Pop-culture history is littered with artists whose influence dwarfs their popularity, who get mentioned as sort of advanced studies for their more successful acolytes. Barry Crimmins, who died yesterday following a short illness, was that guy for a number of comedians who’ve risen to the kind of widespread fame that eluded him. But he also made an important impact beyond comedy that no one else can claim, and that he’d likely prefer to be remembered for. He was 64.
In the comedy world, Crimmins was known as a merciless satirist and social critic whose caustic wit channeled a fierce progressiveness that spared no one. He took great pleasure in biting the hand that feeds, which made him a fascinating, unpredictable performer and the kind of loose cannon that makes sponsors uneasy. Crimmins could never be counted on to play ball, and that likely hurt his finances, but made him the kind of principled artist other comedians emulated.
While a flood of tweets this morning after the announcement of his death speaks to his influence over comedy, it was outside of comedy that Crimmins made his biggest impact. As chronicled in Bobcat Goldthwait’s fascinating documentary about him, Call Me Lucky, Crimmins suffered horrific sexual abuse as a child. With the proliferation of the internet in the early ’90s, Crimmins was one of the first to notice pedophiles lurking in and starting their own chatrooms, which internet service providers like AOL—then going by its birth name, America Online—failed to stop. In his blistering testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July of 1995, Crimmins called the nascent internet a “Pedophile Superstore.”
There is a major crime wave taking place on America’s computers. The proliferation of child pornography trafficking has created an anonymous “Pedophile Superstore.” As a result, the de facto decriminalization of child pornography is taking place. The demand for child pornography is also a demand for innocent children to be abused. Child pornography is not protected speech. It is crime evidence. The on-line service “America OnLine” (AOL) has become an integral link in a network of child pornography traffickers. It cannot claim that it is not aware of this. If AOL just put a percentage of the effort it makes to spin-doctor away its culpability for these problems into solving them, inexpensive and effective solutions could be found. AOL has been unresponsive and arrogant when approached in a good-faith effort to solve these problems. This testimony is the result of over six months of research. It documents something the American people need to know: not only are their children unsafe on America Online, their children are unsafe because of it.
As seen in Call Me Lucky, the hearing was deeply embarrassing for AOL, which later agreed to a zero-tolerance policy for pedophiles. Crimmins kept at it until he died; his Twitter timeline was full of stories of abusive priests and other predators who harmed children.
Call Me Lucky generated a surge in interest in Crimmins in what would sadly be his final years of life. In recent months, he spent much of his time taking care of his wife, Helen, who suffers from stage IV non-Hodgkins B Cell lymphoma—“as bad a diagnosis as you can get for that illness,” Crimmins wrote a few months ago. Just a couple months later, he learned of his own cancer diagnosis, though he and Helen knew he was sick for some time. “The only reason Barry didn’t see a doctor right away is because he didn’t have adequate health insurance and he didn’t want to rack up huge medical bills while we were already dealing with my huge medical bills,” she wrote on her GoFundMe. “I lobbied for him to go despite what it would cost, but he had made up his mind to wait until he was covered.”
Early this morning, around the time Helen tweeted on Crimmins’ account that he had died, she posted this, Low’s “Last Snowstorm Of The Year.”