Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini are Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmakers known for their innovative work blending idiosyncratic real-life characters and finely honed intelligent stories. Their films include the 2003 Sundance-winning American Splendor, starring Paul Giamatti; the 2011 HBO movie Cinema Verite, with Diane Lane, James Gandolfini and Tim Robbins; Girl Most Likely (2012), starring Kristen Wiig; and 2010’s The Extra Man, with Kevin Kline and Paul Dano.
Recently we had the pleasure of attending the Provincetown International Film Festival with our latest feature, Ten Thousand Saints. At a dinner party, Christine Walker — the festival’s executive director, who was also a producer on our film American Splendor — was eager to introduce us to Bobcat Goldthwait. Bobcat was there with a documentary entitled Call Me Lucky, which included an interview with Harvey Pekar’s widow, Joyce Brabner. Since Harvey’s untimely death in July 2010, we’ve remained friendly with Joyce, so we were naturally curious about the film and the filmmaker. Although it was a brief confab, we had the pleasure of sharing a couple of Harvey stories with both Goldthwait and the subject of his movie, comedian Barry Crimmins. Later in our room, we both commented on how Crimmins’ animated face and wild eyes oddly reminded us of Harvey — a man we both adored and greatly miss. Although we didn’t have the opportunity to see Call Me Lucky in Provincetown, we were excited to catch up with it back home via a screening provided by Talkhouse Film. All we knew about the doc was that it profiled a cult comedian, but the film we ultimately discovered delivered quite an unexpected punch in the gut.
For the first 20 minutes or so, the power of Call Me Lucky isn’t evident. It presents a pleasant but arguably familiar story — the scruffy, passionate political comic who’s been unappreciated and deserves his due. Crimmins’ humor is indeed raw and fearless, but not always user-friendly. He has the seething anger that’s often a fascinating aspect of comedy, but seems to have little need or regard for an actual laugh. It’s easy to draw comparisons to Lenny Bruce’s comedic evolution. But unlike Bruce, Crimmins’ drug of choice is friendship. In fact, Crimmins grows so devoted to the world of comedy that he opens a club in a Chinese restaurant and helps groom a generation of younger comedians, Goldthwait included. By doing so, he becomes the quintessential comic’s comic, as many of those he inspires and mentors enjoy far greater fame than he does.
Margaret Cho, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Marc Maron and many of Crimmins’ other acolytes appear in the film, offering professional praise, deep appreciation and true admiration for their friend. And yet many recall confusion about what was fueling Crimmins’ angsty behavior. We finally learn the truth during one shocking stand-up routine in which Crimmins completely abandons comedy to deliver a painful, personal monologue recounting the horrendous sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a man connected to his babysitter. This revelation marks a new chapter in both Crimmins’ life and the documentary, as both delve into darker, more powerful territory. The abrupt transition is as jarring to the viewer as it probably was to the audience who witnessed Crimmins’ life-changing routine. Yet somehow, baring his soul in this way also makes total sense; for the first time, the complicated personality we’ve witnessed earlier comes fully into focus. In one of the most moving sequences, Crimmins’ sister weeps profusely, recollecting the horrified visage of her baby brother, the one she witnessed when she accidentally stumbled upon a scene of the actual abuse. It occurred to us that Crimmins’ face remained frozen in that state for life — terror-stricken and thunderstruck by what adults, politicians or so-called religious leaders are capable of doing to the world’s most ill-equipped and vulnerable.
But merely unlocking this indelible expression is not the end of Goldthwait’s portrait of Crimmins. Instead, it is the beginning of a remarkable second act in which activism replaces humor as a coping mechanism for pain. Fired up by the casual attitude towards child predators that existed in the early days of the Internet, Crimmins singlehandedly takes on powerful corporations, testifies before Congress, even battles a local child-molesting priest, ultimately saving an untold number of children from sexual abuse in the process. A man who initially strove for belly laughs ends up as a transcendent inspirer, and we watch in utter amazement as he journeys from a near mental breakdown to receiving an international peace prize.
After viewing Call Me Lucky, it made perfect sense to us that Crimmins and Pekar were pals. Perhaps it was the mixture of personal pain and outrage worn in such an outward fashion that first reminded us of Harvey when we met Crimmins. In Harvey’s case, the pain came from crippling self-worth issues, plus battles with both mental illness and cancer. But like Crimmins’ singular obsession to save other children from the horrors he himself experienced in his own childhood, Harvey displayed little concern for his own ego in championing his political beliefs, especially regarding corporate injustice. He famously got kicked off the David Letterman show (and was recently celebrated in the press as one of Letterman’s most unforgettable guests) for calling out corruption at General Electric, which was the parent company of NBC. He went so far as to walk onto the stage wearing an “On Strike Against NBC” shirt, sabotaging any attempts at promoting his own comic-book work on TV in the future.
Harvey and Crimmins share a quality that seemed to get buried and even lampooned in the late ’80s/early ’90s yuppie culture: a wild, totally consuming commitment to standing up for what’s right. They also shared what Crimmins unapologetically describes as a “nasty aura.” We’ve always been attracted to these kinds of characters, because for some inexplicable reason, you often find the biggest hearts beneath such veneers. One can’t help but contrast this with the recent revelations surrounding another comedian, Bill Cosby, who seemed to construct an entire persona around cuddly respectability. In Call Me Lucky, Brabner humorously describes Crimmins as “a dancing bear that got loose.” Indeed, the bear got loose to bear witness. We should all salute truth-tellers like Crimmins and Pekar, because in this world they are unfortunately far too rare. We only regret that we met Barry before we saw Goldthwait’s fine documentary. A heartfelt “thank you” would have certainly accompanied the handshake.