wanted to talk about electoral politics all the time, I could. I saw the pattern developing years ago, after dealing with it for a long time. I'm just not as motivated by electoral politics as I once was because it's the return on your investment that I have a problem with. People think they're political because they dogmatically worship strange people. One of my basic tenets is to never trust anyone who wants to be in charge, so that doesn't put me on great footing with politicians to start. My friend Howard Zinn said, "On Election Day, go down and do the least amount of damage you can, and then whoever wins, hold their feet to the fire." I'm more interested in the politics of everyday life and personal conduct — noticing things you could be a lot more responsible about. You could say, "I worked for that person and they're supposed to straighten everything out." Well, they don't. We have to show them what we're passionate about, what we'll do something about. There are plenty of things to be political about, it just doesn't have to do with talking points and attack ads and propaganda so much as actually really doing stuff, real grassroots stuff.
(Editor's note: This interview has been condensed.)