God Bless Bobcat Goldthwait
Despite a bird crapping on his head on the way to the interview (it’s supposed to be lucky), David Watson meets comedy legend Bobcat Goldthwait to talk about his new film God Bless America. And those Police Academy reboot rumours…
Exploding on the American stand-up comedy scene in the mid ‘80s with routines that walked the thin line between genius and car crash, famous for his appearances in movies like Police Academies 2, 3 & 4, no comedian burned brighter than the mercurial Bobcat Goldthwait.
Interviewing him is a daunting prospect; the man is a comedy god, infamous for his legendary appearances on The Arsenio Hall Show, where he spray-painted ‘Paramount Sucks’ on the set (Hall was in dispute with Paramount over the doomed show’s future) and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno where he set fire to his chair (sadly, Leno survived the conflagration), but since his 1992 directorial debut Shakes The Clown, hailed by the Boston Globe as “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies,” Bobcat has more or less turned his back on stand-up (“except when it pays the bills,”) concentrating on carving out a career as one of America’s more interesting Indie comedy directors with films like Sleeping Dogs Lie, featuring what Bobcat refers to as a “tasteful act of bestiality,” and the fantastic World’s Greatest Dad with Robin Williams in a career-best performance as the grieving father who fakes his son’s death as part of a sex game to look like a suicide.
With his latest film, the scabrously funny God Bless America, Goldthwait machine guns the sacred cows of contemporary popular culture from reality TV stars to right-wing, talk radio show hosts like Glenn Beck, the Westboro Baptists to the Tea Party, the film culminating in a massacre during a TV talent show.
“This movie, the tipping point for me, there was a couple of things. One was, in the States, people, they’re having like town hall meetings and people kept shouting down everybody…people would be shouting down the President on the House floor,” says Bobcat. “And then the Tea Party guys would have these signs that said, they’d be protesting outside the White House, ‘WE CAME UNARMED…THIS TIME!’ And I was like, whoah, that’s really crazy. So it was like I see your crazy and I raise your crazy. I’ll show you bananas!
“That and the last time I was in London there was a My Super Sweet Sixteen marathon and I was watching it, I’d never seen it before, and I was like oh, these children should die! I’m kidding when I say that but the fact that this was what we are exporting to the world did kinda shame me a little.”
As the father of a daughter though, Goldthwait isn’t worried about the effect reality television might have on her.
“My daughter’s 25 now and that kinda stuff doesn’t interest her at all. Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr’s character in God Bless America) is based on her a lot. I would say Roxy’s a lot of my daughter and a lot of my wife. Freud would have a field day! To the point where even a lot of her fashion and stuff was inspired by what my daughter wears.”
So if his daughter is Roxy, does that make Bobcat himself Frank, Joel Murray’s depressed wage slave turned cultural vigilante?
“No. I don’t want to be Frank, I really don’t. Here’s why I’m not Frank: Frank is really lonely and I don’t feel lonely. That’s the big difference. And also, people say my movies are dark but the last two movies had very life-affirming endings that I didn’t tack on; that was the point of those movies. And this movie, it doesn’t. It would have been easy to just make it, like, a list of people that we all find annoying and then kill them and that would have been fun for 90 minutes. But I wanted to kinda throw it back on the audience saying: ‘Why do we have this appetite for these distractions? Are you part of it or are you part of the solution? And I’m including myself. I don’t think I’m Frank but…maybe I am, I don’t know.”
In Frank, Goldthwait has created an everyman anti-hero, the ultimate worm who turns, a Lee Harvey Oswald for the TOWIE generation.
“I wanted people to empathise with Frank and I kinda hoped that they were along for the ride for the first half or two thirds of the film, says Goldthwait, “but I did want them to eventually be a little, not a little, more than a little, disturbed by Frank towards the end of the movie.
“But I always was concerned, I didn’t know if people would empathise with him. I keep saying empathy because I don’t want pity and I don’t necessarily want people to make him a hero.
“When we showed the movie for the first time at the Toronto Film Festival and people started cheering during the speeches, Joel and I were both pleasantly surprised. Joel thought he had not done a good job on the speeches, which as ridiculous, so when people clapped it was a very emotional time for both he and I.”
Satirical and violent, God Bless America isn’t for the easily shocked featuring a scene at the start involving a crying baby that’s just jaw-droppingly wrong and gaspingly funny. Unless, like the friend who accompanied me to the press screening, you’re a new father.
“Funny you say that,” says Goldthwait it’s new dads that seem to have a bigger problem with this film rather than moms. I think that has to do with women, I don’t know, being tougher or having to deal with blood all the time. But new dads are freaked out because it’s something they can’t control; the safety of their child.
“Did I ever worry about going to far? No. I honestly felt like when (*Spoiler*) Stephen gets killed, because of the time and it was hard to get everything done on the schedule, I had to drop…it was a much more violent ending for Stephen and I just didn’t have time to film it so he just got shot in the guts instead.
“I kinda wonder what it would have changed in the movie,” reflects Goldthwait, “but there was a much more violent death to him.”
From the “tasteful act of bestiality” at the heart of Sleeping Dogs Lie to the accidental death of a teenager through auto-erotic asphyxia in World’s Greatest Dad, Goldthwait’s bitter-sweet comedies have a way of making the dark, unpalatable truths of America ordinary, everyday.
“That probably is the most important thing for me when I make the movies,” says Goldthwait. “I’m not aware of which element, what part of the screenplay is going to have those moments but kinda treating those with respect…I don’t sit down and write those moments but that is what I’m interested in. And those moments when they work, for me and other people, they’re the whole deal really. And sometimes they’re really small and you don’t even notice it.
“Like in Sleeping Dogs there’s a line where the guy, she goes and kisses his stomach and he goes: ‘I’m fat’ and he’s uncomfortable with it. Now that’s a really small thing but I was really surprised by how many people that resonated with because dudes aren’t supposed to be vain in that way.”
Similarly, in God Bless America, Tara Lynne Barr’s Roxy asks Joel Murray’s Frank if she’s pretty. It’s a naked moment of truth. Roxy may be a blossoming sociopath on a nationwide killing spree but she still suffers from the same hang-ups and insecurities of any teenage girl.
Says Goldthwait: “She doesn’t want him to say ‘You’re pretty’ in a manipulative, sexy way. She just wants to be validated. ‘Am I a person? Am I a woman? Am I a woman to you’ is what she’s really saying.”
In a world where TV entertainment is watching Joe Pasquale eat bugs, Flavour Flav try to find a woman and Kim Kardashian do…whatever Kim Kardashian does, it’s tempting to imagine the reality TV show that could contain Bobcat Goldthwait.
“I’ve been offered a ton but even when I’m broke I still can’t do it,” says Goldthwait.
“I always say I sold out as a young man, I had the career most people have at the end of their career at the beginning. I’ve been asked to do a celebrity magic show called Celebricadabra…Celebrity Fear Factor, just a ton of them. None of the shows in the movie are parodies; they’re all just actual shows or hybrids of shows that I’ve seen.”
Despite the occasional return to stand-up, Goldthwait sees himself now, primarily as a director.
“When I first started to do stand-up, I would come out, there’d be 4 or 5 guys on the bill, and all of a sudden I’d come out and whatever I’d be doing would be a little surprising because I’d be crying or gutting a fish or whatever I’m doing. Something different. And then, once people knew me, that surprising element was gone. I think making movies you can still surprise people. No matter what their expectations are, you can still surprise them. When I sit down to write a movie I don’t think ‘Oh, this’ll freak everyone out,’ but obviously that’s the stuff I write and that’s the stuff I’m drawn to.”
With God Bless America just out, what’s next for the artist formerly known as dishevelled gang leader Zed in the Police Academy movies?
“After World’s Greatest Dad I wrote like 5 different screenplays…I wrote another movie for Robin and I to do…one of them is a musical that we’re trying to get going that I wrote on an album of The Kinks called Schoolboys in Disgrace…but I have a feeling, just because I need to go to work, I have to make stuff, I think I’ll probably do something soon that might be another movie along the lines of Sleeping Dogs Lie where I just do it down and dirty, small budget movie.”
But with Police Academy being rebooted for a younger generation, will Goldthwait be making a Johnny Depp/21 Jump Street-style cameo in the new movie?
“I always say that this one’s gonna be like 21 Jump Street…they’re gonna make it a comedy this time. Yeah, if they ask me to do it, I would do it. I don’t think they would. But I do think when people don’t show up for reunions, you get a weird feeling towards them, you think ‘Aw man,’ and that was the best part of that movie, I thought, when Johnny Depp got killed. Maybe they could kill Zed, that’d be good. Me and Steve Guttenberg…like the end of Butch Cassidy, going out in a hail of bullets. I like the idea of Zed being undercover and getting shot. That’s funny.”