You might better know comedian-director Bobcat Goldthwait as Zed from Police Academy, but these days he makes his own movies: His World’s Greatest Dad, starring Robin Williams and out tomorrow, tells the dark story of a high-school poetry teacher who uses an unfortunate familial mishap to further his own writing career. Goldthwait — surprisingly soft-spoken in person — rapped with Vulture recently about his stand-up, his move to behind the camera, and the actor he originally wrote Dad for.
How does your earlier stand-up and film work affect you today?
I’m like Rip Van Comedian. I wake up 25 years later, my act’s shit, and I hate doing stand-up. Who the fuck am I? If I’m lucky enough to keep making movies, I realize I come with all this baggage. Sometimes when I hear the descriptions of the movies I make — the dude from Police Academy made a movie, oh, brother — I don’t think I would go to them. I joke about this, but it is really true: A lot of people think I’m dead. I don’t think it’s just them confusing me with that character. A lot of people think I’m dead because they don’t see me in anything.
But that also frees you up, right? Did Robin Williams have any reservations about this role?
What’s weird is that I didn’t write with him in mind. I wrote with Philip Seymour Hoffman in mind. If I was gonna write a movie for Robin, I wouldn’t make him a poetry teacher. [Laughs] I think the character he plays is closer to he and I in real life than people would think. I think both he and I, as middle-aged men, had to make a decision to grow some balls. Sometimes people go, “I didn’t like the character of Lance at the beginning of the movie,” and I go, “Yeah, you shouldn’t.” He wants to be rich and famous to meet a bunch of broads. He thinks that can fix him. You’re not supposed to like him, but you’re supposed to relate to him. Either you know people like that or you yourself should grow up. People are so used to pandering, so that every character in a movie is likable. So stupid.
All four of the movies you directed — Shakes, Windy City Heat, Sleeping Dogs Lie, and World’s Greatest Dad — deal with the consequences of self-delusion.
For some reason, I’m super-obsessed with the lies we tell ourselves. During the first twenty years of show business, I just did what people asked me to do. Now, I do what I want to do instead of what I can do. I changed my lifestyle and spent less money. I stopped perpetuating this persona or even promoting myself. I’m only interested in promoting these new movies now. I jokingly talk about how I’m not acting because nobody’s asking me. That’s not true. There are enough reality shows that need eighties has-beens that I could be working every goddamn day of the week.
When did you first get behind a camera?
I think the very first thing I directed was a short movie that parodied what it was like to be in Police Academy. It was called The Making of Bikini School III. That was to see if I could direct, since I didn’t have a reel. It was something that helped me do Shakes. It was a mockumentary where we were talking to the cast and crew of Bikini School III. They clearly all hated each other. I think it was the first thing Kathy Griffin ever did. The other people in it were Tom Kenny, David Spade, and a lot of people who went on to be in Shakes. It was a pretty good cast.
Then Shakes helped you land a TV gig, when Jimmy Kimmel hired you to direct segments for The Man Show.
Jimmy and his family actually liked that movie. Once he brought me on, he didn’t know if I was going to go over budget, so he was pretty happy that I was really into getting things done. Even as an actor, I was interested in how things were done. Maybe I should’ve been working on my acting chops.
Since you were already in the system as a TV director, why did you decide to switch to indie movies?
When I wrote Sleeping Dogs Lie, my manager called me up and said, “I need you to come into the office.” I come into the office, and he’s got these other people from his firm sitting around his desk, and they go, “We think this is a really well-written script … but we’re not sending it out because we’re worried about what people think of your mental health.” I realized that this was never going to work. I just started writing stuff and wasn’t even thinking about making it. I wasn’t thinking about who could play a part or what audience it would reach. I just started writing, and it was so much easier.
Since you worked with Dave Chappelle, it’s interesting to compare your career with his. He quit the business, while you found a new role in it.
Dave understood what made him happy. It wasn’t money or fame; what makes Dave happy is creating onstage. For me, so much of stand-up is not telling stories. You’re just telling jokes. When you’re making a movie that works for people, it’s so exciting.