Bobcat Goldthwait does the impossible in his latest film — again
“Call Me Lucky” is a bold and moving documentary about volatile comedian and abuse survivor Barry Crimmins
I’m a guy from Boston. If I hear that a book or film is about child abuse, the switch in my brain automatically clicks off. For me, the words “entertaining” or “funny” don’t mesh well with the words “molest” or “rape.” There is enough sadness and human cruelty in the lives of my friends and family--I don’t need or want that in my entertainment.
But after talking with Bobcat Goldthwait about his new film Call Me Lucky, which premieres at Sundance this month, I’m throwing that all out the window.
This documentary hopes to achieve the impossible--to make you laugh and cry and care about something unspeakable and vile. This is Goldthwait’s trademark as a filmmaker. His third film, also at Sundance, Sleeping Dogs Lie, is about truth, lies and bestiality, a film so heart-wrenchingly beautiful, funny, moving and, yes, sweet--it had me sobbing like a baby. That’s right, I’m a guy from Boston and I’m sobbing at a film about dog-pleasuring.
Goldthwait’s next film, World’s Greatest Dad, starring his best friend, Robin Williams, took the vileness-made-sweet formula to new heights of unbearable tears and laughter, with a story about a father’s love for his obnoxious son who dies of auto-erotic asphyxiation. If you think about it, this formula is actually an extension of the equation that made Goldthwait’s standup act famous: two opposite qualities presented in an entertaining and hilarious way--ingenious, intellectual jokes coming from the mouth of an annoying, but sincere, borderline idiot.
Yes, make no mistake about it, Call Me Lucky is a documentary in part about child rape. But it is also a work of extraordinary bravery. It tells the life story of comedian, political satirist, and peace activist Barry Crimmins, and his incredible transformation from rape victim to hero.
Crimmins started the craziest comedy club in Boston, the Ding Ho, where Goldthwait first unleashed his screaming, anarchic stage persona in 1981. I played the broken-down piano for “The Ding” every night. That’s how I know these guys. Barry had stormed into town out of nowhere and started a comedy club. He was a witty, hard-drinking, high-IQ Irishman whose formidable intelligence almost single-handedly shaped the Boston comedy scene, spawning acts like Steven Wright, Dana Gould, Denis Leary, and of course, Bobcat Goldthwait.
Barry and I were both there the night Bobcat decided to try something different. Without telling us what he was going to do, Bobcat got onstage wearing a cub scout uniform and started stuttering and sobbing like a lunatic, trying to tell the story of how he and his brother were in the woods and saw Bigfoot. Goldthwait’s acting was so convincing, the audience thought he was actually mentally challenged, and looked askance at Barry for allowing him onstage. I was in the back with Barry and the other comics. After the initial shock wore off, we started howling, crying laughing, holding our stomachs, unable to breathe, at how perfectly Goldthwait was impersonating a vulnerable, mentally deficient man trying to do comedy. The perfect mashup of two opposite ideas.
Cut to thirty years later. Using a similar, outrageous juxtaposition, Bobcat is finishing Call Me Lucky, in part about the most heinous crime a human can commit, and hopes to infuse it with such love for his friend that the film is entertaining and beautiful. So we got on the phone, three old friends, and we talked about it.
Martin Olson: Bob, this is your first documentary. And you made it about the worst thing that ever happened to one of your oldest friends, Barry Crimmins, the first guy ever to book you to do standup.
Bob Goldthwait: I could have made a movie just about Barry launching all these famous people’s careers during that fascinating period of comedy. That’s all in the movie, but that’s not the story of the film, which is about a guy working through his own child abuse. As Barry says in the film, you go through a problem, not around it. It’s also about how he took on AOL, and the Catholic Church, and did so much to help other people.
Olson: Barry’s accomplished big things in a lot of different fields. How did you come up with the structure? For example, how did you decide when to reveal the darkest elements of Barry’s story in the film?
Goldthwait: I didn’t want to bait-switch the audience, making them think that it was just a film about this political satirist they’d never heard of. I wanted it to be entertaining, but also to tell Barry’s bigger, universal story. As Barry says, “If you are a victim of abuse, tell someone. Tell everyone.” That’s the message of the movie.
Olson: Well, Barry’s going to be the go-to guy once this film comes out.
Barry Crimmins: Yeah. When I agreed to do this, the one thing I knew would happen is that a lot of people would come forward. And that’s a good thing--but not necessarily if they all have my phone number.
But silence is the child abuser’s number one ally. It’s still the most under-reported crime. For an untreated victim, the tendency is to blame and despise yourself, just to make sense of the world. As a result, you very often behave in a fashion that corroborates your self-loathing. So telling this story will hopefully help a lot of people get past that, will help them understand some of their own behavior.
Olson: How has making this film affected your friendship?
Crimmins: Well this could end it.
I haven’t seen the goddamn thing. The first time I’ll see it will be at Sundance. I’ve literally put my life in Bob’s hands.
Goldthwait: It’s been a really strange year for me, probably the roughest year of my life. Divorce, then my best friend [Robin Williams] passing away, then breaking up with my girlfriend. But on the upside, at least I get to spend ten to twelve hours a day every day editing a child abuse film. (Laughter.)
When I realized it was going to be close to impossible to get a narrative movie made about Barry, which is what I originally thought I would do, it was Robin who suggested I make a doc. He gave me the initial funds to make it. It’s premiering at Sundance in the same theater where World’s Greatest Dad premiered. And like Barry, I didn’t let Robin see himself in that movie either. So I’m hoping it’s the same kind of positive experience this time, when Barry and I sit next to each other in the theater and watch it together for the first time.
Crimmins: It’s been amazing. We’re partners in this rather significant project, and yet there has to be this division of labor. I did most of my labor over the past sixty-one years. The biggest effort I’ve had to make is to trust in what was happening. I haven’t seen a millimeter of the film. I’m just trying to keep my ego out of it.
On a personal level, both Bob and Barry are known for being mensches, for helping young comics get work and fronting them money for things like groceries. They both did these things for me when I first came to Hollywood as a down-and-out writer.
But they have another thing in common: they both like to fuck with audiences. Bobcat told me about the time Barry was booked on a lame 80’s TV show featuring standups; Barry started getting groans from the crowd while performing harsh anti-Reagan material. In response, he stopped his set and began a precise, step-by-step satirical breakdown of the HUD scandal to the baffled Hollywood crowd. It got laughs from the back of the room, but most certainly wasn't his planned set. The only people laughing were comics who knew that Barry was purposely mind-fucking the crowd who expected jokes about airline food.
As for Goldthwait, it’s tough for him to top the anarchy of his stage character. Which explains why he actually went on the Tonight Show, squirted lighter fluid on the set and proceeded to set the sofa on fire--for no reason other than to fuck with America’s most sedate entertainment, The Tonight Show.
But Bob’s genius as a filmmaker isn’t just his anarchic comedy; it’s that his films are, above all, sincere. That's the most important part of him mind-fucking the audience. He's not being sarcastic. For instance, Sleeping Dogs Lie was actually a philosophic exercise about truth and lies--and when being honest can be inappropriate and destructive.
Olson: You and Barry have known each other for a long time. While making the film, did many things come up that you didn’t expect to find?
Goldthwait: I learned a lot about Barry making the film. What I learned were really wonderful finds. I knew that Barry was out there doing good things in public, but I interviewed his neighbors and learned about all the stuff he does anonymously to help people. I was surprised. It’s really nice to hear that. The more people I talked to, the more wonderful things I found out about my friend. That was pretty cool.
Crimmins: When I first told Bob about me surviving child abuse, he was the first one who was seamlessly great hearing about it. Having known me for years, it solved the mystery. Before that, he couldn’t understand where the fuck I was coming from. But when he learned about my childhood, he was relieved and said, “Now I get it. I was trying to think if you should go to Alcoholics Anonymous. But somehow I knew that wasn’t the real problem.” And Bob, you were right. You were incredibly supportive.
Goldthwait: That was the thing. Barry had been a hard drinker. I had kept my own recovery anonymous--although not so anonymous now--but I always felt that Barry wasn’t an alcoholic. He just didn’t seem to have the qualities that go along with it. So when he told me about his abuse, it made so much sense to me.
Olson: Barry told me before that when you heard about it, you were relieved.
Goldthwait: Yeah, and that’s reflected in the movie. It wasn’t just me. We talked to some of his childhood buddies who expressed the same kind of relief. What makes me happy is to see how proud they are of him, the same way I’ll feel showing this movie at Sundance. Because it’s not about the horrific things that happened to him. You get choked up because Barry got through it and walked the walk. It’s his kindness and understanding. Even to some of these predators when he says he’s against the death penalty.
Olson: Barry, during the filming Bob took you to locations from your childhood, in some cases taking you straight back to hell. Did confronting that open up memories? What was that like?
Crimmins: It was a very emotional thing. Visiting the Catholic Church where I was an altar boy, where I was emotionally abused--not sexually abused--by a horrific pedophile priest. Some of his sexual abuse victims, who were also of course emotionally abused, got together with me and formed the “Hell Alumni Association,” which says it all. I just blurted the whole story [on camera]. It just came out. First about what the priest did to me up on the altar everyday, and how if anyone had spoken up about what he was doing to me, then maybe some other kids would have been saved. In some cases, kids who aren’t with us any more. So I got pretty upset on camera.
Then we went to my home from my early childhood, where I was raped as a very young boy. The babysitter would show up. My parents would leave. A while later, a man would arrive who had some sort of custodial care over the babysitter. In retrospect, I have no hatred for the babysitter, because it was her or me.
When we got there, it was my option to go into the basement or not. Bob took the crew inside to get some shots, while I wandered around the yard where I played as a boy. A lot came back to me. Then the PTSD kicked in. I was in a rather disassociated state, what the average person would call shock. Shock, being nature’s tranquilizer, prepped me for going into the house. Dazed, I entered the building and found myself facing the basement door, which was wide open and emphasized by the lights from the film crew working below. The realization of where I was hit me like a sonic boom. I was physically knocked back and actually staggered. More than anything, I suppose, it knocked the wind out of me. My plan to walk directly down the stairs was quickly abandoned. But in short order I made another assault. What can I tell you? I’m Irish. It was to say the least, daunting. But nowhere near as daunting as what I’d gone through in that basement as a child. And nowhere near as daunting as what countless children go through every day. So I went down and said what needed to be said, and then got out of there. Bob and the crew couldn’t have been more compassionate and sweet to me. They hovered over me for days after that.
The details came at me fast when I was in that basement. But despite that, I don’t need those memories any more. I know what happened. These days I’m pretty good about not malingering. But a natural valve gets opened. The initial shock is a survival reaction, as if you were in a horrible disaster, or a car accident, or a war, or you survived some sort of massacre. The same thing happens to child abuse survivors. That’s PTSD.
When I take the responsibility of trying to help other child abuse survivors, I think it’s good for me to be reminded how much a member of that club I am.
But you asked a while ago, while Bob was still on the line, how this film changed or affected our friendship. I’d like to answer that now: every time there was a choice between the movie or my well-being, he opted for my well-being without flinching or blinking an eye. And this is his career. He’s got a lot riding on this movie. So nothing underscores why it’s titled “Call Me Lucky” more than my friendship with Bob. I love Bob Goldthwait… and, of course, Brian Piccolo.
Olson: From what Bob says, the most significant take-away to me from this film is, “Tell everybody.” I hadn’t heard that phrase before, and that certainly is going to come out in this movie.
Crimmins: If everyone knew how many people they knew who were abused, they might look at things a lot differently. If you really want people to get over abuse, they have to talk about it and get through it. And a big part of getting through it is understanding that you didn’t do anything wrong. You’re disclosing a story. You’re not admitting anything, you’re not guilty of anything. You’re telling a true story of what happened.
Olson: Cool that Bob will be able to tell the story with you now.
Crimmins: And when the work is done, we’ll spend the next year yukking it up at film festivals. That’s going to be great. Robin was going to go with us. That would have been fun.
Both Bob and Barry gave me advice early in our careers. They both urged me to completely own whatever I create. That’s what Goldthwait is doing with this powerful film about his old friend. And that’s what Crimmins did with his life, owning his future, owning it by telling everyone.
So I’m owning what is said here, despite my initial discomfort. It’s very hard to hear about my friend getting sexually abused as a child. But it’s harder for him to tell me, and even harder, to tell the world.
I have a favorite Mark Twain quote that is a simple one, but in a way it fits the way Crimmins encourages child abuse victims, comedians, people with problems, you name it, to gain full access to their own lives:
Keep away from people who try to belittle you. Small people always do that. But the really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great.
- Mark Twain
Olson: Barry, this film is yet another amazing thing that has happened to you. Is there anything else you’d like to say about it?
Crimmins: Thanks, Martin. And thanks, Robin and Bob. I can’t believe the final collaboration of two such dear and remarkably talented friends is a movie about my life. I am so thankful to them and everyone who helped tell this story. And now, Doctor Goldthwait, let’s sit down and watch this movie.
Call Me Lucky
A film by Bobcat Goldthwait
Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the 2015 Documentary Competition.
Sundance Film Festival Screen Schedule:
Tuesday, January 27, 2:30 p.m. / Library Center Theatre, Park City
Wednesday, January 28, 12:00 p.m. / Temple Theatre, Park City
Thursday, January 29, 6:00 p.m. / Broadway Centre Cinema 6, Salt Lake City
Friday, January 30, 4:00 p.m. / Redstone Cinema 2, Park City
Saturday, January 31, 2:30 p.m. / Holiday Village Cinema 1, Park City
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