Interview: Ding Ho alumni Mike McDonald, Brian Kiley, and Tom Kenny take a look back at the early days of Boston comedy.
The days of TheDing Ho Comedy Club may be long gone, much like the fashion, haircuts and attraction to illicit substances that ran amuck at the Inman Square stand-up institution during the comedy boom of the early ‘80s. But by no means does that mean the memories and legacy, that of the club itself or of founder and curator Barry Crimmins, have faded along with them.
As evident tonight (July 3) during The Ding Ho 40th Anniversary Reunion, Tribute and Fundraiser, even after all the years of touring, filmmaking, voice acting and joke writing that have followed for a vast group of comics who Crimmins helped get out on the right foot with stage time and livable pay — like Denis Leary, Steven Wright, Lenny Clarke, Tony V, Jimmy Tingle, Bobcat Goldthwait, Tom Kenny, Mike McDonald and many others — the memories are vivid and the appreciation for what Crimmins did at the helm of the club still rings sincere and heartfelt.
Before they sit down for a virtual trip down memory lane and pay tribute to a dear departed friend and help raise support for Crimmins’ widow, Helen, we got on the horn with Boston comedy mainstay Mike McDonald, Conan writer Brian Kiley, and voice actor extraordinaire Tom Kenny (SpongeBob SquarePants, Rick and Morty, Mr. Show) over the last week to chat about what made the club, and Crimmins, such vital parts of their lives. Here’s some of what they had to say.
Jason Greenough: With the Ding Ho 40th Anniversary reunion show coming up, how does it feel being able to celebrate this milestone in this way?
Mike McDonald: Well, none of us can believe it’s 40 years ago. That’s the first thing. It seems like yesterday. The Ding Ho was the crucible that we all came out of, and it was the best place that we were able to train and have a clubhouse where we could get together, field some ground balls and get better at what we wanted to do, which was be comedians. Unbeknownst to us, we were surrounded by people who we knew were good, but we had no idea they’d be 40-year lifers in the business. When you look at the amount of talent that came out of that group, with [Paula] Poundstone, [Kevin] Meaney, [Denis] Leary, Lenny [Clarke], [Steve] Sweeney, Ken Rogerson, Mike Donovan, Jack Gallagher, [Bobcat] Goldthwait, Tom Kenny, they’re all just fantastic comedians.
There would be five or six people on a show per night, traditionally. When you take a lineup like that, you better bring your A-game, because those other people are going to dust you if you don’t. It’s going to be apparent who can’t play if you’re following Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone and Kevin Meaney. You’re up next, and whatever you’re gonna do, it better be fucking funny.
You got better right away, simply because if you didn’t, you were going to embarrass yourself. You had to run hard just to stay in the game with these other people, and they felt the same way. We would watch each other’s acts, and we would help each other. ‘Ya know that thing you’re doing on Turtles? Here’s a tagline’.
Brian Kiley: It’s really bittersweet, because Barry passed away, and we’re doing this show for his widow, who is sick, and all of that is sad, but it’s great that the Ding Ho is being honored. So many great comics So many great comics came from there, and it was such an iconic place. I have to say, there was an innocence to it, where there were people who were so sincere about their acts and making those acts so unique, and creative, and different. It also shows you that creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, because when you have creative people working together, that energy feeds off each other, and it makes everyone better and more creative, and so on. It was a very special place.
Tom Kenny: The Ding Ho was quite the scene. After moving to town from Syracuse, it was the first place I went to do a set in Boston, pretty much. I moved there to do stand-up when I was 21, and Barry Crimmins was a mentor of mine, after having already met him when I was a teenager in Syracuse. He had become a mentor of mine, then he went to Boston, and became a big wheel in the Boston scene, and I had felt like I was kind of spinning my wheels in Syracuse, so I figured I would give Beantown a try. So, I moved to Allston-Brighton and pretty much the day I hit town, I went to the Ding Ho and did a set there.
As a comedian, what does the Ding Ho, and what it stood for, mean to you today?
McDonald: It was the comedy college we all went to, combined with the clubhouse we all hung out in. I don’t go back to my college reunion. The Ding Ho is my college reunion. Those people are the ones who mean a lot to me. It’s where we got together and learned to be comedians, and that’s really good to have. It’s like being on a sports team. The only thing I can really equate the Boston comedy scene to is, like, the Chicago Blues scene when Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, and all those guys were coming up.
At the time, a comedy club was new to Boston. Downstairs of the Charles Playhouse was the Comedy Connection, and the Ding Ho was across town in Inman Square, and by far, Inman Square was the hippest place in the greater Boston area. Behind the Ding Ho was the 1369 Jazz Club, across the street, you had Ryles, which had two rooms where they’d be playing rock or fusion in one, and blues or jazz in the other, and then across the street from that was the Inn-Square Men’s Bar, which was killer rock and roll and blues. Within a block area, you could see all kinds of fantastic entertainment in one night. Harvard Square wasn’t anywhere near as cool as Inman Square, and there was nowhere in Boston that was as good as that Inman Square area. It was fucking killer.
Kiley: When I was a sophomore in college, there was a comedy show at the school, and Crimmins was headlining, and I thought he was hilarious. I went and talked to him after the show, because I had been writing jokes since I was 12 or 13 and I wanted to tell him how funny I thought the show was. So here I am at 18 or 19 talking to Barry, and telling him how I wanted to be a comedy writer, so he would have me come to the Ding Ho, and he’d have a cup of coffee with me. I’d type up my jokes and show them to him, and he would critique them for me, and he would tell me that I would have to get on stage in order to make money doing comedy Boston, and that I wouldn’t get money by comedy writing in Boston, but the idea of getting on stage was too terrifying. But he told me I was welcomed any time I wanted to come see a show, so he would put me on the guest list, and I would just sit in the back of the room, at least once a month. It was a little hard to get to Inman Square, so I would have to take, like, two trains and a bus, but I did that for a year, and then I took a summer class at Emerson taught by Denis Leary.
At the end of the class, they had us do stand-up, and I was encouraged to go to an open mic, so I go to the Ding Ho, and Barry was hosting, and I went on and did great. Now, I went back the next week and Lenny was hosting, and I went on around quarter of one, and went down in flames. But then when I went back the next week, Lenny saw me and had me back on stage, so I went back there every week, and that’s where my comedy career started. I have such a soft spot in my heart for the Ding Ho, and Barry was my mentor, really up until he died.
Kenny: The reason I moved to Boston was because Bobcat Goldthwait, who is a childhood friend of mine, was leaving Boston for California, and he offered up his apartment and told me how he had a cool roommate, and that Crimmins was booking a show in the city. He wanted me to leave Smallville and come to Metropolis, so I did. For me, the Ding Ho represented that first feeling of ‘I can do this.’ I felt like I didn’t totally suck. It was a validation when I would get up on stage and make people laugh. All the established guys like Tingle, in particular and McDonald were really kind to me. The Ding Ho helped me realize that maybe I could make a living being creative, and not just by sitting in some office or cutting meat or whatever. I never had a plan B. I still don’t actually.
There’s actually kind of a direct line from the Ding Ho to all the voice over work. After I had been doing stand-up for awhile [in Boston], I moved out to San Francisco, and somebody out there saw me doing stand-up and told me how one of his friends was creating this show called Rocko’s Modern Life on Nickelodeon and asked me if I’d be interested in doing voices for it, and through Rocko’s Modern Life, I met Steve Hillenberg, who created SpongeBob, and that was a total life changer for me. All of that really happened because I did stand-up at the Ding Ho.
Are you worried at all about the virtual format of the show taking away from the type of warmth that shows like this generally carry with them?
McDonald: Zoom shows will never be live comedy, but they are a different methodology to meet, talk to, and touch people. It’s okay. It’s different, but it’s going to be funny because these people are funny. I’m sure there are going to be moments where someone is going to go ‘am I supposed to talk? Or is somebody else going to talk?’
Audience members are going to be on mute, and the last thing you want to do is mute the audience. Then again, if it’s a three-hour show, we can’t be listening to kids running around in the background. It’s what we can do under the circumstances.
Kiley: It’s the best we have at the moment. I’ve done a bunch of Zoom shows over the last couple of months, some have been better than others, and I have had some fun ones, but yeah, it’s not as good as the real thing. They’re just simply not, but we’re in a pandemic, so what can you do? When you can get a good sized crowd, even on Zoom, it’s still fun. We would much rather have it sold out at the Somerville Theatre, but the world doesn’t allow that at the moment. Hopefully we can do it again next year, or five years from now, and we can be in a theater, but for now, it’s the best we can do.
Kenny: People are so adaptable, that these kinds of meetings are normalized now, all of a sudden. I’ve been on a few of these Zoom shows, where SpongeBob did one and Mr. Show did one, and people are used to it now. I haven’t done stand-up since 1995, so even if it was in a big theater, I don’t know if I’d be there. I honestly don’t even know what I’m going to be doing for this Zoom show. Tingle told me it would be like a talk show where he interviews me and I can tell some stories about Barry. That I can do, but if I had to come out and do 15 or 20 minutes of killer stand-up, especially up against all of these people who do it a lot, it would probably have me thinking ‘why the hell am I even doing this?’
But if people are interested in hearing about SpongeBob and Rick and Morty, that I can do.
As a friend of Barry’s, how does it feel to be able to pay tribute to a friend and show support for Helen?
McDonald: Well, Barry meant a lot to all of us, because he was the guy who put it all together. The Comedy Connection was going on, and they even had at least one night a week at the Ding Ho, and it was fucking packed. It was doing great, but they decided to move their show to another place, and Barry was smart enough to talk to Shun Lee, who owned the Ding, and asked if he was okay with him keeping comedy there. Then Barry called us all in, and told us he was going to continue doing comedy there, and the first thing he was going to do was double everyone’s pay from what they were getting at the Comedy Connection, and he asked us if everyone was on board. Damn right we were.
Barry came at the management end of a comedy show from a comic’s perspective, where most bookers are trying to get people as cheaply as they possibly can, but Barry was trying to get them to make money out of this.
Kiley: I’m so glad to be a part of the show, because I miss Barry every day. There aren’t any sports right now because of COVID, so I’ve been watching old games, and they showed the 1968 World Series between the Tigers and Cardinals. They’re showing this player, Jim Northrup, hitting a grand slam for the Tigers, and it reminded me of a time where Barry and I were driving somewhere, about 30 years ago and we’re a red light. Now, Jim Northrup was nicknamed “The Silver Fox,” because he was prematurely gray. At the red light, this car pulled up next to us, and this guy had “Silver Fox” stenciled on the driver’s side door. It’s summertime, so our windows are rolled down, and Crimmins starts yelling ‘Northrup! Northrup!’ and the guy has no idea what he’s talking about, and I was dying. It was just so funny, and I had forgotten all about it until I started watching that game last week. There were so many funny, scathing things he said that sometimes, something will just pop into my head and trigger it. He really was a brilliant guy.
Kenny: It feels great. My history with Barry pre-dates my history with Boston and the Ding Ho, because I had met Barry when I was still in high school after he put an ad in the local Syracuse alternative paper that he was starting an open mic night. So, Bobcat and I drove to this bar in a blizzard, but we didn’t tell him we were 16. He was kind of shocked when he saw that we were, but he thought we were funny. Barry was validation for me even before the Ding Ho, and he remained a very good friend of mine, and we stayed in touch over the years. During his last trip to the west coast, he stayed at my house, and that was the last time I saw him in person.
I’d like to know what he thinks about everything going on in the world right now. I feel deprived, because he’s the commentator we need right now.
There’s a lot going on with this show. It’s a tribute to Barry, it’s getting together with these guys and celebrating a huge milestone, and it’s helping out Helen, but what are you looking forward to most about this show?
McDonald: It’ll be nice to watch guys we don’t get to see every day anymore, and it’ll be nice to get together so that time has meaning again. Part of what you’re going to see is a bunch of us telling stories about the Ding, or about Barry. I’m definitely going to tell a story about when Lenny, Barry and I went to Fenway to watch a Yankee-Red Sox game, and we ended up getting into a fight in the stands with a guy who everyone in the surrounding crowd hated and how it turned out.
Kiley: It’s a bummer that we don’t get to hang out in a green room or anything like that, but I’m just looking forward to seeing all these comics again. I remember being a college kid and seeing Steven Wright at the Ding Ho and being blown away, and he really became one of my comedy idols. I love watching him perform, and you have Jack Gallagher, Don Gavin and Jimmy Tingle. There are just so many talented, funny guys that I don’t get to see regularly anymore. I want to have a good set, but even just as a fan, just sitting and watching them is going to be totally enjoyable for me.
Kenny: Since I had gotten pulled into different areas other than stand-up, I haven’t really crossed paths with them a whole lot. I saw them at the memorial service, and that was the first time in years, and it still felt like no time had passed. So, really I’m just looking forward to not only seeing everybody again, but also just listening to them. I don’t want to be the one talking the whole time, I want to be listening and laughing at them.