Throughout his career, there’s been a disconnect between Bobcat Goldthwait’s dim, high-pitched persona in ’80s mainstream comedies like the Police Academy movies and Hot To Trot, and the dark sophistication of his stand-up comedy and the four independent features he’s written and directed. In recent years, he’s given up acting altogether to focus on the latter pursuits, and critical acclaim has followed. After taking a long break from his 1991 debut feature Shakes The Clown—the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies, as The Boston Globe dubbed it at the time—Goldthwait invested his own money in 2006’s Sleeping Dogs Lie (a.k.a. Stay), a surprisingly perceptive relationship drama that turns on an incident of bestiality in its heroine’s past. Goldthwait’s talent for high-concept hooks was evident again in 2009’s World’s Greatest Dad, which stars Robin Williams as a father who tries to burnish his son’s reputation after the boy dies from autoerotic asphyxiation.
In his new comedy God Bless America, Joel Murray (best known as Freddy Rumsen on Mad Men) stars as Frank, a middle-aged, divorced cubicle drone who tries to commit suicide after he’s diagnosed with a brain tumor. But as he watches a teenage girl on TV throw a fit after getting the wrong-colored car for her birthday—a reference to MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen—Frank decides to kill her instead, along with other targets of his ire. When Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), one of the girl’s classmates, witnesses his rampage, she gleefully takes up arms as well, and the two embark on a killing spree. Goldthwait recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the real targets of Frank’s hostility (and his own), his decision to work outside the Hollywood system, and the scourge of anonymous Internet commenters.
The A.V. Club: How did the idea for God Bless America come to you? Was there a “eureka” moment when the concept really crystallized?
Bobcat Goldthwait: I would say that the actual “eureka” moment isn’t that interesting. There’s a commercial in the movie where there’s a pig that’s farting at the screen, and it says, “You can get a ringtone, texts,” you know. It’s the funniest, and it’s based on a real commercial. There was just one night I was watching TV with my wife, and this animated elephant dances out—by the way, we used the exact same animation, just made it a pig—and it sticks its ass toward the screen and flatulates and says, “It’s the funniest text,” you know, “text F-A-R-T!” And I just looked at my wife and I said, “All right, let’s just go get some and start…” [Laughs] Neither one of us were amused. So then I wrote the screenplay for her for a Christmas present.
AVC: Just like that commercial, the made-up clips in the film are really not horrible distortions of what they’re representing.
BG: Yeah. None of it’s parody, it’s recreation. The character based on Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck and those kinds of people—he’s just paraphrasing stuff they actually said. The TV shows are based on real shows and things I’ve seen on those shows, or just hybrids. So no, I didn’t see a woman on TV say, “You motherfuckin’ pooped in my food,” but I did see a woman pee in another woman’s food on The Bad Girls Club. So it’s not a parody. I just re-film these things.
AVC: I think that Flavor Flav show Flavor Of Love had some pooping incident as well.
BG: Yeah, it had that woman who pooped up the stairs. [Laughs.] See, that’s why sometimes people go, “Oh, well these targets are low-hanging fruit,” or they’ll say that some of the references in the film are dated. Well, the reason the references are dated is, I did make a decision a few years ago to stop watching. I’m just like Frank, except I didn’t get a gun. I just said, “You know, I’m not going to be part of this.” So that was my own thing…
AVC: There’s an element in the movie where Frank is repulsed by these aspects of culture, but at the same time, he’s either drawn to them or can’t escape them.
BG: In my mind, he can’t escape them. Maybe it’s not clear enough, but when he’s watching that TV in the middle of the night, it’s because the neighbors’ baby is crying through the wall—I guess he could have put headphones on, music or something—not that he’s drawn to it. When Frank goes into the office, everybody’s talking about what they saw on American Idol. Here’s the thing: When Charlie Sheen was having manic episodes, I didn’t read about it or watch it. I just kind of avoided it, but I had to hear about it all the time, you know? And the amount of glee that was involved in attacking this person… apparently most of America has never dealt with anyone that suffers from mania, because they thought it was so funny, you know, instead of sad.
AVC: How much did you want the viewer to connect to and engage with Frank’s actions? How much are we supposed to be turned off by them? There’s a kind of cathartic excitement to watching him go on a rampage, even though he is a murderer.
BG: This wasn’t really like a laundry list of what I don’t like. These are just things that I wanted to use—big, broad, general symptoms of what I see that’s wrong with us. [Laughs.] I wasn’t trying to find other people that go, “Yeah, I hate those, too!,” you know? I don’t really care about that. The movies I make are really, really, really small, and they’re just personal. How people are going to react to them—that’s the last thing on my mind. I think sometimes people believe I make movies where I intentionally sit there by the computer and go, “Well this ought to freak everybody out!” No, this is the kind of stuff that comes out of me. And as far as it being cathartic, the cathartic element wasn’t what I was going for with the movie. What I was going for was, I see all these people acting this way, and I want them to know that not everybody thinks it’s awesome. Not everybody’s cool with it.
AVC: Acting in what way?
BG: That they’re completely uninterested in how their actions actually hurt or affect other people. I certainly am not pro killing people. [Laughs.] Everything has to go to such a nasty and hostile “us versus them” place. Like, heaven forbid you write a favorable story about me, because all the comments are going to be people who aren’t that clever trying to be clever underneath it. [Laughs]. They can’t just read and go, “Oh, maybe I’d like this movie.” They have to say, “Yeah, well he was in that talking horse movie” [Makes a farting noise]. You know?
AVC: So you really feel like you’re more addressing hostility in the culture more than, say, a debased culture?
BG: Yeah! The hostility is what I was trying to examine in this movie and just throw it back on the laps of people that are just nasty for no reason. And I wasn’t thinking, “Boy, would it be fun to shoot the girl on My Super Sweet 16.” Really, the message there isn’t toward those girls. I couldn’t care less about them. I really wanted to say, “Fuck you, MTV. Go fuck yourself.” [Laughs.] That’s the message. I have no ill will toward some dopey rich kid who wants to be on a TV show or…
AVC: The parents…?
BG: I don’t really care about them, either. You can’t fix those people. You can’t get to those people. This movie is more for the people who know better and make the decision to air this stuff. Because it is profitable, and it is lucrative. So I could have made a whiney movie or a documentary about how nasty our culture is, and a couple of other people that may see things the way I do would have liked it. Or I could have made a comedy that was very aggressively saying, “Cram it” to all these people, and that’s what I chose to do.
AVC: You’ve cited Network as an influence. Peter Finch’s “I’m mad as hell” speech strikes a similar chord to some of Frank’s speeches here, but there’s a point at which Finch’s message is co-opted and becomes sort of cartoonish. How do you see Frank’s journey in relation to Peter Finch’s in that movie?
BG: At the beginning of the movie, when Frank’s saying all these things, it’s a little bit how I feel, and it’s 100 percent how that character feels. And hopefully other folks can relate to what he’s saying. Later on in the movie, when he’s saying that stuff—and I don’t know if this works for people—you’re not supposed to be going, “Yeah, fuck yeah! You’re right, Frank!” The wheels should be falling off of what Frank’s saying. And then, spoiler alert, when he actually shoots this representation of innocence, that’s the point of the movie that we’re all guilty.
The subtext—when I say shit like “subtext,” I want to throw up a little in my own mouth—but the subtext is that Frank’s trying to hold everybody up to these principles that he wishes everybody would live by. But what happens is Frank actually finds himself attracted to the kid in the movie, something that he expounds on and says that other people are horrible for doing that. Frank realizes that he is human and that he’s just as guilty as everyone at the very end of the movie. So his speeches do become cartoonish. The wheels do fall off because we’re all guilty, and that’s why it’s written that way. Hopefully it works for people.
I mean, that’s the journey, if we want to talk Joseph Campbell crap. It’s not supposed to be, he starts with this thing, and we all identify with it, and then at the end of the movie he’s still saying that stuff, and we all identify with it. That would be horrible. I have noticed some people will go, “Well this is getting repetitive,” and it’s like, “Hmm, you’re not—well, okay, I was giving you a little more credit.” [Laughs.] People say the movies I make are dark, and I just watched 21 Jump Street, and in the end the guy picks up a penis with his mouth that’s been shot off. He shoots his own cock off and then—or someone shoots his cock off—and then he picks it up with his mouth. That’s a thousand times weirder than anything I’ve ever put on screen.
AVC: You can hear the comedian’s voice in many of Frank’s monologues. Was the process of writing this something akin to the process of crafting a standup routine at times?
BG: I didn’t really see it that way. I just thought that this is how this guy would talk. I didn’t really think of it in terms punchline, punchline, punchline. I was just thinking about Frank. Joel [Murray] says Frank is me, so maybe my critics are right and maybe this is just a diatribe of an old guy yelling, “Get off my lawn.” But I don’t really see it that way. Yet all the characters in the movies I write are based on me, like it or not, even Melinda [Page Hamilton’s] character [who commits bestiality] in Sleeping Dogs Lie. [Laughs.] So, you know, I’m lazy.
AVC: Your films have a kind of “Trojan horse” effect. They all have these really big conceptual hooks, but there’s a point at which we discover something more subtle and intimate below that. Do you think that’s a fair thing to say? Something like Sleeping Dogs Lie fits in a log line…
BG: And those log lines are what prevents people from seeing them, I think. People that would enjoy them.
AVC: But a lot of independent films are built on a lot of vague plot threads that connect. And yours start with these crystal-clear concepts that people can get and then the movies themselves…
BG: And then I sneak ’em—
AVC: Is that just the way your mind works?
BG: I’m assuming that’s how my mind works, because even when I did standup, I would always start with some tremendous hole and then try to dig myself out of it. Or when I started, when I was a younger man. Maybe some day I’ll do a biopic or something, or something based on a true story, and then I’ll try to be as faithful to it. But of the last three movies or the four movies that I wrote and directed, I always do see them in terms of a fable, even though the main characters’ acting is done super straight and realistic. But the stories themselves are never supposed to be realistic. The whole point of [God Bless America] was like, “I don’t have an answer, you know. I really do question, ‘Where are we going?’ and stuff like that.” I’m not like a comedian that sits around and is bitter. I don’t curse Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook, you know? [Laughs.] I don’t really care about any of this stuff. I’m just talking about the day-to-day nastiness and how everything is… it’s like what Frank says, “A burrito is edgy now,” you know? [Laughs.]
AVC: There’s a certain point at which this film opens up and becomes a road movie. What were the challenges and opportunities that that posed for you as a filmmaker?
BG: The budgets on my movies are miniscule. It probably cost about what 35 seconds of John Carter cost to make this movie. [Laughs.] It was cool that Darko [Entertainment] gave me enough bread to go to New York and shoot—we stole scenes, we didn’t have permits. When people would start looking down in our lens, busting the shots, I would start doing this spazzy kind of hippie dance, and people would just start looking at me and not at the camera, which is funny. They were like, “Isn’t that Bobcat Goldthwait? That’s really sad, isn’t it?”
The budget was a challenge. I played in Peoria last night, got up, did the wacky morning radio in Peoria, then came here [to Chicago], and then I’ll go back here and do two more shows. So I do standup, and that’s how I pay my rent and pay my bills. I don’t finance these movies; there’s a misconception that I do. I did finance Sleeping Dogs Lie, my friend and I, and we shot it for $20,000 with a crew from Craigslist. I’m going to continue to make movies, and I make them because they’re what I write. I don’t sit there and think about getting jobs directing studio pictures, and I don’t even think in terms of if they’re going to get into festivals. Every time a movie of mine is accepted in a festival, I’m really happy and shocked, sincerely. I don’t really have a game plan. I’m not sitting at home going, “I’m going to blow everyone’s minds!”
AVC: It’s fortunate that you have this other source of income, rather than having to worry about making it as a filmmaker. That would completely change what you do.
BG: Yeah. I wouldn’t do it then. Because I tried to do that for almost 25 years, tried to make things within the system. I was really unhappy, and whenever I had a chance to be in stuff, that was a very miserable process. So I jokingly say I retired from acting the same time they stopped hiring me. But that’s very true, you know? And now I take voice work, and I try to get voice work, and I try not to act. I don’t really enjoy it. I don’t think I’m very good at it. People would be surprised at things that I have turned down. They would go, “Well, why wouldn’t you go on 30 Rock?” I don’t have a problem with that show. I just don’t have an interest in perpetuating myself as a personality. I really just want to make movies. I don’t want to be famous for even making them. I just really like telling my little stories.
AVC: So you feel like anything you do is going to be written and directed by you at this point? Do you see yourself continuing in this vein of dark comedy?
BG: No. There’s two screenplays I wrote. One’s a G-rated movie and one’s a PG. One’s a musical that I wrote based on a Kinks album from the ’70s, Schoolboys In Disgrace. And [Kinks singer] Ray Davies and I have been working on trying to get this movie going now for a little while, and I will never give up on it because it’s my dream project. So I want to do a musical. And like I said, I wrote this one picture, which is more—you know, subconsciously I always have somebody in mind when I’m writing a movie, and sometimes people get it, but I don’t really expect them to get it. I hope they don’t. But like Sleeping Dogs Lie, subconsciously or not, I was thinking of Woody Allen-type movies. So it was like a Woody Allen movie, but my take on it. Or, you know, World’s Greatest Dad, I was thinking a lot about Harold And Maude, but also Wes Anderson, too, on that one. And this one, it doesn’t have the tension of a Tarantino movie, but I certainly was thinking of Tarantino. I mean, when the girl’s brain gets shot in the windscreen, that’s a direct rip-off from Pulp Fiction. But there is a joke in there, too, that I hope works for people. [Laughs.]
Here’s the thing. The last two movies [Sleeping Dogs Lie and World’s Greatest Dad] kind of came and went. People didn’t notice them. And there’s a real comfort level to that. I don’t know what I would do if suddenly something I did was on people’s radar, you know? … I just had this woman come up to me, and she goes, “I saw the trailer for your new movie.” And I was like, “Oh, I didn’t make it for you.” [Laughs.] That’s what I thought! I go, “Oh, oh!” And she goes, “It looks good!” And I was like, “Oh!” And I thought to myself, “Oh no, what have I done?” [Laughs.] “You’re not my target audience!”
AVC: You screened God Bless America in front of the midnight crowd at Toronto.
BG: Yeah, it premièred there.
AVC: Did you stick around and see what the audience thought of this film? Was there something instructive about how they responded to you?
BG: We sat there, and they were cheering Frank, they were cheering him early in the movie, cheering his early speeches. And I sincerely never thought that was going to happen. Joel and I both looked at each other like—well, I’ve got to tell you, I actually started welling up a little bit. I didn’t think this was going to connect with people in such a large way. But, really, I’m genuinely surprised that these movies work for anyone outside of people who sit on my couch and watch TV with me at night. [Laughs.]