So I’m interviewing Bobcat Goldthwait in a chapel. It was less a deliberate decision — I wasn’t doing some cutesy bullshit Oh it’d be funny to interview Bobcat Goldthwait in a chapel type of thing — than the way things work out at a film festival, where screenings are held in whatever peculiar venues organizers can scrounge up. In this case, the festival was the tiny but mighty Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita, Kansas; the peculiar venue was the city’s 19th-century Scottish Rite Freemasons Temple; and the only available space offering privacy for a chat was a tiny chapel on the third floor. A well-worn pulpit faced three short pews, topped by a pair of thick, old Bibles. “This is so weird,” Goldthwait giggled as we settled into our pew. We talked for half an hour, and neither of us burst into flames.
He was in Wichita to receive the festival’s Ad Astra award, given each year to a filmmaker or actor of note, followed by a presentation of one of their films. Tallgrass screened his 2008 Robin Williams vehicle World’s Greatest Dad, so that’s where we began a conversation about his best friend Robin, provocative filmmaking, and the state of stand-up comedy.
You got to work with Robin, in a leading role, in Dad. How did that relationship start? How long had you been friends when you worked together on that?
I met him like when I was 19, but then a few years later when I moved to San Francisco, that’s when we became good friends. And then later on we just became really close. Making World’s Greatest Dad was funny, because the night before I was going, How’s this going to go? Am I going to tell him to do something, and he’s going to say, “You were in Police Academy and I have an Academy Award”?
But it was nothing like that. We started and it was a collaboration.
I feel like you see that in his performance in that movie. We all have a sense of sort of what we lost from him as a comedian, but I still don’t think he’s fully valued as an actor.
Which is interesting, because he saw himself as an actor first.
Yeah, and he took it really seriously.
I’d love to know a little more about that, about your relationship as an actor and a director.
Oh, it’s interesting. A couple days in, he just goes, “So I’m playing you, right?” And I was like, “No!” And then everyone, like my ex-wife and my daughter, are going, “Yeah, you’re playing him.”
But yeah, these movies are always really tiny and small, and they’re movies that I want to make. No one’s asking for them, and there’s nobody with a chart trying to figure out how much money they’re going to gross. So they’re all very personal.
I also want to talk a little bit about God Bless America [his 2010 feature, in which a terminally ill malcontent and his teenage accomplice cruise the country, executing reality-TV stars, movie-theater talkers, and other societal irritants]. When I saw it, it felt almost incendiary — you made a movie that was provocative, that was willing to grapple with the fact that it was provocative. And you were willing to talk about that and be open about it, which has been on my mind because I’ve been reading these interviews that Todd Phillips is doing about Joker. And I guess my question is: How much of a responsibility do you feel like an artist has when they’re making art that is purposefully incendiary?
Well, it’s interesting now when I look back on it. I feel that it’s even more so — I’m just waiting for the alt-right to discover that movie at this point and come attacking me. Because my whole point of the movie wasn’t, “Hey, you kids get off my lawn,” and, “This is a laundry list of what I don’t like.” It was truly — and I don’t know if it works on this level; I think it’s kind of a flawed movie — but I was definitely trying to ask, “Where are we going?” You know, “This is what’s going on now. Where are we going?” And it exceeded my expectations. It got so worse so much faster than I could even imagine.
But it’s a weird movie. And it definitely came out of my frustration and anger, though I like to say it’s a violent movie about kindness.
But clearly you felt some responsibility, when the movie came out, to at least address that stuff.
There was a minister who came after the movie. And I said, “If we censored violent works of fiction and that would actually prevent people from being violent, I’m all for it. But we’d better start with the Bible first.” I mean, they kill the protagonist in the second part of that book.
The other thing that I kept referencing back to your work as of late is when Joker was coming out, Phillips gave this interview — it’s becoming sort of a pat interview about how you can’t be funny anymore because things are “so woke.” And these guys are … what was the quote? “All the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit because I don’t want to offend you.’” As someone who’s been in comedy for as long as you have now, is this a valid concern, that we’re in a moment where you have to be so careful?
Well, the difference is you say something, and you can say it, and you can ad lib it onstage or say it in a podcast, or tweet, and then people will use it. People are just searching to tear someone down. But … comedy’s always been like that. Marsha Warfield — I’m paraphrasing — but she was just like, “It’s always been about — you were always offending people.” So think about what you’re going to say and stick by it. And then when people are upset, you know, big deal.
I just think that there are people who aren’t used to ever hearing anything negative in their life are now hearing negative. They actually hear negative things and they flip out. I’ve always stood by what I said. And there have been times where I do regret some of the things I said. But I’ve always stood by it, so it hasn’t always just been about getting a laugh for me. There’s people upset by the nature of the persona that I did for years. But I knew why I was doing that persona, and I knew that I actually cared about that persona. I always saw the rest of the society as weirdos. I consider myself an outsider, so I’m not going to take down other people.
But yeah, I just think there’s a lot of extremely wealthy comedians who are not used to anyone criticizing what they’re saying, and they confuse it with censorship. You’re not being censored. If you’re taking a shot at a marginalized group and then you hear back from them, that’s not censorship, you know?
Right. Yeah. And I have a hard time believing when someone’s still making as much money as Dave Chappelle is, or Jerry Seinfeld is, who I know you have some history with …
… and they’re complaining about college campuses. And I’m just like, “Yeah, but you’re doing a residency at the Beacon, who gives a shit?”
But then it’s also just, you vote with your pocketbook. It’s like, I’m not a fan of a lot of the humor that was in Hustler, but even before The People vs. Larry Flynt, I was aware that Larry Flynt had done a very important thing going to the Supreme Court. If any of these comedians were being thrown in jail or really being forced out of work, I would be really concerned. But see, here’s the thing: Ever since I started doing stand-up, people have been complaining about my act! So I’ve never had a grace period where everybody just agreed that I was the funniest comedian.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.