Frustratingly, I missed veteran US standup Barry Crimmins when he performed his debut UK tour this September. Happily, Louis CK has produced and distributed Crimmins’s first special, Whatever Threatens You, via his website – so I get to see why there’s a fuss about this rediscovered “legendary” political comic. For a piffling four quid, you too can check out the set, which – sure enough – showcases a wholly uncompromising act, trenchant in his criticism of the American way of life, without stinting on mordant humour. What’s most striking is the moral authority Crimmins brings to bear, of the type that only age, experience and, perhaps, suffering (Crimmins was raped as a child, and has been a prominent campaigner against child abuse ) can confer.
I can think of no analogous UK act; if we spliced Billy Connolly, Alexei Sayle and Mark Thomas, we might get close. What’s clear from the get-go is that Crimmins isn’t here to ingratiate himself. There’s no puppyish pitch for audience approval, nor even any pretence (as per standup convention) that the comedy is spontaneous: Crimmins refers to a crib sheet throughout. What we get instead is an old lag easing himself into – or girding himself for? – a sustained exposure of the assumptions, hypocrisies and lacunae that sustain American life.
So what does Crimmins bring to leftwing political comedy? One answer might be: he helped establish it. He’s been doing this for 44 years; there are jokes in the set about living under Nixon’s presidency, which gives the show a remarkable breadth of perspective. When Crimmins started doing standup, “you had to be a real iconoclast. Now you’re like a lemming,” he says – before a gag comparing Manhattan’s supposed 35,000 comedians to a refugee crisis. The iconoclastic clearly survives intact. What distinguishes Crimmins from most modern political comedy is the refusal to soft-soap his anger, or to filter the politics through a personal lens, far less to try and appear even-handed. He jokes about his lack of commercial appeal, but does nothing whatsoever to offset it.
Of course, many will dismiss this kind of comedy as “preaching to the converted”. They always do. My politics aren’t miles from Crimmins’s, but I didn’t feel pandered to. For a start, the jokes are good, which by definition means they contain surprises and new angles. I’m thinking of his dry response to southerners boasting about the quality of their college football (“it’s as if your great-grandparents had a real eye for wide receivers!”), or when he endorses the proposition that the death of a little-known archduke justified two world wars.
Then there’s the material that’s provocative even to soft lefties like me, like his blanket cynicism towards politicians (“never trust anyone who wants to be in charge”) or his attack on Hillary Clinton’s feminist credentials, which (its legitimacy aside) an old white guy probably shouldn’t make without a mite more humility.But that’s what we’re here for, right? Someone who – alongside the jokes – thinks, believes and cares fervently, and isn’t bound by the pieties and qualifications of everyday conversation. Crimmins’s outspokenness is bracing, particularly because it’s never (as with some comics) an attention-seeking affectation. You can feel the moral disgust behind his attack on fellow standups, say, who moan about political correctness, on how America treats its veterans and its criminals – and all the more so (given his personal history) on the Catholic church.
There’s the occasional fine non-political gag here, like the one about securing the Nebraska and Kansas franchise for runaway lorry ramps – effortlessly dispatched (how still and watchful he is when delivering this stuff), as if merely to prove he can do it. But what’s exciting about the show is the coherent political consciousness it brings to bear: radical, pissed-off, stoical but not usually cynical, drily amused despite everything, and insistent on the need for love. It’s a potent brew and if, like me, you missed Crimmins’ UK visit, his show is well worth a download.
Three to seeNorris & Parker
A four-night run for one of the most enjoyable shows on this year’s Edinburgh fringe, as this dark comic double act pitch up in Hull with their twisted cabaret of feminazis, performance poets and cannibal killings in Wetherby.Michelle Wolf
A near miss for best newcomer at Edinburgh in August, US comic and Daily Show correspondent Michelle Wolf brings her sparky, hardboiled standup – which ranges across US politics and her own misfiring love life – to Soho.
• At Soho theatre, London, from 16-30 December. Box office: 020-7478 0100.
The man who pipped Wolf for that prize, Glaswegian storytelling comic Scott Gibson makes his Soho debut with a cracking yarn about the time he suffered a brain haemorrhage, his futile period of denial, and the various lurid hospital indignities that followed.
• At Soho theatre, London, until 14 January. Box office: 020-7478 0100.