Bobcat Goldthwait: From ‘Self-Destructive’ Stand-Up to Trusted Comedy Director
The iconic stand-up comedian sits down with Matt Wilstein to remember his ‘best friend’ Robin Williams and talk about his new truTV series ‘Misfits & Monsters.’
LOS ANGELES, California—In the first episode of Bobcat Goldthwait’s Misfits & Monsters, a new anthology series premiering Wednesday on truTV, Seth Green plays a voiceover actor whose popular cartoon creation, Bubba the Bear, is literally trying to kill him.
“I thought maybe it had something to do with my friend Tom Kenney,” Goldthwait says, referring to the voice of Spongebob Squarepants. “But the reality is that he loves Spongebob and they have a healthy relationship.” It wasn’t until later that Goldthwait’s daughter Tasha, who serves as a costume designer on the show, told him, “Don’t you get it? That’s you.”
She was talking about the comic persona that defined Goldthwait’s stand-up career throughout most of the the 1980s and ‘90s. During the original comedy boom, Goldthwait shot to unlikely superstardom by playing a deliberately loud and obnoxious version of himself who actively alienated his audience at every opportunity.
Goldthwait has just come from taping an episode of the WTF podcast in his friend and collaborator Marc Maron’s new garage. With his white goatee, black-rimmed sunglasses and large white cowboy hat, he could pass for any other aging hipster in the swiftly gentrifying L.A. neighborhood of Highland Park. His soft-spoken voice bears almost no trace of his iconic onstage character.
“I’m never going to be able to change people’s perception of me,” he tells me, slowly sipping from a tall mason jar of cold brew coffee at a sidewalk table. Goldthwait realized that the episode is about him “accepting” that fact and moving forward. “I don’t really spend too much time being consumed with that,” he says. “I’m just really into telling stories. And doing an anthology series gave me the chance to do a whole bunch.”
The show’s second episode features David Koechner as a Donald Trump-esque used car dealer-turned-politician who gets elected president even after voters find out he’s a murderous werewolf. Goldthwait wrote the script after watching Trump win the 2016 election despite the release of the Access Hollywood “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape. “It’s how I see the world,” he says of the show’s uniquely satirical perspective. Future episodes will feature comedians Michael Ian Black as Satan and Bridget Everett as a racist mermaid.
Goldthwait’s love for “mashing genres” started all the way back with his first feature film, 1991’s Shakes the Clown, in which he cast himself as a depressed birthday clown who is accused of murder. “It was a noir, alcoholic clown film,” he says, explaining that it was intended to be humorous commentary on movies about recovery. “But I think people thought I was trying to be serious.”
From the time he was a young kid growing up in Syracuse, New York, Robert Francis Goldthwait loved stand-up comedy. He remembers being nine years old and watching George Carlin perform on Dinah Shore’s show. When he realized that people actually made a living telling jokes, he says, “a light went on” in his head. Soon, he discovered more experimental comics like Andy Kaufman and Brother Theodore.
“My early stand-up was more making fun of stand-up,” he explains. “I’d go on stage and read a ‘Dear John’ letter and break down in tears.” Then he’d start telling a joke like, “My wife is so fat,” to which the audience would reply, “How fat is she?” Goldthwait would shout back, in his high-pitched squeal, “I told you, I don’t even have a girlfriend!”
“Then I became the very thing I started making fun of, because at a really early age I started getting work,” he says. Goldthwait made his first appearance on Late Night with David Letterman just before his 21st birthday in 1983. Introduced by Letterman as “one of the strangest comedians we’ve seen in a long while,” he opened with 30 seconds straight of screaming “thank you very much” into the microphone. He ended by telling the audience, “If I didn’t make you laugh, I hope you at least talk about me at work tomorrow.” When he finally sat down on the couch, Letterman jokingly asked him if he has any trouble “relaxing or unwinding” after a set.
When I ask how physically taxing that iconic scream was on his body, Goldthwait jokes, “I think it was probably more physically taxing on the audience.” He adds, “My throat would be all blown out and I would be exhausted.” But the performers he admired were people like Iggy Pop and Pete Townsend. “So to physically expend all that energy on stage seemed normal.”
Despite his unexpected rise to fame, Goldthwait has learned over the years what it is like to be hated, especially whenever he dares get political. “Every time I go to a march or a rally and I post it on Instagram, people will go, ‘I’m going to unfollow you!’” he says. “And I’m like, I used to play arenas. I’ve lost a lot of fans. I’m fine with that. I’ve had people unfollowing me for years, you’re way behind the times.”
Goldthwait says it was his “frustration” with the way he was being portrayed by others on camera, in films like the Police Academy series — and not his decline in popularity as a stand-up — that made him turn toward writing and directing in recent years.
“Often people who are really well-known and they go behind the camera, it’s like a plan B. But for me, this is plan A,” he says. “When I first started directing, I could have chosen a more lucrative path, with sitcoms and things like that. But I knew enough after the experiences I had in front of the camera that I was not going to do that, because I was just going to work on my own things or work with people I respected.”
Following the critical and commercial failure of Shakes the Clown, Goldthwait struggled for years to get work as a director. But then, in the early 2000s, his friend Jimmy Kimmel hired him to direct sketches for The Man Show. “If Jimmy Kimmel didn’t hire me, I wouldn’t have the kind of career I have,” he says. “And I don’t know what kind of career I have, but he changed my life.”
Goldthwait directed hundreds of episodes of Jimmy Kimmel Live! during the mid-2000s. And while the Kimmel who has delivered emotional pleas on issues like health care and gun control over the past few years may seem different from the one who started out hosting The Man Show, Goldthwait isn’t surprised by the host’s trajectory. “Jimmy has a huge heart, so I think he has more empathy,” he says. “The stuff he does and says resonates more with people because Jimmy is the everyman. So I’m proud of him.”
When Goldthwait first started getting death threats on social media from Trump supporters for voicing political opinions, he reached out to Kimmel to see how he handles the much larger backlash he has received. Kimmel told him something along the lines of, “I don’t consider it a successful day unless I get death threats.”
There is an irony to the fact that Goldthwait’s big break as a director came in late-night television, given that for a long time he was perhaps best known for his outrageous late-night talk show antics. In the spring of 1994, he spray-painted “Paramount Sucks” on the set of The Arsenio Hall Show after the studio cancelled that show and later set Jay Leno’s guest chair on fire.
While The Tonight Show incident got more attention, Goldthwait says what he did to Arsenio Hall’s set was “way crazier.” It’s not like those acts of televised vandalism were “calculated” per se, he says, but rather “I was so angry and self-destructive that I just saw myself being painted into this corner where I would go on these talk shows and seem to do well and people liked me, but I wasn’t getting any other kind of work.”
“I could be pretentious and say it was like Andy Kaufman but taken to the next level,” he says. “But the other part of it was just this anger and rage in me.” Goldthwait knows that people think he was “banned” from The Tonight Show after that, but that’s not what happened. In fact, he came back just seven days later for a bit in which Leno interviewed him while he was buried up to his neck in sand. He got more offers to appear on talk shows after that incident but turned them all down.
“I was actually offered a talk show on CBS at one point and I just didn’t want to do it,” he adds, explaining that he would have taken Pat Sajak’s spot when he left that network in 1990. “But I just didn’t have any interest in that. I think feigning interest in celebrities would have been really hard for me. I don’t have contempt for them, it just would have been boring.”
“I’ve done this a few times in my career, where I just say ‘I’m not doing this anymore,’” he continues. “I wasn’t going to dance for the man anymore.”
As Goldthwait’s own stand-up career slowed down, he began directing specials for a younger generation of comedians like Cameron Esposito, Hari Kondabolu and an upcoming hour from Ron Funches. He also helmed two recent specials for Patton Oswalt, including 2017’s Annihilation, in which the comedian performed material about losing his wife, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark author Michelle McNamara. While it is sometimes hard for viewers to perceive what goes into directing stand-up for TV, one need look no further than the slow zoom Goldthwait employed as Oswalt begins telling the audience about his wife’s death to understand how important it can be.
“I can’t equate losing your wife with losing your best friend,” he says. “But Robin Williams was my best friend so I did feel a connection with Patton. At the end of the first show, we both just broke down in tears and were holding each other.”
This month, HBO will release a new documentary called Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. It features interviews with everyone from Billy Crystal to Steve Martin to Williams’ first-born son Zak. But Goldthwait, who directed Williams in 2009’s World’s Greatest Dad and received multiple requests to be interviewed, chose not to participate in the film.
“There’s a lot of things about Robin that I just choose not to be involved in,” he tells me. “Sometimes I’ll talk about him, but it’s on my own terms. It’s not out of bitterness, but we were really close for 30-something years and we were close because we had very private conversations and a private relationship.”
“I’m still suffering a loss and helping people put a perspective on him, it sounds terrible, but I just don’t want to be involved and I’m not even sure why,” he adds.
Goldthwait says that of all his friends, Williams was the one person he had been “consistently in contact with” for most of his adult life. “And then to have that person gone…” he says, trailing off. “The world has an idea of him and then I have my own relationship with him, so that’s why I’m not involved.”
He says he’ll “never watch” the documentary. “It’s hard for me to watch him at all,” he says. “I don’t know, man, I just miss him.”
While Goldthwait was not interviewed for the documentary, he does appear in a handful of archival clips, including a 2016 podcast interview with comedian Joe Rogan in which he suggests that because Williams was secretly suffering from Lewy body dementia when he took his own life four years ago, he may not have known what he was doing.
“I witnessed him processing reality completely differently than the way everyone else was,” Goldthwait said of Williams at the time. He told Rogan that he wanted to put a “spotlight” on the disease, because “that actually, in my mind, was what was responsible for his demise.”
“That is a really aggressive illness,” he adds now. “He wouldn’t have had much time left.” As is often the case, Williams’ Lewy body dementia was misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s, meaning the actor likely did not know how it was affecting the part of his brain responsible for cognition. “His brain was giving him a lot of misinformation and I believe what drove him to that point was possibly just more misinformation,” Goldthwait adds.
Goldthwait says that the two films he’s “most proud of” are World’s Greatest Dad and his 2015 documentary Call Me Lucky, which he made about another comedian friend who recently passed away, Barry Crimmins. He reveals that Williams gave him the money to start making Call Me Lucky shortly before he died.
Now, he’s in the process of writing a narrative version of Call Me Lucky with filmmaker Judd Apatow, and once considered casting Williams in the lead role. Before he died, Crimmins told him he wanted to be played by Mark Ruffalo. “I want Chris Pine to play me,” Goldthwait joked in response.
Those films share a genuine kindness and humanity that wasn’t always present in Goldthwait’s early work as a stand-up comedian. “I spent a lot of my early career being really venomous on stage and I switched and said I’m not going to do that anymore,” he says, reflecting on his evolution as an artist. “It wasn’t about being a coward, it was more about the wear and tear on my soul, hurting people, going after people, acting like they’re not human beings.”
To this day, he distinctly remembers the moment he finally let his “Bobcat Goldthwait” persona go once and for all.
He was about to perform at Zanies comedy club in Nashville, Tennessee and was feeling “really miserable” backstage. He realized in that moment, “Oh, I don’t dislike stand-up, I really dislike this character. So I had to go on stage and be me. And I did, and people were mad,” he says, laughing.
Now when Goldthwait performs stand-up — mostly in Los Angeles’ “alt” rooms, as opposed to big, touristy comedy clubs — he does so exclusively as himself.
“It’s just nice to connect to an audience and realize that I’m not alone,” he says.