Barry Crimmins, activist and a founder of Boston’s comedy scene, dies at 64

John Blanding/Globe Staff/File 1987

Beginning in the early ’80s, Mr. Crimmins produced comedy shows at the Ding Ho restaurant in Cambridge.

By Globe Staff 

With a mind fine-tuned for comedy and a body like a burly comic strip character, Barry Crimmins could be nonchalant on stage early in his career and raging the next as his jokes fearlessly shredded powerful politicians and everyday hypocrisy.

“Sassing back at things that encroach upon our lives is funny,” he told the Globe in 2002. “It provides relief and refutation. Different answers to mind-numbing and predictable nonsense make us laugh.”


Mr. Crimmins, a key founding figure in Boston’s stand-up comedy scene, died Wednesday, his wife, Helen, said Thursday on Twitter. He was 64 and had tweeted in January that he had cancer. That announcement came about a month after Boston comics held a fund-raiser to help cover costs of treatment for Helen, who has stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Angling more toward fierce political humor as the years passed, Mr. Crimmins took his cues for satire from Mark Twain and counted among his fans Howard Zinn. Mr. Crimmins also was an outspoken crusader against the spread of online child pornography. He wrote about having been raped when he was a young boy, and in 1995 he testified before the US Senate Judiciary Committee.

At the outset of the 1980s, Mr. Crimmins helped launch Boston’s comedy scene by producing shows at the Ding Ho restaurant in Cambridge, where he booked the likes of Bobcat Goldthwait, Paula Poundstone, Steven Wright, Lenny Clarke, Jimmy Tingle, and Mike McDonald.

“He was very nurturing,” said Wright, who considered Mr. Crimmins one of his closest friends. “ ‘The Tonight Show’ saw me in that comedy club. If he hadn’t started that club, I wouldn’t have been seen in there, and that changed my entire life. Barry had a huge impact on my life professionally, and other people’s lives.”

Tingle said Mr. Crimmins “showed real leadership at a critical time in people’s careers. He made a room that allowed people like Steven Wright to develop, that allowed Lenny Clarke to do his own shows. He helped a lot of people fulfill their potential as comics. His contribution to the Boston comedy scene literally changed people’s lives.”


Said McDonald: “Barry’s legacy is that there is comedy in Boston. The scene could very well have had a different outcome if it weren’t for Barry.”

Goldthwait directed the 2015 documentary “Call Me Lucky,” which showcased the humor and extensive activism of Mr. Crimmins. Goldthwait and Helen were with Mr. Crimmins when he died, she said in her tweet, adding: “He would want everyone to know that he cared deeply about mankind and wants you to carry on the good fight. Peace.”

In 2016, Mr. Crimmins released his first special, “Whatever Threatens You,” and while he still delved into politics, “I would hope that, even though I’m topical, I’m still relatively timeless,” he told the Globe that November.

Early Thursday, film director Judd Apatow tweeted that Mr. Crimmins “was a compassionate, hilarious man who touched so many lives. He gave so much of himself to help other people. I hope his life inspires others to follow his example. And he was hilarious. We love you Barry.”

While his reach extended around the world via the documentary and the careers he helped launch, those who honed their skills in Boston’s stand-up scene considered Mr. Crimmins very much one of their own. His support was financial as well. At the Ding Ho, Mr. Crimmins paid better than what comics earned elsewhere, McDonald recalled.

“He was a comic first and foremost, and he loved comics. And because he treated us like we would want to be treated, he immediately changed the power structure to where the players had real power,” McDonald said. “He was a highly generous person with any success that he had. He would help pull the boat and everybody was welcome aboard, as long as you were a real comedian.”

Wright and Mr. Crimmins met in their early 20s “and we hit it off immediately. We had this unbelievable connection and love for each other. He was very smart and very funny.”

The Ding Ho “had a whole artistic vibe — it was like a clubhouse, not like an ordinary straight comedy club,” Wright said. “He had a powerful presence as a human and a comedian. I don’t know how else to say it. He had a giant presence.”

In a lengthy 2015 interview posted on, Mr. Crimmins spoke of growing up in Skaneateles, N.Y., west of Syracuse. He was born in Kingston, N.Y., and also lived in North Syracuse before moving to Skaneateles with his parents and sisters.

One scene in the documentary shows Mr. Crimmins returning to the basement of his family’s North Syracuse home where, when he was very young, a man connected to the family’s teenage baby sitter raped him. “It was like being hit by a sonic boom,” he told the Globe in 2015. “It really knocked me back, almost physically knocked me back.” Then he wryly added: “When the PTSD kind of kicks in, I think, great, I know how to operate in a state of shock. I’ve had plenty of practice.”

He didn’t go public about the assaults until the early 1990s, and while online seeking out other survivors of abuse, he was alerted to images of children being abused. Mr. Crimmins collected evidence and gave it to the FBI, in addition to testifying before the US Senate committee. Several people he tracked online were arrested.

After high school, Mr. Crimmins attended college and considered a career in radio before settling on stand-up comedy. He was hitchhiking to New York City one rainy day at the end of the 1970s when on a whim he took a ride with a driver headed for Boston. Soon he was performing in Cambridge, booking acts into the Ding Ho, and later booking acts at Stitches in Boston, too.

Early in his career, Mr. Crimmins had a bearish physique, and on stage “was fearless and uncompromising,” Tingle recalled. “He had an edge to him. He also was basically coming from a place of compassion, and an outrage at injustices that he perceived. He was using the stage like a Lenny Bruce.”

“Inside that big bear of a guy was really a gentle caring person who would help anyone who needed it,” McDonald said.

Wright said that while performing, Mr. Crimmins “was always making a point. That’s the thing about his comedy. His comedy was commenting on the injustices and politics in the world, and in a hilarious way.”

Last August, Mr. Crimmins married Helen, whom he had known for a while, and he helped her through her cancer treatments. Information about his other survivors, and plans for a memorial service, were not immediately available.

Along with his stand-up work, Mr. Crimmins had been a correspondent for Air America, the liberal talk-radio network, and he wrote the 2004 book “Never Shake Hands With a War Criminal.” On the road, he opened for musicians including Jackson Browne and Billy Bragg.

“I use humor as a way to express and defend myself and others,” he told the Globe in 1993, adding: “I’m still working on positive goals. Getting people to treat each other properly is what motivates me.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at