Notorious ’80s comic Bobcat Goldthwait lost the silly voice and turned himself into a writer/director of seriously subversive films, finds Michael Adams.
It’s Friday afternoon and Bobcat Goldthwait’s preparing to play the UARK Bowl in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
“I’m doing stand-up in what used to be a bowling alley so don’t tell me my career’s not taking off!”
The veteran comedian’s only half joking. “I feel like I’m behind enemy lines. Last night it seemed to be more a debate than comedy. A lot of people were mad because I wasn’t doing the ‘Grover’ voice. They’re expecting the dude from Police Academy to scream for an hour. What they’re getting is a 50-year-old grumpy guy.”
For the record, Goldthwait last played Zed in 1987’s Police Academy 4. Even though that was literally half a lifetime ago, when he’s in places like, well, Lafayettville, it’s the first thing people mention. “I do my best to be polite and friendly but it is a bit like Groundhog Day,” he says. “This might be the first time you’ve ever said ‘I used to watch you in Police Academy’ but I’ve still got to say ‘Oh, cool… I get that a lot.’”
What surprises and satisfies Goldthwait is the “good chunk” of his audience who’ve seen the seriously funny and subversive movies he directs these days. His most recent effort, God Bless America, levels both barrels at modern stupidity. The film’s hero Frank – terminally ill and sick to death of vapid American culture – goes on a murderous rampage against reality TV morons, conservative blowhards and all manner of rude douchebags.
Goldthwait’s misanthropic movie is no one-off rant. His 2009 gem World’s Greatest Dad satirised self-aggrandising grief culture and gave long-time friend Robin Williams his best role in years. In 2006’s Sleeping Dogs Lie he explored honesty in relationships by having a woman admit to her man that she once performed oral sex… on her dog. His 1991 directorial debut Shakes The Clown was famously lauded as the “Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies”.
God Bless America sets its gun sights on TV talent competitions, bad-girl programs and stupid ringtones. “There’s so much of this distraction media out there that like it or not you hear about these things,” Goldthwait says. “Yesterday the Jersey Shore got cancelled. I don’t watch it, I don’t click on articles about the Jersey Shore, but I had it brought up to me three times. It is very interesting how it takes the place of people’s own families, friends and lives.”
Unusually for offence-averse Hollywood, Goldthwait’s film also unapologetically calls out Woody Allen and Diablo Cody. “People are always trying to appeal to the greatest number of people,” he says. “I don’t have to. I play bowling alleys in Arkansas so I don’t have to suck up!”
Goldthwait has a long history of not giving a shit what people think while supporting himself through stand-up. Born on May 26, 1962, in Syracuse, New York, Goldthwait began performing comedy professionally at age 15. After graduating high school in 1980, he and friend Tom Kenny – now the voice of Spongebob Squarepants – moved to Boston where they billed themselves as “Bobcat and Tomcat”. Goldthwait made his first appearance on Letterman in 1982, was People magazine’s hottest upcoming comic in 1984 and landed the Zed role in Police Academy 2 the next year.
Goldthwait showcased his anarchic stand-up schtick in three late-1980s cable TV but became more infamous for a trio of insane TV talk-show appearances between 1993 and ‘94. First he tipped over furniture on Conan O’Brien’s set, then he spray-painted “Paramount Sucks” across Arsenio Hall’s backdrop and finally he set fire to his guest chair on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.
But Goldthwait’s most rock ‘n’ roll moment came when his number-one fan Kurt Cobain invited him to open for Nirvana on their last tour. For the New Year’s Eve show, he rappelled into the Oakland Coliseum Arena wearing only the wings featured on the In Utero cover.
“I knew I was lucky,” he says. “A once in a lifetime thing. It was a lot of laughs and Kurt’s candle burned really brightly. About every third show I would do okay but I was never going out there thinking, ‘Wow, I hope I win over the crowd.’ That’s the thing about me and it’s not the most lucrative way to live your life in showbusiness.”
The 1990s weren’t lucrative for Goldthwait and he alternated stand up with cartoon voices, sitcom guest spots and game shows. He re-embraced directing with The Man Show in 1999 and then became a force behind the camera on Chappelle’s Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Goldthwait quit Kimmel in 2006 to focus on filmmaking and hasn’t looked back. “I write screenplays all the time,” he says. “I just make them when I can. Getting a movie made is not as important as getting the movie I’ve written made. I wrote another movie for Robin and I to do, which is probably G or PG. I have this action movie about an ex-marine who’s gay and he goes into this redneck town and kicks ass. I want to make a movie that if you were a 13-year-old gay boy you’d love as much as 300.”
Before that, however, Goldthwait has to edit the Bigfoot movie he just shot up in northern California. “It’s a little dark, I guess, but I really hate the title ‘dark’,” he says. “For me, ‘dark’ is a Kate Hudson movie. I don’t know who the fuck those people are. That’s a scary world.”