Bobcat Goldthwait has made a career out of misdirection and defying expectations. He first came to audiences’ attention as a zany law-enforcement officer in the Police Academy movies, and his bankability there snagged him leading roles in films like Hot To Trot. But his ambitions lay elsewhere. In the ’80s, he surprised stand-up audiences with brainy, offbeat, disarming comedy in the Andy Kaufman tradition. And in 1991 he wrote, directed, and starred in Shakes The Clown, a pitch-black comedy that developed a sizable cult following.
Goldthwait then juggled stand-up, TV directing, and bit parts in movies, before reestablishing himself as a writer-director via 2006’s Sleeping Dogs Lie. His touching comedy-drama about trust, relationships, memory, and fidelity just happened to prominently involve an act of bestiality, and it fell victim to mishandled promotion and distribution. But now Goldthwait is back with another daring black comedy centering on a sexual transgression. World’s Greatest Dad stars Robin Williams as a frustrated would-be novelist who fictionalizes a diary for his hateful teenage son (Spy Kids’ Daryl Sabara) after Sabara dies via autoerotic asphyxiation. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Goldthwait about the wisdom of knowing when to quit, the posthumous rehabilitation of Michael Jackson, and opening for Nirvana. (Note: This interview contains some minor spoilers about the film.)
The A.V. Club: How are you?
Bobcat Goldthwait: I’m okey-doke starting the day talking to you about me. I’m in a narcissist’s dream.
AVC: That’s a subject matter you’re comfortable with?
BG: Actually, now that I’m making movies and I’m talking, I’m going, “Oh my God, you’re a gasbag.”
AVC: You recently gave the commencement speech at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. What was it about?
BG: My daughter went to the school, and it’s a very, very progressive and liberal school, and my speech was telling the kids just to always be willing to quit, and that they need to quit a lot in their lives, and keep on quitting, because all the happiness I’ve ever got was when I turned my back on things that everybody else thought would make you happy. I can smell parents’ stomach acid right now, but they know that whole “You gotta get a job and you gotta settle for what people perceive as success” thing is really absurd. That, and I spent most of the speech saying that I’d never done it before, so I read from an Oprah speech. I said, “Thank you, Dr. Walsh,” and “When Steadman’s daughter started to go to Wellesley…” and the kids were like “This stinks,” so they’re laughing. And there’s a lot of hippies at my daughter’s school, so I said, “You know, I’ve been coming to this school for four years, so I’m going to tell you this: Some of you need to take a bath, and you know who you are. You’re not being countercultural or edgy, you’re just being inconsiderate, and it’s really not cool.”
AVC: How do you think your speech went over?
BG: I think it went pretty well. Ken Burns was the next guy up, and he said, “I do three or four of these a year, and that was the best I ever heard.” Because I would also talk about just being honest and true to yourself, which is funny, because those are the same themes that are in World’s Greatest Dad. And this might sound corny and not all that earth-shattering, but for me, these are brand new things I’ve learned as a middle-aged man.
AVC: What good things have come to you in life because of quitting?
BG: About five, six years ago I said, “I may be broke but I quit, man, I’m not gonna pursue being in movies that I wouldn’t watch.” I just turned my back on show business. I jokingly say I retired at the same time people weren’t hiring me anymore. And that’s true, to an extent. But there’s certainly a lot of things out there for me to do if I was interested in continuing to exploit myself, like reality shows and hosting game shows and all that crap. I was like, “This shit doesn’t make me happy at all. I don’t really give a shit about making money and being in the public eye. I really need to make stuff that I would relate to.”
AVC: It seems like you were never that happy doing stand-up and acting. How did you get involved in those things if it was never something you really wanted to do?
BG: Stand-up was interesting to me at the beginning, because I was trying to parody it. My early stand-up was really Andy Kaufman-esque, and then I became the very thing I was making fun of. And Tom Kenny pointed it out recently, he was like, “You lost interest in stand-up when you could no longer make people awkward, when people expected the unexpected from you. People expected to be weirded out.” I said, “That’s true. That’s completely true.” That’s what I like about making movies. I am most comfortable when I am making people awkward.
AVC: Why do you think that is?
BG: I don’t know, but I think I get it from my dad, because my dad used to do stuff like threaten to jump off the top of the refrigerator into an open jar of mayonnaise while he had a crash helmet on. He would do it really serious. He would be like, “Kid, I’m gonna do something that’s never been done before: I’m gonna jump into an open jar of mayonnaise, and I need your help.” And the whole neighborhood would be in our kitchen, and then my dad would climb on top of the fridge, and there would always be some kind of snafu, like it’s the wrong brand of mayonnaise: “Oh, is that Hellmann’s? I can’t do it with Hellmann’s.” So I’m sure that that influenced me at an early age.
AVC: Speaking of awkward and uncomfortable, you opened for Nirvana during their final tour.
BG: Kurt [Cobain] was a fan of my stand-up. I always know that’s startling for people to hear, like Jimi Hendrix saying he likes Buddy Hackett or something. But yeah, he kind of asked me to go on the stage, and I think most comics would be worried about bombing or whatever, but I really didn’t care. At that point in my career, I always thought it was kind of funny to do anything that made it interesting, so if I had to go up in front of a crowd that was waiting for Nirvana and throwing M80s up at me, I kind of thought it was funny. I didn’t think of it like, “Oh I hope they like me.” Because secretly, not even so secretly, I’ve always done stuff that I was interested in doing; I wasn’t really trying to reach out and win everybody over.
AVC: You weren’t bucking for the Bobcat Goldthwait family sitcom.
BG: No. And whenever the Hollywood machinery would put me in that situation, it would end up being a really shitty product and me being really miserable. You know, I really want to make a short where the 47-year old me time-travels back and talks the 20-something-year-old Bobcat out of being in Police Academy 2.
AVC: You think your life would have been entirely different had that not happened?
BG: I don’t know. I do believe that all the things I’ve been through helped me prepare to be a director. So I’m not in a hurry to shut the door on it. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if I had a manager that said, “Oh, you want to act in tiny independent movies? Yeah, I can do that.” But no one ever thinks in those terms. They’re only thinking of Hot To Trot 2, only this time it’s a talking weasel.
AVC: World’s Greatest Dad is strangely timely, in that what’s happening to Michael Jackson’s reputation mirrors what happens to the son. He goes from being this weird, creepy outcast to being an icon of everything that’s good in humanity.
BG: Totally. I’ve been onstage talking about that and getting booed, because people want to reinvent this guy who had all these alleged—well, not even alleged. I saw footage of the guy dangling a baby out of a window. Um, that’s not a hero, that’s a creep. That’s a bad, bad man. There’s no reason you should ever dangle a baby off a balcony. And to reinvent him just because he sang well and could dance… That, by the way, is why America will never seriously address the problems of sexual abuse toward children, and child abuse, because we’re in such a state of denial. And I’m sorry for the Jackson family. I’m sure they feel bad that he perished. I don’t know. I think maybe someone should rescue those kids that are over there now, before Joe Jackson starts beating them and making them sing. I’m sure Joe Jackson right now is going, [Sings “ba baba ba ba ba” from “ABC.”] and “You’re singing it wrong.” And it’s like, “Well, I’m not really related to you. I don’t have any of your chromosomes.” But that’s human nature, you know. Human nature wants to completely rewrite history so it can be comfortable. Without getting too profound, I’m pretty sure that’s where the invention of the afterlife comes from. “We don’t really become worm food. We go to a magical place with bunnies and rainbows.”
AVC: Why do you think people feel the need to romanticize and idealize the dead?
BG: Let’s say you go to school with a guy and he’s a real cock, right? And then he dies. And now you go, “Oh, you were a great guy,” because you feel guilt. You want to rewrite it; you feel bad for having sincere, genuine feelings toward someone, so you rewrite it. You know, there are children who are really bad and not adorable and not cute, who don’t deserve any respect at all.
AVC: Watching World’s Greatest Dad, I thought about how if I’d died at 15, I wouldn’t have been that different from the son in the film: a big ball of hate who didn’t contribute much to the world. Do you think the son would have outgrown his bratty teenage petulance if he’d lived?
BG: No. I think he would have, at best, probably been some rapey creep that got into a frat. But I can’t even imagine that happening to this guy. I envision him… the only thing that might have been different is, he might have discovered grass and just continued to sponge off his dad and be a real shitbird. I never thought he would have evolved into anything else. The difference between you and me and Kyle is, clearly we have an imagination, and Kyle has no imagination. I always would explain that to all the different departments that the real villain in this movie is a lack of imagination. The kids at school all have no imagination, and Kyle represented that the greatest. As soon as that computer came into his room, he didn’t have to think about anything.
AVC: It seems like when these kids looked at Kyle after he died, they saw him as a mirror in which their best selves were reflected.
BG: It’s funny, because I have the jock kid say—and I know that’s a lot like Heathers—but he’s saying he’s gay at one point, he’s saying this; he’s nothing. He doesn’t know what he is. He’s just whatever he thinks is going to get the most reaction from people. Like, “I almost committed suicide, too, bro” and “I’m gay,” and “I was just like him.” It’s that weird need to make tragedy about us. When you look at 9/11, there’s people who really died and family members who really suffered. And then I would be in Montana, and a guy would go, “You know, I was close to Ground Zero.” And it’s like, “What are you talking about? You‘re in Montana.” Everybody had to make it about them.
AVC: There’s a certain narcissism to grieving sometimes.
BG: There’s so much narcissism. In fact, with Michael Jackson, I think those people… They aren’t even waking Michael, they’re waking the Michael Jackson of ’84. They never were given a chance to give their respects to the death of the guy they loved back in ’84.
AVC: It seems that when people die, their best self is what lives on.
BG: You say that, but I know when I die, my obituary is going to have a picture of me in a police uniform.
AVC: There was a piece about you in The New York Times recently. The gist was, “Police Academy funnyman Bobcat Goldthwait wants to direct.” It’s been 19 years since you directed Shakes The Clown. Do you get tired of that particular narrative?
BG: No, no, not at all. I understand what people know me from, and really, that doesn’t bother me. It actually just makes me happy that people are discovering these movies. I’m really glad that people are seeing the movie and reacting very positively toward World’s Greatest Dad. And honestly, in the back of my mind, I’m like, “Oh good, maybe some of them will see Sleeping Dogs Lie now.” I think they’re very similar in tone.
AVC: A couple years back, a friend of mine saw Sleeping Dogs Lie at Sundance, and he told me it was the movie of the festival, but it needed to be sold in a subtle, tasteful manner that didn’t give everything away. Then it was on DVD with cover art of a slobbering dog and a sexy woman.
BG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I gotta tell you, I was so upset by that cover. It was like the porn cover. It just gives you an idea of how disrespectful they are. They could give a shit about the movie. And by the way, bait-and-switch never works. That movie, they put it out and made it look like a slob comedy or a porno.
AVC: A National Lampoon type thing.
BG: Yeah, best case. That was so infuriating when that happened. But what can I do? It was just the folks involved. They painted me as difficult when I complained about that.
AVC: Could you have done anything?
BG: No, not at that point. Not the DVD. At the point the DVD came out, the company that bought the movie from me had sold it to the company that put out the DVD. And the funny thing is, if some day I make a movie that people go to, you know they’ll repackage that movie again. You know what I’m saying? And they’ll make it look like whatever movie I made that was a success.
AVC: Reduced to a one-line summary, both Sleeping Dogs and Dad sound much broader and coarser than they actually are. You really take the premises in unexpected directions.
BG: That’s how I always think. And I do understand these hurdles. Look, if I heard what the subjects were in the movie and then I heard that I was involved, I would think that they’re these other kinds of comedies. So I understand that. It is a hurdle to get past.
AVC: Both these films center on an act of sexual transgression. Why do you think that is?
BG: I don’t know. You’d really think I’m a deviant, and also a lot hornier than I really am. I think it’s just the kind of stuff I think is funny. These are other things that my friends and I talk about. We don’t sit around talking about bestiality porn… Well, online we do. The difference is, we joke about it, but we don’t watch it.
AVC: It might also have something to do with your interest in making people uncomfortable.
BG: Yeah, yeah, that is what interests me.
AVC: If people are lured in by the scandalous subject matter, they’re probably going to be even more surprised at the films’ emotional content.
BG: I think anybody that is drawn to these because of that is going to be gravely disappointed. If you watch Sleeping Dogs Lie thinking it’s going to be an exploration of bestiality, or it’s a bestiality comedy, then you’re going to be disappointed. But I also think it’s funny that anybody can think that these are shocking in a day and age when most 10-year-olds have already seen “2 Girls 1 Cup.”
AVC: It seems like the bar for being shocking keeps getting higher.
BG: It doesn’t even exist anymore. What am I going to do to shock people? Seriously, try to get The Fisting Musical off the ground? Its really at this point, there is no bar.
AVC: You’ve said the protagonist of World’s Greatest Dad represents you. Do you see yourself as a frustrated artist?
BG: No. Well, yeah, there’s all that kind of stuff. But he really… Robin Williams’ character Lance represents me in the fact that as a middle-aged man, the character Lance had to grow up. He has to say, “Oh, I’m not going to have people in my life who don’t treat me well. I’m just going to be a writer for the right reasons, not because I want money or fame.” And I’ve really made all those decisions. You know, “I’m not going to be in this relationship, because it doesn’t make me happy. I’m not going to be in and write movies and TV shows that I wouldn’t necessarily watch.”
AVC: Was it tough reining Robin Williams in?
BG: No, because he and I were on the same page from the very first day. I think other directors tend to see it as, “I’m making my movie, and then I have Robin, who’s a great actor, and then I’ll give him takes where he ad libs.” And that wasn’t how I approached it. He and I are friends. We would discuss everything to death and then film it, and then we would try things different ways. But it wasn’t really, “Oh, Robin’s just this crazy improviser and I’m going to tolerate it.” He would say, “Can I try this?” and I would go, “That’s a great idea, let’s try it.” So he and I were just like on the same page.
AVC: It would make sense for him to start doing John Wayne or something.
BG: [Laughs.] It would make as much sense as me doing the DVD commentary in the Grover voice.
AVC: Was it difficult not going for laughs? Specifically in the scene where he finds the son dead, it could have been played for broad comedy, but instead, it’s agonizingly sad.
BG: Yeah, because I wanted people to identify with Lance, so that’s why I didn’t go for comedy there. I’ve never really concerned myself with making people laugh in these movies. I’m really more concerned with saying, “Here are these people you can identify with.” And I say “identify” instead of “characters you like,” because I think that’s the problem with comedies. The leading men or women in comedies don’t have any flaws. They don’t have any growth. It’s just, shit happens to them, and they react to it. And I’m not interested in doing movies where your leading man rescues a puppy in the first scene so you can see he’s an okay dude. As I keep making movies, I hope they’re about flawed people. And if I make the movies that I’m writing right now, they’ll actually be a lot more flawed.