When you think of comedy, you usually don’t want to be reminded of sad things, like illness or charity. You just want to laugh. That’s why the idea of a comedy benefit can be baffling to some people.
But when that benefit is for photographer Helen Crimmins, the beloved partner of Barry Crimmins, a man who has meant so much to the Boston comedy scene and to humor in general, you quickly move beyond the negative and get to making the jokes.
Barry started producing shows at the iconic Ding Ho restaurant in Inman Square in the ’80s, helping to launch the careers of comedians including Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, Bobcat Goldthwait, Kevin Meaney, Jimmy Tingle, Lenny Clarke, and more. As shown in Call Me Lucky, the outstanding 2015 documentary about Crimmins that was directed by Goldthwait, his crusade against child pornography has also earned him accolades, as such early efforts to speak out against abuse were ahead of their time.
Now, the Crimmins family has another battle on its hands—Helen is battling stage 4 cancer. In response to the news, a GoFundMe was started to help pay for medical expenses, and now comedians in Boston are taking their assistance one step further.
Helen and Barry have a rather unique relationship. They were close friends for several years, but months ago, after Helen announced her cancer diagnosis and was in need of help, Barry rushed to her side in Chicago from upstate New York to help with groceries, walking the dog, and anything else that she needed. His caring and their mutual respect soon blossomed into something stronger.
“Neither of us were thinking in terms of love, but there it was and here we are,” Helen tells DigBoston. The couple quickly segued from a short engagement into marriage. As Barry puts it, “Our love came as a surprise to both of us, one that has already brought us great happiness.”
They spend most of their time together paying medical bills, watching Turner Classic Movies, discussing the current state of outrageous political affairs, and, of course, laughing. “When something is outrageous, Barry will get political, but a lot of the humor around here has to do with what is going on around here,” Helen says.
While the passion of their union is relatively new, the hardships of a fight with cancer aren’t new to Helen. In 2005, the 5-foot-10 bartender and dog walker was diagnosed with lymphoma. Forced to work during treatment, the high cost of chemotherapy left her in a financial hole that was difficult to crawl out of. After 12 years, she did eventually overcome the debt, but in mid-February, days after an annual checkup, Helen received a call from her doctor’s office asking her to return for a biopsy. From there, the all-too-familiar whirlwind of cancer diagnosis and battle began. This time the prognosis for the cervical and ovarian cancer was months of chemotherapy (again) and, unfortunately, a total hysterectomy. Shortly after the surgery, during a post-op review, doctors found previously unknown secondary stage 4 non-Hodgkin B-cell lymphoma.
“When I picked up my first prescription, I had to sell the vested shares I had in the company I worked for that were meant to be saved for my retirement—which was all I had left after paying my out-of-pocket expenses for the year,” Helen says. Later she would be forced to sell one of her cameras to pay for one week’s worth of chemo. “Photography is one of the few things I have that brings me a lot of joy and serves as a great distraction when I’m feeling particularly ill, so giving up one of my tools was heartbreaking and momentarily brought me back to wondering if all of this was worth it.”
The emotional costs are as hard to endure as the constant state of illness and the pressure of $22,000 a month in medical bills. Meanwhile, the loss of quality social time with friends and loved ones can make patients wonder if the stress is worth it. “If Alfie the dog and the cats here [at home] could talk, they’d be able to give you a lot of dirt on what some of my darkest thoughts were,” Helen jokes. Fortunately, she has her satirist husband by her side. That means he is unable to tour, which has always been Barry’s primary source of income.
So far, family, friends, and fans have raised (at the time of this writing) nearly $45,000 towards Helen’s treatments. Earlier this year, British comedians Robin Ince and Mark Thomas, along with musicians Billy Bragg and Charlotte Church, organized a benefit show at the New Wimbledon Theatre to help. Not to be outdone, Boston comedian Jim McCue, who awarded Barry the lifetime achievement award at this year’s Boston Comedy Festival, is doing the same. On Tuesday, he will join others who owe their careers to Crimmins at Center for Arts at the Armory in Somerville to raise laughter and dollars for the newlyweds in need.
STAND UP TO CANCER: A NIGHT FOR HELEN CRIMMINS. FEATURING BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT, EUGENE MIRMAN, CAROLYN PLUMMER, MIKE MCDONALD, MIKE DONOVAN, LENNY CLARKE, AND MORE. TUE 12.19. CENTER FOR ARTS AT THE ARMORY, SOMERVILLE. BOSTONCOMEDYFEST.COM