Never Shake Hands with a War Criminal is a personal and political history told with acid humor and a loving heart. Barry Crimmins, a writer and former commentator on Air America Radio, travels from a skeptical childhood in frozen upstate New York, through the founding of the Boston comedy scene, to a career as a satirist and activist. No villain is spared, no hero is forgotten. Crimmins cuts a hilarious swath through our political tormentors in the spirit of Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and Lenny Bruce.
Comedian, activist, and author Barry Crimmins died last month at the age of 64. One of the legends of the Boston comedy scene, as well as a childhood abuse survivor and a vigilante anti-pedophilia watchdog who helped expose the prevalance of child pornography on early AOL chatrooms, Crimmins was as influential as he was inimitable. In 2004, he published his personal and political memoir Never Shake Hands with a War Criminal. Below are two representatively eclectic chapters from a very funny and yet very serious book: the first is about starting Boston's first true comedy club, the Ding Ho, while living homeless on the outskirts of town, and the second is about snubbing the "satanic" architect of the United States government's atrocities in Vietnam.
CHAPTER 11: The Hub of the Comedy Universe
In the mid-1970s, I took my increased ﬂuency in counter cultural language and customs, traveled around the country, and began hustling standup comedy appearances. For a large portion of 1977 I imposed upon my pal Woody Abel in San Francisco. Woody and I had become friends during the year we spent together at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. (When asked what I studied at the U of M, I always replied “I took the one-year smuggling program.”) In San Fran I got a chance to see a vibrant comedy scene early in its development. I regularly signed up for open-mike nights at places like the Holy City Zoo and got some stage time, but never enough. But I met and befriended real comics for the ﬁrst time in my life. Foremost among them was A. Whitney Brown, already a big star in the Bay Area. He couldn’t have been more supportive or magnanimous toward an unknown. In early 1978 I headed back east and managed to continue my patchwork career by convincing club owners to allow me to do ﬁve or ten minutes between sets by local rock acts in bars throughout the northeast. You really have to learn how to hit the stage running when your audience is a looming, drunken, stoned mob, with ears ringing from a cover of Smoke on the Water that somehow managed to miss the subtleties of Deep Purple’s original anthem.
Worn from the travail of juggling a comedy career with homelessness, I returned to Skaneateles although my family no longer lived there. Still, as long as I had many friends and an indigenous knowledge of area barns, back lots, and camps on the lake, hometown homelessness presented far fewer hardships than the itinerant brand I’d practiced around much of the country. I convinced my pal Lee “Skeeter” Crossley (on the Phil Crimmins-coached Skaneateles Yankees he was the pitcher and I was the catcher) to let me do a comedy show at his popular restaurant and bar, Under the Stone in the village. Skeeter at times allowed me to unfurl a sleeping bag in an unused portion of the basement of what had once been Skaneateles’ grain mill. Unfortunately, the health department frowned on restaurant-ﬂophouses so I was usually on my own, and it made for some chilly nights. It didn’t take many such evenings to shiver any residual Republicanism from my bones. Needless to state, I’m always happy to appear at beneﬁts for the homelessness.
I couldn’t do a new show alone every week (we had BIG repeat audiences), and so I roped Steve Leahy, the funniest bartender in town, into forming a comedy team with me. We’d both do a set of standup, some sketches, and a weekly news roundup, the Crimmins-Leahy Report. Steve was already a great comic when, after several months of helping me pack the joint on Wednesday nights, he decided to leave the show to study hotel management at Paul Smith’s College. When Steve departed, I placed an ad for other comics in the Syracuse New Times and hit pay dirt. Wendell Wild, who later became something of a cult legend from one cassette of his I used to play on the way to gigs for other comics, was the ﬁrst to check in. On the tape Wild took a number of currently ubiquitous terms and activities, like Frisbee-throwing, wine and cheese parties, going cross-country, putting a bandana on your dog and mixed and matched them to uproarious eﬀect—putting a bandana on cheese, cross-country dog throwing, wine and Frisbee parties, and so on. The cumulative eﬀect of his calm and relentless delivery combined with the sheer audacity it took to commit to such an unorthodox piece and stick to it for a seeming on-stage eternity made Wild a thinking comic’s thinking comic. Wendell, quintessentially too hip for the room, eventually became a social worker in Buﬀalo, where he has quietly helped thousands of people over the years. He's also an outstanding freelance writer. Wendell and his wife, Gail Nicholson, a writer and arts activist, remain among my dearest friends. Much of what I do or say in public has been improved by Wendell’s astute eye and muniﬁcent suggestions.
The next call was from two high-school kids: Bob Goldthwait and Tom Kenny, both were destined for serious show biz glory. They were unbelievably funny from their ﬁrst appearance, and neither has let up since. Goldthwait went on to do recordings, movies, TV specials and series. Tom has done all sorts of stuﬀ as an actor and standup, including adding even more genius to HBO’s Mr. Show than David Cross (a latter-day Boston alum and friend) and Bob Odenkirk already brought to it. If you have kids or adults with a sense of humor, you may also know Tom as Spongebob Squarepants, the cartoon star.
My father, who had been in the VA hospital in Washington, DC, was moved to the facility in Martinsburg, West Virginia. He was quite ill and so I left my duties as producer and performer to hitchhike down to see him. After several days he got better, and so I stuck out my thumb and headed north, ﬁguring I’d go to New York to try to ﬁnd some stage time. Instead, the second person to pick me up was going to Boston. I ﬁgured “what the heck” and took the ride. I knew a woman there, and besides, the Red Sox were there, and so it was a Big Leagues town.
Things didn’t go so great with my woman friend; within a few days it was Memorial Day weekend and I was on the street. I found a listing in the Boston Globe for a show produced by the Comedy Connection at a club called the Springﬁeld Street Saloon in Inman Square in Cambridge. Having done comedy in other cities, I ﬁgured my only chance of wangling a guest set would be to get there in the afternoon and stake a claim. I arrived at the club at about 2:30, all my worldly belongings in hand. The place was locked and a sign indicated that it would not open for a few more hours.
I walked back into Inman Square and started considering how to hitch out of Boston. As I meandered unsurely up the street I heard music emanating from a place called the InnSquare Men’s Bar/ Ladies Invited. I walked in, baggage in hand, trying not to look too conspicuously homeless.
A red-haired man behind the bar was not easily fooled. He said, “What can I get you after I hide that suitcase so everyone doesn’t notice your pitiful condition?” And then he smiled. That was the ﬁrst time I ever met Chris Bracken. He had played in Country Granola, a band from Ithaca that I saw perform at Under the Stone. In the next few hours Bracken let me pay for exactly zero beers as we chatted like we were something we would eventually become—old friends. I disclosed the grim nature of my circumstances and explained how I was considering leaving town. He encouraged me to stay around and go over to do the show. When his shift ended, he admonished the night staﬀ to “Take care of my friend, Barry. Whatever he wants.”
I spent another half-hour with my old acquaintance Nurse Beer and headed back to the Springﬁeld Street Saloon. I really liked the room; it was jammed with 125 fans on a three-day-weekend Sunday night. The guys who ran the show told me two things I needed to know. First, they said, Boston would never be a weekend comedy town. And second, they said that they liked my act, which was why they were paying me all of $8. They admonished me not to disclose their largesse to the others. That was all I needed to hear: with these Boy Scouts running things, Boston was ripe for a new comedy venue.
I decided to stay in town, but it wasn’t easy. I found one of the last vacant forested areas in Cambridge and made a small campsite for myself. Many nights I just slept near a place called Labor Pool in the South End, where I jockeyed for position with a collection of down-and-out people hoping to get temp work for the day. During this period I worked as a ﬁsh packer, ship painter, and potato-chip shipper, among many other really bad jobs. Every fourth or ﬁfth day I’d take my collected earnings and rent a room at the YMCA at Northeastern. This meant a few days of TV, private bath, clean linens, and a bed. I’d hit used bookstores and grab Twain, Hunter Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, and Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury collections as well as the local alternative papers, the Boston Phoenix and the Real Paper. Between my desperate circumstances and the underground reading material, my subversion was nearly complete.
At about this time the Springﬁeld Street Saloon was sold to a man named Shune Lee. Shune was a classic character with a rough story. As a small child his family had left him behind when they escaped Mainland China. The thinking was that they would be less suspicious as they made for the border because no one would expect them to leave a son behind. A few years later, “an old lady” carried Shune to freedom. “I not even know her name!”
Shune and I hit it oﬀ famously. He was still booking a lot of the bands that had played at the club prior to his ownership, but they weren’t drawing well and cost a lot of money. I asked how the comedy nights were, and he said, “Great. Good crowd, many come for dinner and they drink. Plus it cost no money, Comedy Connection just get door.”
I’m not demeaning Shune’s speech, just quoting how he spoke. His English was far ahead of my Chinese. He kept the club’s Western decor but changed the menu to Chinese and the name to the Ding Ho. I found a room in Inman Square and found a job painting condos right around the corner. Things were looking up.
I frequented the Ding and helped Shune Lee by running errands and dealing with an unruly patron or two. One night the bouncer disappeared‚—just split during his shift. I took over for the rest of the evening. The next time I came to the club, Shune oﬀered me the bouncing job.
So I stood outside the bar and greeted customers. When people would ask if the band was good, I would say, “I work here; the boss is standing right behind me. No, the band sucks; I think you should go next door.” The people would laugh, pay their $3, and enter. Shune was impressed. “That was good. Very good job.”
The ﬁrst night Shune put me in charge of paying the band, which he hated doing. Within a few days I was booking the club. Within two months the Springﬁeld Street Saloon had become the Ding Ho, Home of Constant Comedy. The Ding honored all its musical commitments, so for the ﬁrst few weeks we double-billed music and comedy. But soon it became Greater Boston’s ﬁrst full-time comedy club. These days in comedy joints, you don’t see the headliner until the audience has suﬀered through two often lowest-common-denominator acts. Then halfway into the headliner’s act, just when the audience is showing signs of healing, the wait staﬀ passes out the checks and sticker shock sets in.
We did it better at the Ding. The star hosted the show. If there was no host, we went tag team and had one comic introduce the next, the rookies brought on by the vets. It was topnotch from the start of each performance because vets enliven audiences better than novices.
We began by using Lenny Clarke, Don Gavin, Chance Langton, Teddy Bergeron. Mike Donovan, and Mike McDonald as hosts. Langton booked and produced his own shows on Saturdays and did a fabulous job. I produced the rest of the nights.
Extraordinary acts and top-shelf hosts made for great shows. Bill Campbell; Jay Charbonneau; Ken Ober; Joe Alaskey, a phenomenal impressionist who eventually moved to Los Angeles and replaced none other than Mel Blanc as Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Loony Tunesters; Paula Poundstone; Steven Wright; Bob (LaMotte) and Ron (Lynch); Lauren Dombrowski; John Ten-Eyck; Barry Niekrug; Bob Lazurus; George MacDonald; Warren MacDonald; Jack Gallagher; Bobby Gaylor; Jim Morris, whose scarily perfect channeling of Ronald Reagan provided some of the best political moments at the Ding; Dave Barbuto; Bob Siebel; and the late Chris Collins are just the names that I can summon without freebasing ginkgo biloba.
It didn’t take a month for the Ding shows to start selling out. Lenny Clarke’s Wednesday open-mike night was impossible to get into even a half-hour before he took the stage; he was a Cambridge boy who led his entire hometown through the Ding’s doors and then knocked their socks oﬀ with his raw and explosive comedy. When I ﬁnally left the production end of things at the Ding, I turned my duties over to his brother Mike Clarke, who is still a very successful comedy producer and manager.
Paula Poundstone was just a teenager when she auditioned before several veteran performers at the Comedy Connection. Mike McDonald recalls, “Within ninety seconds she knew that she hadn’t prepared the proper material and rather than panic she calmly told us, ‘This isn’t working. I need twenty minutes.’ And then twenty minutes later she came back and killed with new material she had improvised under inordinate pressure. I’ll be damned if I can remember a line she said, but from that moment on she was a welcome member of the comedy community.” She was an original member of the Ding’s ﬁrst team.
It was an elite company. You had to hit the stage running when you followed the likes of:
Bill Campbell discussing the life and death vicissitudes of driving in the Hub. “A yellow light means get your ass moving! And it’s OK to go through a red light if it just turned. Only in Boston do you accidentally run a red light and say, ‘Oh my god, I just ran a red light!’ then look in your rearview mirror and see six more people run the same light.”
Teddy Bergeron depicting a spoilsport at a live production of Peter Pan. “SHE’S ON A WIRE! THERE’S NO SANTA CLAUS AND SHE’S ON A WIRE! ”
Don Gavin, dissecting the comic section: “I’ve read Mutt and Jeﬀ every day for twenty-three years, and they still haven’t had one good day.” Gavin was the most calm and collected of the Boston acts. The most I could ever consume before a show was a beer or two, Gav could walk on the stage just as he ﬁnished eating lasagna and calmly go about the business of destroying an audience.
Mike Donovan was arguably the most gifted of all the acts. He was a polished pro from the ﬁrst time I saw him work in 1979. He could do impressions and sound eﬀects that perfectly illustrated his already topnotch material. And he was so hilarious. In a classic piece Mike sent up the huﬀy-puﬀy idiocy of television’s cheesy double entendres, perfectly replicating the music, noises, and second-rate stars of a then-popular game show. “Put me on the Match Game and I’d teach them a lesson in honesty,” and then, perfectly replicating Gene Rayburn:
“Mary said to Bob, ‘Show me your Blank. . . .’ Mike?”
“I’m gonna have to go with ‘cock,’ Gene.”
Donovan’s method for obtaining the correct time? “Rather than call that cold, heartless recording I just dial any old number at random.”
Very cobwebbed voice “Uhhh, hello?”
“Yes, can you tell me the time, please?”
“Well Jesus Christ, it’s nearly four o’clock in the morning.”
“Thank you!” Click!
Steven Wright was a genius from the start. Deadpan, hilarious, and artistically abstract, he arrived with the distilled essence of humor in tow, oﬀering, “I have a map of the United States. It’s actual size. I spent the summer folding it.” Or “I met the man who invented Cliﬀ Notes. I asked, ‘How did you get started?’ He said, ‘Well, to make a long story short . . .’” And the all-time classic: “Two babies are born on the same day in the same hospital. Eighty years later by sheer coincidence, they end up dying in hospital beds next to each other. One turns to the other and says, ‘Sooo . . . what did you think?’”
Steve Sweeney, the Character King of Boston, knew and replicated his hometown like no one else could. In rapid-ﬁre talk he’d introduce, among numerous others. John McGinty, the wino philosopher, “I stink, therefore I am.” Master Sergeant Hugh Delaney, ever vigilantly warning us about the looming threat of “the ca-ca communists” and a local woman making singles-bar conversation with a man who oﬀers, “Hello, I am Rudy. I am from India.”
“India?” she’d query in the most hideous Bahstan eeyaksent you ever heard, “You know a kid named Kevin O’Malley?”
Brian Kiley, the most relentlessly decent person you’ll ever meet in comedy, was a brilliant joke writer from the jump. He worried about his father’s cotton allergy. “He has pills he can take—but he can’t get them out of the bottle.”
Kenny Rogerson, amid a stream-of-consciousness indictment of, of all things, bulbs (they are always there when there’s trouble, on police cars, ambulances and so on) would start talking about electric Christmas displays and rant. “There were no bulbs in the manger! One wise man never said to another, ‘Hey ﬂick on the light, I can’t see the kid. Ah jeeze, I’ve been kneeling over a goat for half an hour.’”
Kenny was also fond of telling about the time he was arrested for hitting . . . a lake. “These damn foreign cars crap out at a couple of fathoms, oﬃcer.”
“Have you been drinking, Mr. Rogerson?”
“How many sober people do you know that hit lakes?”
: : :
Some things had to be seen to be truly appreciated, like Lauren Dombrowski killing on stage doing a Fred Flintstone outtake on a blooper show—“Aww Fuck, sorry Wilma. Can I try that again?”—as her identical twin sister, Lynn (a civilian but also very funny), sat roaring in the audience.
Chance Langton ignited Ding crowds with wry asides: “On the way here tonight I heard that Gloria Gaynor song, “I Will Survive.” Hey, whatever happened to her?”
Kevin Meaney was such a naturally charismatic performer that he could manipulate one piece of relatively ﬂimsy material until everyone was asphyxiated from laughter. He’d take the days of the week and sing them, and just when people thought it was ﬁnally over, he switched to the months of the year. Upon reaching December, he burst into the numbers. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. I said 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 19, 20 . . .” Had enough? Ding crowds never did.
Young acts who worked the Ding’s open-mike nights before graduating to paid gigs included Tom Gilmore, Dana Gould, Jonathan Groﬀ, Joe Yannety, Denis Leary, Bill Braudis, Jim DeCroteau, Dan Margarita, Mike Bent, Linda Smith, Johnny Pizzi, and Jimmy Tingle. Tingle became the day bartender at the Ding and added to the genuine Cambridge character of the club. Eventually he would succeed Lenny as the open-mike host. After that, succeeding became one of Jimmy’s habits. Tingle went on to become a commentator on 60 Minutes II and now has his own theater in Somerville.
Bobcat Goldthwait used to open his sets by announcing, “My mother had a baby and its head popped oﬀ!” And then he’d move on to the outrageous stuﬀ. He didn’t stay in Boston long, instead opting for San Francisco, where he quickly overwhelmed the scene out there.
In October of 1999 Jimmy Tingle organized a reunion of the Ding Ho alumni to mark the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the club. An electriﬁed sell-out crowd witnessed a spectacular night at the Somerville Theater. A few dozen of the greatest acts—ever—got up and entertained and reminisced for over three hours. The audience roared appreciation for every minute of the show. I was singled out for excessive and eﬀusive praise for my role at the Ding and beyond. I was also the beneﬁciary of the night because I had been ill and, being an American artist, had no health insurance. I was deeply touched by the generosity and love shown by my old, dear and extremely talented friends.
Of course several of them used the occasion to recall why I’ll never have to worry about impending sainthood.
One of my favorites came when Bobcat interrupted his rollicking to reﬂect, “There’s another Barry that hasn’t been addressed too much this evening. That would be the Barry that maybe even Barry doesn’t remember so well.
“One night in the mid-1980s I got a call at 3 AM at my house. I pick up the phone and I hear, ‘Uhh, Goldthwait, you SUCK!’
“I go, ‘Hello? Who is this?’ “It’s me, Crimmins. You suck!’
“And I say, ‘Well what did I do wrong, Barry?’
“And he says, “Nothing! I’m drunk and I wanted to call a movie star and tell him he sucks.”
It had slipped my mind, but when Goldy told the story, it brought it all back to me. Ah, memories.
Along the way we gathered Goldthwait from Syracuse, Meaney, Mike Moto, and Fran and Jan (the Solomita Brothers) from San Francisco, Rogerson and Paul Kozlowski (from Chicago), and Bob Nickman and Phil Van Tee (from Cleveland). All became Ding stalwarts, keeping patrons in stitches until the bar closed.
Not that the bar closed very often—except to the general public. The Ding stretched its liquor-license luck on a nightly basis. Nearly as much alcohol was consumed after hours as during the shows. The restaurant was in the back and windowless. So before it got too late, we’d move the party out there and, in the immortal words of that ringleader of ringleaders, Don Gavin, “hurt ourselves.”
At least our late nights put the dining room to positive use. As Sweeney used to say, “Ding Ho in Chinese means bad food.”
Eventually the restaurant became the auxiliary showroom. You’d do a set in the front room, take a breath, and walk out back and do the next. By evening’s end half the comics in town had found their way to the Ding. There were some mighty parties—the biggest on the ﬁrst anniversary of the Constant Comedy venue. Everyone performed at a gala show—and then the frivolity really began. At 8 AM on Saturday, October 4, 1980, when it was again a legal hour to have the bar open, I counted more than ﬁfty people coming back through the doors into the main room. Most didn’t stay much past 11 a.m. After all, we had shows to do that night.
One evening Lenny and I had been practicing our drinking until the microscopic hours of the morning. We summoned our good friend and personal Green Cab driver Edward “Trigger” Burke to take us in search of breakfast. Lenny said that he knew just the place, and a few minutes later we pulled up in a side street just outside of Harvard Square. He ordered me out of the cab, and I followed him up the walk of one of the posh homes. There wasn’t a light on in the place. “Where the hell are we?” I asked.
Lenny said, “We’re at someone’s home who would just loooove cooking us some breakfast.” And with that he began pounding on the door and yelling, “Get up! We want some eggs!” Sure enough, lights came on and after a commotion, two snarling dogs, German shepherds I think, came tearing toward the door.
With that, Lenny turned tail and sprinted back to the cab. I matched him stride for stride and dove in just as Ed stood on the pedal so hard that both our doors closed from the resulting massive rout of inertia. Lenny was howling with laughter by this time and ﬁnally composed himself enough to say, “Jesus Christ, you’d think fucking Julia Child would enjoy doing a little cooking.”
When we weren’t terrorizing elderly PBS icons, we worked very hard to keep up with our brilliant peers at a time when Boston and American comedy scenes were experiencing break-out success. The secret of the Ding was that it was of, by, and for comics. The club treated all its acts like stars. Comics didn’t pay for drinks—ever. They could put anyone they liked on the guest list. If a comic’s family came in, we wined and dined them (at least by Ding Ho standards), gushing about their talented and wonderful loved one. Perhaps the most important thing the Ding did for young comics was to make their show-business aspirations seem legitimate to parents and family.
We had almost no money for advertising, even after constant sellouts, because Shune Lee’s business skills and my comics-drink-free policy pushed the Ding to the brink of ﬁscal calamity. Fortunately, D.J. Hanard (now legally changed to “Hazzard”), a local comic and art student I’d engaged to do the Constant Comedy logo, made memorable signs and ﬂiers. D.J. kept the Ding running with his artistic and technical expertise, and then he’d walk out on the stage and devastate the audience. Early on, D.J. and I attached ourselves to WCAS radio in Central Square—a gem of a low-power, low-budget community station specializing in folk-rock, country-mawk, and populist Cantabrigian public-aﬀairs shows—and began the Constant Comedy radio program. We oﬀended everyone from Catholics (we did a “rush hour for Catholics” report on Sunday mornings from our Catholic Copter) to Iranians (this was hostage-crisis time; Lenny came up with Iranian Round-up Day.) Some of my friends on the left took these and other send-ups literally, and soon we were skewering them by representing them on the air with what Sweeney labeled The Cambridge Coalition Against Humor. His dozens of remarkable characters provided major ballast for the show. Martin Olson, the Ding’s legendary piano player, now a very hot scribe in Los Angeles, was also a huge contributor to the radio eﬀort as both a writer and a performer. Some weeks our program was hilarious, some weeks it sounded like a bunch of guys who had kept partying long after the midnight show. But we gave them a comedy once a week, and each time WCAS ran a promo for the show, it included a kicker about the Ding.
Steven Wright was the ﬁrst Ding comic to hit it big. Peter Lassally, the executive producer from the Tonight Show, came to the club to look at Boston talent, and a few weeks later Steven got the call. Johnny Carson loved him; America loved him. Carson asked him back. Four days after his ﬁrst appearance Steven came back and killed on the Tonight Show—again.
Since Steven busted the wedge and became a Grammy-nominated, Oscar-winning international comedy star, almost everyone who ever performed at the Ding has gone on to bigger things. If you watch television or movies, you can’t go long without seeing Ding Ho alums on the screen or in the credits. Lenny stars in the ABC sitcom It’s all Relative, Sweeney hosts Boston’s highest-rated morning radio show on WZL X-FM. Goldthwait has reached Show Biz Nirvana—he directs. Lauren Dombrowski is the executive producer of Mad tv. After taking some lumps, my old friend Paula Poundstone is back on stage and more brilliant than ever. George MacDonald wrote and starred in a hit play about the missing South Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. Brian Kiley is Conan O’Brien’s senior staﬀ writer. Martin Olson just sold a screenplay to a major studio. Don Gavin recently killed on Letterman. D.J. just ﬁnished a standout run in a standup series on Comedy Central, Bob Nickman is an exec producer on the sitcom The World According to Jim, Mike Donovan and Mike McDonald are still performing in Boston when they aren’t oﬀ taping a TV show somewhere or gigging in some far-ﬂung locale. Jack Gallagher is touring with his smash one-man show Waiting for Declan. And word has it that Kevin Meaney is heading for Broadway; they’d better have a pretty big stage.
As best I can determine, the cause of death at the Ding was unpaid taxes resulting from Shune’s gambling losses playing mah-jongg in Chinatown. The last time I ever saw Shune Lee was at the Ding Ho on a Saturday night when we sold out four shows. A few days later, when I dropped by the club to pick up a notebook, there were plywood sheets hammered over the doors.
Fortunately the Boston comedy scene had grown by then. I had moved across town and started Stitches in the front room of the Paradise, with the help of local impresarios Don Law and Patrick Lyons. The Comedy Connection was thriving, Nick’s Comedy Stop was doing big business, Chance Langton got things hopping at a club called Play It Again Sam’s. There were regular well-paying gigs throughout New England, and Boston comics were welcome nationwide. The Ding had failed, but the Ding had paved the way. It proved that good comics, treated well in a good room, could ﬁnd an audience almost every night of the year. It proved that comedy was here to stay. Most important, it proved that Boston was the home of some of the best comedic talent—and some of the worst Chinese food—in the world.
CHAPTER 12: Never Shake Hands with a War Criminal
He has ceased a lifetime of globetrotting out of fear that a process server might hand him an International Criminal Court summons instead of the diplomatic pouch full of Krugerrands he was expecting. The timing for this push for accountability couldn’t be worse. With George W. Bush in power, Kissinger could be proﬁteering with caprice. Now he must commit his acts of multinational skullduggery through intermediaries. Since the man who invented the idea of secret carpet bombing trained his operatives, he knows they can’t be trusted.
I’ll give Kissinger credit for one thing; he showed great restraint when he didn’t contest Pol Pot’s will a few years ago. Nobody could have argued that Henry wasn’t deserving of at least the mineral rights to the Killing Fields.
I wouldn’t make a good member of Kissinger’s ICC jury. For one thing, I long ago decided on his guilt or innocence. And although I could technically say I never formally met the man, we do have a small bit of shared history. I’d like to think our moment in time comes back to Henry every now and then—in nightmares.
It was the Friday before the 1988 Michigan Primary. I was at CNN’s New York studios to do a talk show to discuss the presidential race. I was chatting with Norma Quarles, a CNN anchor, in the Green Room. We were maybe ﬁfty stories up in a New York City oﬃce building. She was sitting on a couch; I was pacing in front of her on the other side of a coﬀee table, nervously preparing to go on the air. She was very nice and laughed at much of what I had to say. Suddenly she looked right past me and began sucking up to someone at a clip that was fantastic even for a corporate news anchor.
She was dropping names something furious, stating, “Oh hello, Doctor! We were at so-and-so’s with you and such and such from so on and so forth.”
I turned to look at the person who had just entered the room. Quarles faded into the background as rage possessed me. By the door was someone I didn’t at ﬁrst recognize but I immediately felt HATRED toward. Inside my head I began to criticize myself for having such instantly vile feelings until I realized, “Wait a minute, that’s Henry Kissinger! Oh, OK.” And then I patted myself on the soul for being a good watchdog.
While this realization was taking place, I bootlegged around the entire perimeter of the room so as to not walk directly toward the black hole of evil by the door. I wanted and was getting OUT.
Kissinger was already warming up to the situation, but he had missed something. While responding to Quarles, he had not assessed me, at least not properly. As I got to the doorway, Henry was just clear of it, inside just to its right, as he faced the room. I was coming from (appropriately enough) his left. He turned to face me, apparently having guessed that I was scurrying away because I didn’t deem myself worthy to be in his presence. He was standing there, sort of bubbling evil, making those Kissinger idling sounds, like a satanic water cooler. (“Bulaaaahh, bulaaaah” or something like that. It’s hard to spell in demon.) To demonstrate his magnanimity, either to impress Quarles or because he badly misjudged me and ﬁgured I was deferentially bailing out, he gave me a chance to stay and lurk in humble worship.
He extended his claw and said, “Ehhhhelloo, I em Enree Kizzzengerrrr.”
I looked him right in the eye and his conﬁdence instantly deteriorated to panic. In a nanosecond he understood that he was a small and frail older man in the presence of a relatively young man, large enough to pick him up and crash him through the windows across the room to sure death on the street.
Lucky for Kissinger I don’t think like him. I’m not a killer.
All I did was scowl and growl. “Urrggghhhhhhh.”
Our eye contact spoke volumes. For just a few seconds this man, to whom death and agony were side dishes, was put into a fair confrontation. There was no security to protect him and his escape route was cut oﬀ. I was between him and his normal phalanx of defense. As I left, his hand was still in midair, the only part of him unshaken. He looked like a one-armed zombie. I didn’t fully understand all that transpired in that instant until a minute later, when I was pacing in the hall outside the room, by then badly frazzled. Kissinger is so sinister, so guilty that I needed nothing more than my eyes to let him know that there were people like me in the world who saw his evil and would not acquiesce to it, even for a few clumsy moments in a TV studio waiting room.
Kissinger or Quarles must have gotten to a phone. Security and PR types materialized and zoomed past me as they headed for the Green Room. No one did or said anything to me as I loomed in the hall, a smart and safe distance away. They just ringed Kissinger and escorted him into another area. Within a few moments I was back in the Green Room. Ms. Quarles was still on the couch.
As I leaned over to retrieve my notebook from the coffee table, she asked, “Why didn’t you shake hands with Dr. Kissinger?”
“Because I have a strict policy of never shaking hands with war criminals,” says I.
“Oh, that’s right. I’d forgotten,” said Norma Quarles. Maybe it was precise truth, maybe she was humoring a lunatic, maybe she was simply showing grudging respect for anyone who was capable of standing up to evil, if only by walking away from it.
Many times in life we think of what we should have said after a confrontation. This was not the case when I crossed paths with Henry Kissinger.