Bobcat Goldthwait is moving. As he settles into a booth across from me for a late-afternoon meal to talk about his new movie, Goldthwait’s biggest concern is that he and his wife are scheduled to vacate their house in the morning, and they’re still packing.
Goldthwait has already come a long way from the comedian who made a name for himself in the early ’80s with a stuttering, bug-eyed, pathologically nervous persona, a screechy voice partially ripped off from Grover the Muppet, and roles in shit movies like the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Burglar and the talking-horse flick Hot to Trot. Now he’s trying to keep his distance from Hollywood, the industry that paid him to star in three Police Academy movies. Last week, he presented his latest directorial effort, God Bless America, at a radio-station promo gig in Omaha, and, a few days later, the veteran stand-up literally played in Peoria. Moving out of the L.A. neighborhood called Studio City is symbolic of the ongoing trajectory of his career. “As my indie career takes off,” he laughs, “we keep going deeper and deeper into the Valley!
Goldthwait, 49, started doing stand-up in his early teens; by his mid twenties, he was already a comedy veteran. “I was in punk bands when I was a kid, and then I would do stand-up in between bands—which wasn’t any different from my singing,” he remembers. He was not aspiring to a career. “I’m always amazed that people are interested in comedy. I never was obsessed with comedians. When I was a little, little boy, I’d watch, like, George Carlin on Dinah Shore.” Later, Goldthwait’s broad character and audience-challenging acts got him lumped in with shock comics such as Andrew Dice Clay—a branding that Goldthwait vocally resisted. “[Dice] and Sam Kinison, I was like, here was this thing I did, which I thought was pretty awesome—comedy—and you guys reduced it to pro wrestling. It’s always been for me about protecting the misfits and the outcasts, not ridiculing them.”
Most known for Police Academy, Goldthwait reached the peak of his personal fame in 1994, when, appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show and aware that the host was falling out with his studio, Bobcat spray-painted “Paramount Sucks” on the set in the middle of his segment. The incident caused enough of a stir that when he was shortly thereafter invited on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, he figured he was being set up to top himself. Seated between Leno and Lauren Hutton, Goldthwait set his chair on fire. That event generated more press than anything he has ever done.
“I think that’s probably because it was a super anti-American thing,” Goldthwait says today. “Everyone fantasizes how they would act if they got on [The Tonight Show]. How their life would change. How they would be nervous, but they’d be so polite and awesome and witty. So this guy comes out and just takes a crap in the punchbowl. I come out, and I just say, ‘I’m not interested,’ and people say: ‘Woah! You’re not supposed to do that!’ But it was totally a point in my career where I was like, I’m so tired of this wheel you get on when you’re in show business—the next script, the next pilot, are you gonna get a job that’s gonna change everything? What a horrible way to live. I really did quit about seven years ago, when I started making these movies.”
The first movie Goldthwait directed was Shakes the Clown, which bombed on its 1992 release. (It has become a cult classic since, earning the support of both midnight-movie audiences and Martin Scorsese.) After spending the late ’90s voicing a stuffed rabbit on the WB sitcom Unhappily Ever After, Goldthwait went back behind the camera, directing episodes of Comedy Central fare like Chappelle’s Show and The Man Show. In 2004, he took a full-time gig directing Jimmy Kimmel Live.
The “indie career” Goldthwait speaks of today began in earnest during a Kimmel hiatus seven years ago, when he and a crew he found on Craigslist shot Stay (later retitled Sleeping Dogs Lie), an emotionally resonant comedy starring Melinda Page Hamilton as a thirtysomething woman struggling over whether or not to reveal a secret, youthful sexual indiscretion to her new boyfriend. World’s Greatest Dad, with Robin Williams as a high school teacher whose attempt to cover up the true cause of his teenage son’s death spirals out of control, followed in 2009, this time funded by Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly’s Darko Entertainment and released by Magnolia Pictures.
God Bless America, which was released last week on demand and opens in theaters in May, attracted the same financing and distribution sources, but it’s a significantly less commercial proposition: The film stars Joel Murray as a seemingly mild-mannered middle-age man moved by the inanity of middlebrow American media culture to act on his murderous fantasies, ultimately joining forces with a dangerously precocious teenage girl (Tara Lynne Barr). Murray (brother of Bill, co-star with Goldthwait in One Crazy Summer, and probably best known lately as pants-wetting copywriter Freddy Rumsen on Mad Men) is less bankable than Robin Williams. And while the protagonists of Bobcat’s two previous features mostly hurt themselves, Murray’s Frank is unquestionably, as the writer/director puts it, “a bad man. The squirm factor is, if the movie works for you, you identify with him.”
Inducing that audience identification seems to be more important to Goldthwait than getting laughs. “I’m not interested in making comedies that are punchline driven,” he says, and in fact, his comic style has always been more stunt-oriented than joke-centered. “My initial act was trying to make fun of stand-up—this guy crying on stage reading a Dear John letter, and then, like, ‘Good night!'” The point, he says, was to subvert the comedy audience’s expectations, to provoke an unexpected emotional reaction. Similarly, Goldthwait’s movies tend to start with an outrageous one-liner premise based on protagonists doing the unthinkable—experimenting with bestiality, exploiting the death of a child, murdering reality-TV stars simply because they’re annoying—who, over the course of the film, are humiliated and humbled by the merciless worlds they live in, putting the viewer in the uncomfortable spot of feeling badly for the bad people.
America stems from Goldthwait’s personal experience in a number of ways. “The germ,” as he puts it, came from catching a marathon of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 while in a hotel in London. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is really what they think [Americans are] all like.'” And the film’s subplot involving a mentally disabled talent-show reject was based on the filmmaker’s time at Jimmy Kimmel Live, and his mixed feelings about building segments around the culture’s designated objects of ridicule, like American Idol castoff William Hung.
He apologizes for the film’s “dated” cultural references—he says he tuned out of popular culture after writing the script, which is one of half a dozen he has completed in the three years since Dad‘s release. “The movie is a little bit me getting old,” he admits. “‘Get off my lawn, you kids!’ But I insist I’m not Frank. Joel says I’m Frank; my wife says I’m Frank. But I think I’m much happier. And I’m not homicidal.”
Frank’s killing spree might be an exaggeration of Goldthwait’s own frustrations, but it happens against the backdrop of a recognizably real world. The movie is both an over-the-top farce and an eerily accurate time capsule; the material comprising the montages of Frank’s compulsive channel surfing—from scatological reality-show antics to news reports on “God hates fags”–chanting protesters and conservative talk-show hosts comparing Obama to Hitler—was taken directly from real life. “We just reshot things we saw and heard,” Goldthwait says. “All the stuff that the political [pundits] are saying are just paraphrased quotes from people like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck.”
Predictably, America has been attacked, sight unseen, by what Goldthwait terms as the “right-wing fringe, saying that this is a leftist snuff porno.” He’s proud to represent the opposite fringe. “Michael Moore got booed at the Oscars, so how liberal is Hollywood? Honestly, it’s not liberal enough for me!”
Promoting World’s Greatest Dad, Goldthwait promised that his next film would complete what he called his “boo-hoo trilogy.” The planned third movie, Easter Dad, concerned a struggling screenwriter who jokingly pitches a studio on a Santa Clause–esque franchise about “the true meaning of Easter”—and then, to his dismay, is actually hired to write it. But Goldthwait decided to scrap the script. “It came off as me saying, ‘My life is hard, boo-hoo,’ and my life isn’t hard—it’s pretty awesome. So I lost my energy to make [it]. It was also a really aggressive fuck-you to Hollywood, and I don’t feel that—because I don’t participate in it, so I don’t care.”
Goldthwait avoids “participating” in the industry by keeping his films extremely low budget. Darko, he says, “seem to like what I do, and I do them very small, so it’s not a big roll of the dice.” That said, on America, he forced his financier’s hand just a bit. To explain, he pulls down his cotton Henley to show me a full-color tattoo on his left pec of the logo for Hamm’s beer—Darko exec Ted Hamm’s family business. “I came in and showed him this new tattoo, and I go, ‘Hey, are we gonna do this?’ Clearly the movie was on the bubble, because they didn’t laugh—they just got really quiet. And I go, ‘Plenty of room for Fox Searchlight on [the other] breast!'”
Low risk nets low reward: Unable to make a living making his movies, Goldthwait relies on stand-up to pay the bills. No one is more surprised than he is that there’s still an audience for the Bobcat Goldthwait of high-pitched screech and thinning mullet. “When I play places, the folks who come have this expectation of seeing this thing—I blame Vince Neil and Bret Michaels. People think I should have hair extensions and a girdle.” But in recent years, Goldthwait has made a conscious decision to jettison his familiar persona. “I decided to just go onstage as myself,” he says. “And I did lose work. But I had to do it because it was so horrible to do this act that meant nothing to me anymore.”
He might support his family on the nostalgia of his fans, but Goldthwait has no tender feelings about the past. “I don’t give a shit about the good old days,” he says. “People seem to remember me from movies that I wouldn’t watch. People make fun of Police Academy, but I was in way worse movies—at least those achieved what they were going for. [Hot to Trot] was a horrible experience. But I was probably 25 when I made that, and I had a kid, and they would be like, ‘We’ll give you x amount of money.’ And why wouldn’t you? That was your goal. You were supposed to be in movies. I was making those movies at the same time my friends were graduating college. The only difference is the mistakes they made in college aren’t on cable.”
Now that he’s writing his own scripts and working outside of the constraints of the industry, Goldthwait is making comedic films that feel wildly different from the current mainstream interpretation of the genre. “[Stand-up] is how I pay my rent. It affords me to keep making small movies and not having to [direct] scripts where people crap themselves. Whenever I get sent a comedy, people crap themselves. Before and after Bridesmaids.”
If he did make those movies, he’d come at them from a different angle. “21 Jump Street, at the end, the guy picks up his severed penis in his mouth,” he says. “If I was writing that movie, the whole movie would have been about that incident—like, what led up to it, how did it happen, the trauma. We would explore all sides of it, his home life, how it got portrayed in the media. And that would be enough for the movie.”
It’s an inspired idea for a sequel, but that’s a job Goldthwait is unlikely to get. He’s proud enough of having jumped off the industry carousel that he made it the focus of the commencement speech he delivered at his daughter’s Hampshire College graduation.
“The whole thing was about how important it is to quit and to quit as often in your life as possible. You keep quitting, and then, eventually, you end up where you don’t want to leave.”