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Barry Crimmins

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political satirist Barry Crimmins

 My Opening Farewell Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Have you ever felt like you just didn't want to be in public? Well I've felt that way for thirty years. During that time I've been an introvert in the extremely extroverted racket of stand-up comedy.

I have never been very comfortable in my line of work. Comics are supposed to be smooth and composed. I was too often jagged and emotional. Each time I was introduced I had to conjure more and more compelling reasons to convince myself to stand in an elevated, illuminated place, with my voice amplified before a crowd that was expected to pay rapt and adoring attention to me. Unlike most comics, I had no act to hide behind.

What I said onstage, if anything, served only to open me to more exposure. Many social gatherings have rules against discussing what my act has always been about -- politics. I have never avoided the oft-taboo subject of religion, either. So while the preponderance of my contemporaries discussed sex, pop culture and wacky relatives (all fine and fertile subjects for humor), I spoke of political injustice, economic disparity and human rights offenses. Not exactly a great commercial decision on my part but hey, it's not about the money.

I did this even though I always knew how to win at the game: spit-shine solid material until it becomes both hilarious and bulletproof. Great acts can work for a few years just to get a solid hour of such platinum. Unfortunately my choice of subject matter was much less easy to cast in precious metal. So in between the travel and gigs I always had to rework my material. (Nowadays thanks to my Powerbook and cell phone, travel doesn't even interrupt the work -- I often get an idea, call a friend and have him or her e-mail it to me so that it isn't lost in the blur of an interstate). Decades ago it became impossible to memorize my act so I had to work from notes. Since the notes were just a list of points I'd hope to cover, no two shows were the same. I riffed in and out of onstage trouble and became a jazz political satirist in America. (Language barriers prohibited me from packing my horn and going to France.) False modesty aside, I got pretty good at it. Nevertheless it limited me. Comedy club owners didn't want their audiences insulted by my assessments of world affairs. Television producers could stand on the line that marked how far performers could go and still not spot me with the Hubble telescope. So I have had to grind it out for the past 35 years.

My life has been endless travel, punctuated by feverish work right up to show-time writing, rewriting and reordering my act. After doing this on thousands and thousands of occasions, I just can't bear the thought of going to one more airport (much less through one more security screening). I'd like nothing better than to never see another hotel room or highway rest area. I have no urge to read one more audience in hopes of finding a common denominator from which to build a non-pandering performance that leaves everyone edified and even oddly optimistic.

Now don't get me wrong -- I appreciate every minute of my career. Its taken me places I could never imagine going. I've been allowed access to things I'd otherwise never been allowed near. I have met and worked with some of the finest people on Planet Earth. Ive made more friends than I ever could attempt to count and therein is found my fortune. Being in show biz has actually facilitated my shyness. People have taken care of things for me. When you're "talent", calls are placed and arrangements are made for you. I'm allowed in through the back door and led backstage. There are no lines to stand in and the drinks are usually on the house. And this is at shows Im simply attending! When I am subjected to the rigors the general public faces at almost any event I am thankful of how much so many people have gone through just to hear what I have to say. I have stolen peeks of people standing in queue in blizzards, downpours and heat waves, cash in hand, in hopes of getting in to see me. Once in the club or theater, I have watched them line up for everything from drinks to bathrooms. This has both humbled and challenged me. As a result I have never phoned in a show.

So I have respected my audiences, even though I've often demonstrated that respect by challenging their beliefs.

This past Friday night I was at Iowa State University, performing at a comedy show in celebration of the First Amendment organized by the Greenlee School Of Journalism. Iowa State is a public university of 27,000 students with most studying science and technology. Its sprawling campus is in a rural area. Considering the parallels, it was impossible not to think of what happened at Virginia Tech on Monday morning as I took the stage in Ames, Iowa on Friday night. Very near the beginning of my set I had to bring up THE issue. (NOTE: I will soon post a separate essay about guns, violence and despair in America.) I touched on these points, as well as many raw nerves, at Iowa State. There were a few attempts to shout me down but reason and wit prevailed and I hope I made my case -- not just about gun control, but freedom of speech as well.

If that was my last show, fine-- except for one thing. The one piece of material I wrote way back in the Seventies that I have been able to do intact throughout my entire career concerns gun control. Alas.

In any case, Iowa State wasn't my last show. I feel I owe one to my artistic hometown of Boston and another to my latter day base of operations, Rocky Sullivan's in New York. Never say never, but after those shows I will not be seeking further public appearances. Instead I will write. Thanks to this website and the internet I can reach a much larger audience, much more quickly while sitting in the comfort of my home than I can by taking yet another lap around America. So Im getting off this merry-go-round.

To the tens of thousands of you who have braved the general public to support me as a performing artist: Thank you very much. Good night.

Barry Crimmins