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Boston comics return to their roots to celebrate Barry Crimmins and the Ding Ho

Lenny Clarke, one of the many Boston comics who got an early start at the Ding Ho, performs there in January 1980.
Lenny Clarke, one of the many Boston comics who got an early start at the Ding Ho, performs there in January 1980.John Blanding

At first, no one quite knew what to make of the place — a makeshift stage for stand-up comedy in the back room of a Chinese restaurant. It seemed like an achievement when the Ding Ho Comedy Club reached its one-year mark.

The celebration was memorable, if not for the right reasons. On the day of the anniversary, the pipes in the basement burst.

Jimmy Tingle, the daytime bartender and an aspiring comedian at the time, joined club founder Barry Crimmins and his assistant, DJ Hazard, as they scrambled to clean up the mess.

“We were standing in about 4 inches of sewage,” Tingle recalls.

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More than 40 years later, the Ding Ho still has something in the tank. On Friday, Tingle will host an online reunion of many of the defunct club’s key alumni, who helped launch Boston’s comedy heyday of the 1980s. The show will double as a tribute to Crimmins, who died of cancer in 2018, and a fund-raiser for his wife, Helen Crimmins, who is battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

After the original plans for a live reunion were waylaid by the coronavirus, Tingle began reaching out to Ding Ho alums about staging the show on Zoom. The response has been enthusiastic. Among those scheduled to participate are many of Boston’s comedy finest — Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, Bobcat Goldthwait, Denis Leary, Lenny Clarke.

The show takes place on what would have been Crimmins’s 67th birthday. Born on July 3, as a kid he was often told the fireworks were for him.

“That bubble got burst,” says Helen Crimmins, laughing. “I think that was a little disappointing for him.”

Crimmins, who also founded Stitches, the comedy club that operated in the front room of the Paradise Rock Club, was known as a wild man who had a big heart for his fellow comedians.

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“He could be intimidating at times, obviously,” says his widow. “But it was always because he wanted people to do their best.”

Crimmins insisted on innovation.

“He had the best interests not only of the individuals, but of the art form, in mind,” Tingle says. “He was very discerning as a comic about originality. He was very much in the trenches with his colleagues.”

“You really need to be raked into a rather neat pile before you go out there,” as Crimmins put it himself in “When Stand Up Stood Out,” Fran Solomita’s 2003 documentary about the golden age of Boston comedy.

Steven Wright takes a call in the kitchen at the Ding Ho.
Steven Wright takes a call in the kitchen at the Ding Ho.Tim Winn

Along with clubs such as the Comedy Connection and Nick’s Comedy Stop, the Ding (as the performers called it) would produce a staggering amount of comedic talent. Wright’s instantly legendary debut on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1982 got the ball rolling. Tingle would earn national prominence as a commentator for “60 Minutes II,” later starting his own theater in Somerville and, in 2018, running for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.

Poundstone, Goldthwait, Leary, and Clarke all moved on to high-profile careers on television and in movies. Brian Kiley has been writing for Conan O’Brien for more than 20 years. Others who will appear on the 40th anniversary event include New England comedy stalwarts Kenny Rogerson, Don Gavin, Tony V, and Mike McDonald. In all, Tingle expects nearly 30 comedians to take part, with access to a VIP after-party for premium ticket buyers.

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Tom Kenny, the actor best known as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, met Crimmins in the mid-1970s, while Kenny was still in high school in Syracuse, N.Y. He and his childhood buddy, Bob Goldthwait, appeared at an open mic night Crimmins was hosting in nearby Skaneateles, Crimmins’s hometown. Because Crimmins was billed as “Bear Cat,” they called themselves “Bobcat” and “Tomcat.” For Goldthwait, the nickname stuck.

“I was a Johnny-come-lately to the Boston thing,” says Kenny, who will make a guest appearance Friday. He moved into Goldthwait’s Allston apartment in 1983, after Bobcat left Boston for San Francisco’s similarly sizzling comedy scene.

Kenny stayed in Boston for less than a year before following Goldthwait west. But his time spent as “low man on the totem pole” in the Boston clubs was, in hindsight, critical, he says.

Lenny Clarke introduced Kenny’s first set at the Chinese restaurant in Cambridge’s Inman Square. (This week, the city quietly unveiled a plaque marking an intersection named for Crimmins near the old Ding Ho location.)

“I still had the punk-rock hair, the big rooster haircut,” Kenny recalls with a laugh. “I think Lenny was a little put off by that.” But the newcomer had Crimmins’s seal of approval, which went a long way at the time. That validation, he says, was “amazing — ‘I don’t need to work a soul-killing day job anymore!’ ”

Some years later, on his return trips to perform in the Boston clubs, Kenny befriended David Cross. That led to one of his first regular TV gigs, on HBO’s “Mr. Show,” with Cross and Bob Odenkirk.

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“If I trace the lines back,” he says of his career, “a lot of it goes back to Boston and/or Crimmins.”

Barry Crimmins, shown in the 2015 documentary "Call Me Lucky."
Barry Crimmins, shown in the 2015 documentary "Call Me Lucky."Courtesy of the IFFB

In 2015, Crimmins received some overdue recognition with the release of the documentary film “Call Me Lucky,” which Goldthwait directed. A year later, he taped his first and only comedy special, “Whatever Threatens You,” for Louis C.K.‘s production company.

“Barry was not living by his own personal commercial success,” says Tingle. “He was very much his own artist, his own man. He was content to be writing his essays and go on the road every once in a while. He wasn’t trying to get on TV. What he did have was integrity, a passion for his art.”

Helen Crimmins moved from upstate New York to Portland, Maine, after her husband’s death. She has remained friendly with several of her husband’s old comrades.

“It’s so cool how, for so many years, these guys and women have been so connected to each other” because of the club he started, she says. “It’s a testament to how integral that club was for so many.”

For the show, Tingle will interview each guest about his or her recollections of the Ding Ho and how the gonzo scene there impacted their careers. He’ll present an abundance of vintage clips and an “In Memoriam” section for the alumni who have died. It’s a considerable list, including Kevin Meaney, Lauren Dombrowski, Jennifer Trainor, and Steve Bean.

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All proceeds from the ticket sales will help defray Helen’s medical costs.

“That’s a hugely important component to the whole thing,” Tingle says. “Barry met somebody he fell in love with, and was able to be happy with, near the end of his life. We want to help make her life as comfortable as we possibly can.”

As for the less-than-ideal prospect of doing a comedy show virtually, without a live audience?

“I watch [Stephen] Colbert every night,” says Tingle. “I crack up, and I’m the only one awake. So I know it can be done.”

DING HO COMEDY CLUB 40th ANNIVERSARY REUNION

July 3, 7:30-10:30 p.m. Suggested donation $40; $100 includes admission to a virtual after-party. jimmytingle.com

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.