Barry Crimmins is a former Air America Radio writer and correspondent, noted political satirist and author of the critically acclaimed Seven Stories Press book Never Shake Hands With A War Criminal. He helped bring the Boston Comedy scene into the modern age when he founded two of Boston's most fabled clubs: The Ding Ho and Stitches. Such acts as Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, Bobcat Goldthwait, Kevin Meaney, Jimmy Tingle and many others cut their comedic teeth in the rooms Crimmins started and at shows he produced. In the interest of full disclosure, Barry is also my cousin.
Tell me about your latest work.
I’m not talking about my latest work because it is barely begun.
Or whatever you want to talk about.
I’ve had a book published. It’s a book of essays. So I’m sort of a cheater as an author because I just write things in chunks as they come to me. Although, if you read the whole book, it ties together a bit.
It’s called Never Shake Hands With a War Criminal, which is based on an incident at CNN when I was there to be interviewed and Henry Kissinger came in. A long story short, Kissinger offered me his hand. “I’m Henry Kissinger…” and he started bubbling like a Satanic water cooler, that idling Kissinger thing he does, “er, er, er,”… just waiting to make an arms deal or something.
And I just looked at him and said, “UGH” And I left, and they brought in a lot of security and all these people were all upset.
When I came back, Norma Quarles, CNN anchor at the time, said, “Why didn’t you want to shake hands with Dr. Kissinger?”
And I said, “Because I have a strict policy of never shaking hands with war criminals.”
And she said, “Oh, that’s right, I forgot.” Which I thought was the funniest part of the whole thing because she really was sucking up to him before then.
But anyway, that’s a bunch of essays from a while ago. And I continue to write essays, and maybe some more will get collected at some point. Maybe I’ll get collected enough to write an actual longer narrative of some sort. But I don’t know if I have that kind of discipline or if that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. But I enjoy writing essays more than anything.
I also have enjoyed over the years writing my act to perform live. That’s what led people at the Boston Phoenix to ask me to write some political essays for them, going back twenty-five or so years. And I had the great good fortune of being edited by a true journalistic Renaissance man, Clif Garboden, who was there at the alternative press revolution in the 60’s. Tremendous photographer, tremendous writer, tremendous reporter, and just the best editor ever. He taught me to write by editing my work. Never was critical. I would tell him, “Look, you can tell me I’m awful. That’s fine. I’m a nightclub guy.” And he said, “No, this it great. It has something to it that we’re just not getting, but we did move this here…” And after a while (it didn’t take too long), I learned what he was looking for. And I agreed with what he was looking for, and I learned to write from that. So that’s a great advantage I had as a writer was to have a great editor. And Clif Garboden was great.
He passed away nearly two years ago. And that, I guess, is part of why I’m not talking about what I’m writing. Right now, what I’m thinking about and working on and taking some notes on (I don’t know if I’ll try to put it anywhere or not), but I’ve just been dealing with grief a lot because an awful lot of my friends have been passing away. And a lot of the people with whom I speak when I was working on something – people I could actually take into confidence and say I’m doing this or that have passed on. I don’t believe in talking to most people about what I’m working on because most stuff doesn’t end up happening (for me anyway). I don’t know about everybody else, but if one percent of all the books I ever hear people tell me they were writing happened, that would be a lot. So I figure I shouldn’t be wasting anybody else’s time with that stuff either. But there are people who are old and dear and artistic allies you can go to.
I’ve lost a couple -- Clif Garboden and Bill Morrissey, the folk singer/novelist was someone else I could speak with. We actually – he’s gone now; it’s never going to happen – but we were talking about both writing novels where we would call each other. My characters would call Bill’s characters in the middle of the novels, and not make anything more of it, but to see if anyone would ever notice. Three or four times in a novel, you’d get these phone calls from another novel. We never did it, but we laughed real hard about it, and that’s enough. Some of the stuff you just keep for yourself. You don’t put everything into the word zoo. You can’t be too miserly. Some of it has to be offered as incense.
What are your biggest obstacles?
I think with me, as with any writer, it’s me. It’s all about getting out of your own way. And then getting under way.
It recently took me a year to get around to painting the upstairs bathroom. And while I was doing it, I realized that I know what to avoid. It’s hard work. It’s a small bathroom. It’s got a million angles in it. There’s wood next to everywhere you have to paint. It’s just a hassle. I know how to paint. That’s one thing I know how to do. I can fall back on it, if I had to. But this is like a trapezoid next to a triangle next to a parallelogram – it’s insane.
I think writing is like that bathroom. I think what I have to write soon is going to be complicated and hard because I’m getting to that point where –I’m 59 years old – if I put in this effort, if I take into account what Vonnegut and Twain said, and some others, you start losing it pretty soon. So I would like to do something that matters. So that’s both daunting and pretentious.
What I want to write about is grief and what to do with it.
And I also have no qualms about writing sentimental things. Maybe it’s my Irish heritage. Sentiment takes a bad rap in a lot of literary criticism. “Oh, that’s too sentimental.” Well, fine. I’m a sentimental person, and life, people, things, dogs, you name it, baseball teams – they’re very dear to me. And that’s what I know how to do. Be loyal and sometimes have enough guts to care about things, and writing about people who are like that – I think that’s okay. So I think I’m going to write a sentimental book about grief, if I get around to doing exactly what I want to do. And some of the grief is just grieving the loss of time. I spent so many years writing about and discussing American electoral politics. That was like a treadmill to nowhere. So I’m really trying to pick my spots. Right now I’m just taking notes, and who knows? Maybe just the notes will be found someday.
I know I’m no Twain, but I get as much out of reading his notebooks as anything. Just watching him put it together, and I get this little shot in the arm. I’m reading Twain… “I think I’m opposed to capital punishment.” That’s all. That’s all he writes down. And then, wow! You see him wrestling with some things and you think, “Wow, I’m wrestling with some things.” He was opposed to that then; you would have a hard time nowadays. He’s still ahead of us.
So, now that the bathroom’s painted, I guess I could start writing about grief.
Do you have any productivity tips?
If you can get deadlines, that’s really productive. If you want to be productive, become a working writer. I’m quite productive with a deadline. I don’t wait till the last minute. If I know a deadline’s coming up, I get it done before the deadline because I know what can happen near the deadline.
But, without the deadline, I can become less focused. And I’ve been less focused lately. So, you can try to find a real gig, at least for a while, where you have to deliver, that’s good.
For years, people would come to see my act, and, whatever happened in the news that day, people would expect me to have something about it. That’s an immediate deadline. Not only do I need to talk about what’s going on right now, but I have to be funny about it. I lived under that deadline year after year, and also -- Oh, I’m Seattle today, and the mayor said… -- and I’d have a little joke about that. That makes the audience know that I know where I am and who they are and what’s going on. So I had a life of those little deadlines, and it kept me quite productive for a long time.
I don’t know now if I’m not getting a little punched out. But I’ve gotten a lot of stuff down. There’s a big trail out there, and I hope it does some people some good. Whether or not I’m around to take any bows for it. But that’s probably better, if you’re not around, because all the crap’s out of the way.
My philosophy sort of came from my hero Twain – reading him and his notebooks and so on. And getting into that sort of source material of other people [tells you to] play to the ages, not the age. You never know who’s going to find whatever you do. If you do one thing that’s of value, and people know about it, there’s a good chance that a few people are going to come back and comb through everything.
I try to write stuff that won’t make me look like a jerk in a hundred years. And if you think about things that way you might notice current stupidity a little better.
Why that’s a productivity tip, I don’t know. (I actually had a thing in my head where I could have bridged it and made the ship stand up in the bottle, but it was a lie.) Anyway, good luck to anyone who is writing. If you do well, we could all benefit from it sooner or later, if only through our descendents.