Comedian, actor, and filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait became a fixture on the stand-up comedy circuit in the ’80s and ’90s, developing an idiosyncratic persona that he parlayed into a string of movie roles and TV gigs. But rather than ride that schtick into the nostalgia sunset, Goldthwait turned his talents to filmmaking. His debut film, 1991’s Shakes the Clown — aka “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies” — would become something of a cult classic (Martin Scorsese’s a fan), while 2009’s World’s Greatest Dad earned strong notices for its unique brand of black comedy and one of star Robin Williams’ finest performances in years.
This week, Goldthwait returns with God Bless America, a delightful valentine to popular culture in which a disgruntled office drone (Joel Murray) and his teenage sidekick (Tara Lynne Barr) go on a cross-country killing spree designed to right the wrongs of contemporary bad manners, reality TV and other social ills (if you’re texting in a theater, fear for your worthless life.)
We sat down for a chat with Goldthwait recently, and the first thing he did was send his camera crew on a break with a line from Albert Brooks’ Real Life — so right away we knew he was going to be great. Read through for more of his thoughts on the film and his career, but first, here are his Five Favorite Films.
Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971; 85% Tomatometer)
It’s hard to boil them down. I would say, well, Harold and Maude, obviously, because it seems like something… you know, when I saw Harold and Maude, I didn’t laugh; I was a boy and I just felt like a Starbelly Sneetch finding the other Starbelly Sneetches, you know. So that movie was a biggie, and still is. I’m thinking of movies that I go back and watch, ever time I see them.
Young Frankenstein, you know… I think Young Frankenstein influenced me because it was a comedy but they really treated it like the James Whale Frankensteins. There’s a real sadness in that movie.
They replicated the Universal horror look really faithfully.
Yeah, and they used a lot of the same effects and stuff, yeah.
Do you find when people do something serious and then set the comedy within it that it makes the comedy better?
Yeah — and a story, you know? In a lot of comedies the story comes afterwards. They’ll cram in a “friends are the most important friends” or some bullsh-t.
I find that with your stuff, like World’s Greatest Dad, they’re almost dramas — and the comedy evolves out of that.
Yeah, and that’s the way I approach it. I kind of don’t even consider… I mean, I think of all of them as comedies, but I don’t concern myself with the jokes at all. It’s more about staying true to the world and the themes that we come up with.
I’d say Ed Wood; the Ed Wood movie I really love a lot. I love the idea of — I think it’s a great movie — but I identify with this kook who makes movies because he has to, and works with his friends. I don’t think Ed Wood is the worst director: His movies are personal, and you can’t take your eyes off them. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? There are way worse film directors.
I read where Tim Burton said something like the difference between himself and Ed Wood was that he was lucky — which is why that movie is so affectionate. It’s not a mockery.
Oh no, no, not at all. It’s very kind and sweet, and warm. I love that movie.
I don’t know which John Waters to pick. The go-to would be Pink Flamingos — that was another movie that was pivotal, when I discovered that — but I would pick Polyester out of his movies. I’ve got a big soft spot for John Waters, ’cause again, there’s a guy who’s doing things on his own terms, and I think people would find his topics shocking but he has a lot of kindness towards these people, these characters. I love him. I just saw him this weekend when I was in Maryland.
You two should do a movie together.
Well I’ll tell you, he’s been so supportive. He and Todd Solondz and myself met, and I was like, “Wow, this is a harmonic convergence. This is the Mount Rushmore of f-cked-up.” [Laughs.] My wife dubbed it the — you know how they had the Million Dollar Quartet, with Elvis and Carl Perkins and that? — well she dubbed it the Hundred Dollar Trio. [Laughs.]
I would say Sullivan’s Travels would probably round out the five. That movie is kind of what I’m always wrestling with, you know — there’s the idea of, “Do I go out and entertain people [laughs], or do I go out and say something?” I love that movie. That’s just another movie that, you know, Preston Sturges movies — they’re not really set in the real world, or most of them aren’t set in any real world, but the characters are always very realistic; and then he has these great, oddball one-dimensional characters that show up. Clearly that’s something that’s kind of influenced me, ’cause I don’t think the world that my movies take place in, it’s not a real place. I always laugh at people who go, “Well, you know, they would have been caught” in [God Bless America] and I’m like, “It’s not real, man.” I don’t wanna have a scene where Harvey Keitel is in front of this big map of the United States going, “I gotta get inside their brains. I gotta figure out where they’re gonna strike next.”
[Laughs.] Tommy Lee Jones ordering a search of every outhouse, farmhouse, henhouse…
[Laughs.] Yeah, Tommy Lee Jones going: “Somebody! Get a patrol car to the Kardashians! I think I’ve figured it out!”
You have to suspend some disbelief there.
Yeah, yeah. And I think that maybe in this movie that works for people. We do a good job of hopefully suspending it by shooting a baby within the first 10 minutes. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] That was a very enjoyable moment.
Well thanks, man.
Next, Goldthwait talks God Bless America, avoiding nostalgia comedy, and revisiting Shakes the Clown.
You were talking about the tension between entertaining people and having something to say. How did you approach God Bless America — which is entertaining, but moreover feels like it has something to say — with that in mind?
You know, it’s funny. Last night I was really exhausted and I was sitting there looking at it — there was a screening — and it played well and people were laughing and people liked the movie, but I also know that I lost some of the people. And part of me was thinking, “Why do I do this? ” I mean, it would be so much easier to just make a comedy, you know? I would not have to rent in the Valley. [Laughs.] Why is it so important for me to connect with such a small group? You know, it’s not very lucrative. Robin Williams is one of my friends, he’s probably my best friend, and we always laugh and discuss how with his neuroses, you know, he’s looking for the world’s approval, and I’m just looking for a couple of misfits to say, “Hey, we like you.” [Laughs.] “Gabba gabba, we accept you.”
[Laughs.] I like that you stuck up for him in the movie.
Yeah, there’s a little shout out. ‘Cause all my friends show up in this movie. Like, Tom Kenny is a guy I’ve known since I was six years old and he’s Spongebob Squarepants; so he shows up, and we shoot and kill him. All my best friends show up — and most of them get killed. [Laughs.] I think I was gonna have him play Robin Williams. ‘Cause this movie, you know, is the only movie I’ve written that takes place in our time — as in right now — so he probably would have been backstage at American Superstar.
And you’ve known Joel Murray since — well, you did One Crazy Summer together. Have you just been waiting for the right role to cast him in?
No, it was more like I was watching him on Mad Men and my wife was like, “He’d be a good Frank.” And I was like, “Yeah.” I didn’t think he wanted to work together, because I tried to get him for one of my other movies, and his agent, I found out, wouldn’t give him the script, which was Sleeping Dogs Lie. His agent was like, “This is a horrible movie.”
[Laughs.] That would have been a tough sell for agents to deal with.
Yeah. Most of the screenplays I write have a really hard time getting to people; as a guy who makes movies, and it’s frustrating. Understandable, but it’s a little frustrating, because it’s like, even if you don’t like my movies — and my movies do have their detractors — the actors in the movies always do well. Nobody’s ever said anything bad about them. The actors don’t get bashed in the press; the actors always get good notices. So it’s like, if you’re really concerned about your actors, you know, they’re not gonna get rich or anything but they might get to go to Park City. [Laughs.]
God Bless America concerns a guy who’s fed up with the degeneration of popular culture and social etiquette, but do you think there’ll be a time in, say, 20 or 30 years, when this era seems polite? Is it just a generational frustration?
Yeah. [Laughs.] That’s what really worries me. You know, when Frank says “Eating rats and maggots on Survivor was shocking, and now it seems quaint.” I do wonder, Where are we gonna go? The pendulum always swings back and forth, but what I’m afraid of is that the pendulum has just been let go. [Laughs.] It’s like, we’re not getting to the end of the swing, it’s actually only starting. [Laughs.] That’s the thing that kind of terrifies me. It’s funny when you go back and watch Network, the things that he predicted are tame compared to what we really did become.
Right. You’re talking about John Waters before, and as outré as Pink Flamingos still is, a lot of his bad taste sensibility has been assimilated into the mainstream over the years.
Right, yeah. But I still find him subversive, because, truly, sincerity is the ultimate form of being subversive. [Laughs.]
Talking about you doing — or not doing, as it were — comedy, do you get offers to bring out the old Bobcat persona?
Oh, as a comedian, as an actor? A little bit, but I always say that I retired from acting at the same time that they stopped hiring me — so that worked out well. [Laughs.] But I do get offers, you know; I did make a decision, as a comedian, to kind of stop performing in that persona, ’cause I didn’t feel it working out anymore. And I know that cost me money, because if I was willing to go on the road as a nostalgia act I could make money, but I just couldn’t really feel good about it. I’m always polite when people want to talk to me about things they recognize me from or known me from — and I understand that, and I am polite — but I’m usually more interested in what I’ve just made, or what I’m trying to make, rather than what I did 25 years ago.
I don’t know if this falls into the category of nostalgia, but Shakes the Clown is a favorite comedy of mine.
A friend introduced me to it, and he got into it, I think, ’cause he read an interview where [record producer] Steve Albini was saying how much he loved it…
Oh really? That’s funny. That’s really crazy. I didn’t know that [Albini] liked the movie. That’s really funny because as a comedian I toured with Nirvana, which is funny. I never remember talking to Kurt [Cobain] about Shakes — I don’t know if he ever saw it — but he knew a lot of my standup, which was great.
He was a fan.
Yeah. In fact, [Dave] Grohl — when I first met Kurt, he wasn’t even in the band — but Grohl, ’cause he used to live with Kurt, he was like, “I used to have to listen to that album all the time.” Which was my album. [Laughs.]
Is Shakes a world you’d ever consider going back to?
Oh, no. I don’t think I’d have the energy to do it. But I jokingly would always love to do, like, the idea would be an origins story of Binky and Shakes as teenagers, and do an angry teen movie with those two, you know, and how the rivalry was formed and stuff.[Laughs.]
God Bless America opens in theaters this week and is available to watch through VOD.