You’d never know that the guy sitting a few feet away was one of the “screaming comics of the 1980s.”
It couldn’t be Sam Kinison. He’s gone, died in a car accident in Needles, California in 1992. Andrew Dice Clay? Relegated to reality TV contestant. Acerbic cult favorite Bill Hicks? Passed away, too: 1994. Cancer.
In fact, it’s Bobcat Goldthwait, but you’d never recognize him. Gone is the long hair, the scruffy clothes, the stuttering, the gravelly voice, the seemingly schizophrenic persona. Here, sitting in front of me, is a relatively mild-mannered middle-aged man with short hair, dressed with a flannel shirt and clashing flannel Jeff cap. He doesn’t fit the “screaming comic” mold at all, and looks out of place in a European-styled hotel in downtown Philadelphia.
Bobcat Goldthwait is still at it. He survived the 1980s and the 1990s, the crash and burn of comedy clubs, his big-screen talking-horse bomb Hot to Trot (in which he took the “Wilbur” role to John Candy’s loquacious nag) and Police Academys 2, 3 and 4. He used to joke, “If I did Police Academy 5, you’d call me a whore.”
Now, the 47-year-old Robert Francis Goldthwait is—surprise!—a director. He’s got a new movie coming out called World’s Greatest Dad, starring one of his best friends, Robin Williams. This follows helming stints with The Jimmy Kimmel Show and Chappelle’s Show, as well as two other feature films: 1991’s Shakes the Clown, affectionately known as “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies,” and 2006’s Sleeping Dogs Lie (a/k/a Stay), in which a woman fesses up to her fiancé about her sexual indiscretion with a dog while in college.
True to form, World’s Greatest Dad offers the type of darkly comic situations that Shakes and Dogs did. In the film, an uncharacteristically restrained Williams plays a single parent and high school literature teacher whose not-so-secret ambition is to become a best-selling novelist. When his creepy, disrespectful son (Spy Kids’s Daryl Sabara), accidentally dies in a bizarre sexual manner, Williams tries to cash in on the death by staging it as a suicide and penning journals that he attributes to the kid. The film works as an edgy serio-comic meditation on fame, fatherhood and high school life.
Bobcat Goldthwait, auteur? Who woulda thunk it? The meshuganah “Zed” from the Police Academy movies answering questions from cinephiles at film festivals?
“I don’t think doors are shut on me, I think there are hurdles,” says Goldthwait, weighing his persona as a wacky comic and a film director. “If you said, ‘Look, here’s a movie that Bobcat Goldthwait made and here’s the subject matter,’ I probably wouldn’t go to see it myself. That’s my self-loathing. Really, the dude from Police Academy making a movie with bestiality—I really wouldn’t watch that movie. So I understand. It’s frustrating because some folks out there would like that movie.”
Bobcat—who prefers that name to “Bob” to show he’s not THAT serious—did not write the part Williams plays with the actor in mind, even though they are both close friends dating back to their comedy club days. “I had Philip Seymour Hoffman in mind when I wrote it,” says Goldthwait, who points to Woody Allen, Barry Levinson and Albert Brooks as other comics-turned-writer-directors who he looks up to. “I watched Shakes the Clown recently with my daughter. She said, ‘Dad, you’re a bad actor.’ And I remembered I wrote it with John Goodman in my mind. I didn’t approach him, but in hindsight I wish I had.”
“I really, really like directing and I am serious about it. I wanted to do a good job and think about acting. When I was making this movie, I thought, ‘I have an Academy Award-winning actor in my cast, which I can’t believe.’”
When he writes a script, Goldthwait writes the ending first. “It’s important to satirize in succinct ways,” he says. “If I fleshed out all the characters, it would run a half an hour to forty minutes longer. So I have an ending, where I want the characters to end up, and I go back to the beginning and by the midway point, all the pieces seem to come together.“
Goldthwait stops for a few seconds, and then continues. Talking about some of the characters in World’s Greatest Dad he’d do more with, he says that he “would have spent more time with the Oprah-like character,” referring to a scene where Williams goes on a TV talk show to discuss his son and the book. “For satire, you have to play it as straight as possible. They’re not real people. I see them as fables. Like kids’ stories.”
He stops again.
“Sometimes when I hear myself talk, I sound like such a pretentious load. In two minutes, you’ll just ask me to talk in the Grover voice.”
The timing of Goldthwait’s film is almost eerie in relation to the recent death of actor David Carradine, who dies in a manner similar to the son in World’s Greatest Dad.
“I had a number of friends who said ‘I don’t know how you did it, but I know you killed David Carradine to promote your movie,’” relates Goldthwait. “It’s a terrible way to go and people do kill themselves that way, but other than getting hit by a car full of clowns I can’t think of a funnier way to go. I mean, someone says ‘What would you do if your daughter died that way?’ I would be devastated, I’d feel terrible… and eventually I’d be going ‘Jesus Christ!’ and laugh.”
Discussing his working relationship with Williams, Goldthwait admits he had some reservations despite their friendship. “We got together the night before shooting and I said, ‘Let’s do a take that’s really quiet.’ And in my head I think he’s going, ‘I am an Academy Award winner and you are in Hot to Trot. I’m not really going to listen to you.’ When we finished, Robin said, ‘It was the safest I ever felt while making a movie.’”
Even though the premise of World’s Greatest Dad is unsettling and the characters often downright deceitful, Goldthwait sees optimism in the story and characters. “Robin’s character has to go through all this stuff and grow,” Goldthwait reflects. “It’s really about a middle-aged guy growing up and being OK with who he is. People think these movies are dark, but because they are optimistic at the end, I don’t consider them dark. It would be easier to write a nihilistic comedy with an ending where the world is f**ked, everyone is f**ked, goodnight ladies and gentlemen. I have this Pollyanna attitude because I wish I could change the world into the way I want it to be.”
Despite his “happy endings,” no one expects Goldthwait’s films to open in thousands of multiplexes, even with a name actor like Robin Williams in the lead. So far, his movies have been made fast and cheap, and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“I still do standup so I can make tiny movies,” he says. “I jokingly call it the alimony tour so I can make them very small with very little studio interference. If I was younger, I’d think I could still go into a studio and make the movie I wanted, but so many writer-directors I admire have gotten burned, so I learned my lesson. I know not even to bother. So I can’t go, ‘Hey, I got bit in the face by a monkey,’ and people say ‘How did that happen,’ and I say ‘I climbed into a monkey cage.’ I know the studios, and they are monkey cages.”
Goldthwait’s original standup face has been disposed by a more naturalistic style. “I go out and do standup, and I don’t hate the standup, I just hate the character (from the old says),” says Goldthwait. “So I go out and just do it in my real voice. So people who weren’t familiar with the ‘80s were very receptive, they didn’t know me in the ‘80s, that I was the Whitesnake of comedy. “
But Bobcat Goldthwait doesn’t expect the public who recall him as that twitchy comic who made Letterman uneasy and forced Katie Couric to proclaim him “her worst interview ever” to forget their first impressions.
“I believe for the majority of the culture I will be remembered as the squeaky-voiced comedian,” says Goldthwait. “I was watching Spinal Tap perform live and—this was after Misery, A Few Good Men and the other movies—Rob Reiner comes walking through the crowd. People start going “Meathead, Meathead,” and he walked to the back of the place.
“So, I mean Ron Howard is always going to be Opie. It’s just how people perceive you. I’m not interested in that. I just hope I can keep making movies and making them personal and small. Two years from now, I won’t be doing Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. And you’ll be going, ‘F**k you, he lied to us.’ Hey, I already sold out.
“My early career represents how people’s careers end. I already sold out. I took all the work that you do when you are on the way down when I was 24. So, much like my standup and much like my movies, I’m always interested in digging myself out of a hole. “