Comedy has a longstanding tradition of spinning tragedy into laughter. Dealing with sensitive subjects that split your audience into one of two camps, though: people you’ve offended, and people you haven’t offended yet. No one knows that better than stand-up veteran Barry Crimmins, whose first special Whatever Threatens You is a love letter to that very tradition.
For a political satirist like Crimmins, there couldn’t have been a better time to drop a special than the current political shitstorm the world has found itself in. It might be safe to assume that Crimmins finally released a special after decades in stand-up because he felt the same itch we all have when our high school lab partner writes “Crooked Hillary” on Facebook. But when asked why he finally took the plunge, Crimmins had a more simplistic answer. “Someone really capable asked me to,” he says, referring to Louis CK, who directed the special and is distributing it through his website.
Crimmins has been a hermit shuffling through the comedy world for forty-four years, remaining widely unknown to the general public while building a legendary reputation among his fellow comics. His act is more than throwing comedic glitter on hardship—it’s brilliant leftist political commentary at its best, and merely downright hilarious at its worst. That’s something that doesn’t seem out of place now, given that our market eats it up, with Daily Show alums like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver mainstreaming political satire over the last 17 years. However, when Crimmins was coming up the same couldn’t be said.
“You become a left-wing political satirist during the Reagan years it’s like an economic bonanza you are walking into,” Crimmins jokes in Whatever Threatens You. So what if Crimmins was entering the comedy game now, instead of back then?
“I think if they would have let me at the audience I would have done fine,” Crimmins said. “I think [Colbert and Stewart] became at least slightly more radical as they were doing it. They just knew in advance that I was [radical]. I lost stuff with it. But it’s fine.”
Crimmins holds no contempt for anyone or longing for what could have been. “I really like those guys,” he says. He also sings the praises of John Oliver and Samantha Bee.
Samantha Bee is a prime example of women who are breaking the glass ceiling in the comedy world, but Crimmins has been back on the road recently and has been able to see firsthand how far the comedy world has actually shifted from its “boys’ club” roots. “I think it’s getting better,” Crimmins says. “[But] I think there are still a lot of jamokes out there doing the boys’ club stuff. “
When you first watch the Swiftian Crimmins he can come off as polarizing, like there’s nothing off-limits or too offensive for him to bring up. But when more closely examined, it quickly grows obvious that his act is deeply rooted in advocacy for the little guy against the big guy. He punches up, never down. “So long as the targets aren’t small. So long as it’s not turning the crowd into a lynch mob for some cab driver or person who works at a convenience store or someone’s spouse they are denigrating,” Crimmins says about his approach to satire.
To that end, a nice chunk of Whatever Threatens You pokes fun at male comics that are misogynistic in their act. “I’m a rebel. I’m courageously enforcing an oppressive status quo,” Crimmins jokes, taking on the tone of anti-PC blowhards. So what does Crimmins think about the Kurt Metzger situation earlier this year, where many people saw Metzger’s “satirical” Facebook post about the UCB rapist as highly offensive victim shaming?
“It was a problem,” says Crimmins. “I love Kurt. When I met him, I had a simple question, ‘what happened to this kid?’ As soon as an accusation is made, even with my background in particular, I still ask questions.
“I just don’t believe in throwing away people,” Crimmins continues. “It is my job to try and win them over with reason and kindness and decency.”
Crimmins, himself, has been very open about being a victim of sexual abuse. It would have been more than easy to write Metzger off for what he said and move on. But instead Crimmins took the time to figure out what it was that caused Metzger to reach that point.
“I always have room for someone who is willing to try and improve,” said Crimmins. “Do we agree on everything now? Of course not, but he has come a long way, and he is a decent person. He has overcome trauma of his own and he can talk about it or not talk about it if he wants to.”
Whatever Threatens You might not have been relief from an itch caused by the current climate, but it definitely is important, especially coming from someone as genuine as Crimmins. When the special was filmed, though, the election hadn’t happened, and hadn’t even reached the point where Trump and Clinton had won the nominations. At that point, other names were still in the hat and things were maybe a little less bleak. Crimmins was a Bernie Sanders supporter, but once it was down to Clinton and Trump, he realized there was only one legitimate choice. “I wouldn’t want, in any way, to help this dangerous and abusive man become the president of the United States,” Crimmins says.
Previously Crimmins had taken to Facebook to talk about how Trump has triggered a lot of victims he knows. “The thing is, that a lot of other people don’t get, is I’ve heard from them,” he says. “People that I know who work very hard towards their healing, once this stuff came out about Trump and all these classic alibis and putting victims on trial stuff came out, my phone started ringing. Texts started bleeping and emails came in. People who were in pretty good shape six weeks ago are, in many cases, in pretty rough shape right now. Some of them have gone from doing fine to being suicidal.
“I have my own story and it wasn’t easy and I know what it feels like to be isolated and scared and cut off and silenced. And that is exactly what a patriarchal bully like Trump does.”
Beyond just being innately hilarious, that awareness and empathy is what makes Crimmins such a crucial and insightful comic. He really believes that “vengeance is for dopes and bad screen writers” so he’s focused his humor and his suffering on standing up for those who need it. Whatever Threatens You is a magnum opus from someone deeply committed to decency.
Daniella Bondar writes for Den of Geek. She can be found on Twitter @daniellarobin.