Interview: Bobcat Goldthwait on the Comedy of Disappointment

From a Seattle-made midlife comedy of disappointment is career resurgence found.

Either you saw and remember all those Police Academy movies during the ’80s or you didn’t. As an actor, Bob “Bobcat” Goldthwait is still trying to live those down. The lucky ones among you only later became acquainted with him as a writer/director with Shakes the Clown (1991). Visiting Seattle in July for a stand-up gig, and to discuss his third feature, World’s Greatest Dad (see review), the soft-spoken comic bore no trace of his antic ’80s persona. He’s a calm, thoughtful guy in his late 40s, frank about his desire to make comedies for and about grown-ups—including his own graying boomer generation. Because, really, what isn’t funny about parenthood, heartache, dashed hopes, physical decrepitude, and loss?

That’s the situation for Robin Williams’ character in World’s Greatest Dad, an unpublished writer still harboring dreams of literary greatness. Like many in midlife, he’s in denial, trying to ignore the truth about his awful teen son (Daryl Sabara), engaging in those necessary morning lies in the shaving mirror—that he’s still “young and handsome and sexy,” says Goldthwait.

“These lies that we tell ourselves to get through the day—that’s the only thing that interests me. That’s a topic that’s in everything I write. Because that’s what I do all day—so many lies I have to tell myself. It really is true. That’s what I get to explore when I make movies. And I hope they’re funny for people.”

He and Williams go back to the same comedy stages of the ’80s. It was that friendship, and a shared affinity for the Northwest, Goldthwait explains, that led them to film World’s Greatest Dad in Seattle last summer. “Robin has a fondness for here, playing the Showbox whenever he gets new material. And I’ve had some nice experiences up here. I was fully aware in coming here that I wasn’t going to be making a Seattle movie…just someplace other than Los Angeles. I would actually frame out the Space Needle [from shots]. Because I know I’m not qualified to make a Seattle movie.”

But if not a specifically Seattle kind of parent, Williams faces a common parental dilemma—what to do when children, despite our best efforts, cause disappointment, embarrassment, and worse. Says Goldthwait, “The folks that are actually worried about doing a good job [as parents] seem to do a good job of bringing up kids. The problem is nature versus nurture. After raising a kid, and being exposed to other children, I realized that there are some kids that are bad seeds. I do believe there is an antisocial gene.”

In the film, Williams’ kid doesn’t end up a psycho killer. The plot, though, does hinge on an unexpected death that Goldthwait reluctantly asks us to keep secret. He’s been around Hollywood long enough to heed the marketing department.

“I’m not somebody who’s like, ‘I made a lot of money, so now I can do art films,'” Goldthwait continues. “I do stand-up so I can keep making indies. That’s how I pay my bills. About six years ago I changed my whole life. I got rid of the house. I rent now. I live a very small lifestyle.”

And though he also directs for television—including Jimmy Kimmel Live!—to pay the bills, Goldthwait has little patience for pandering to the 18–34 demo. “Everything’s geared for people who are young. And I’ve jokingly said this—if you make an R-rated comedy, that’s not an adult comedy. When I was a kid, I would go see Woody Allen movies. I’m 12 or 13 years old, and he’s making jokes about Kafka. And I’d never heard of Kafka, so he exposed me to that. That’s my frustration. For me to dumb down what I’m interested in just so I have mass appeal—I’ve already done that [see Police Academy 2, 3, and 4]. And you know what? It wasn’t very fulfilling.”

Instead, Goldthwait wants to explore—and poke fun at—the comic conundrums of midlife. “It is fascinating at middle age. I’ve never had more panic about life and death. These questions—What am I doing? Who am I? What am I going to leave behind? Whenever I think of a movie that means something to me, the filmmakers…were wrestling with these really big questions.”

Williams’ character, he continues, “is very flawed. He’s kind of self-absorbed. He needs to grow up. And I know that’s me and that’s my life. And to an extent that’s Robin’s life. Here we are, these middle-aged guys, suddenly re-evaluating who we are.”

If that sounds hopelessly bleak, remember that World’s Greatest Dad is a comedy—albeit dark, but one with a surprisingly sweet, affirmative tone. One wordless scene sums up the movie nicely, as a distraught Williams, near tears, passes by a downtown newsstand stocked full of porno mags. Its sympathetic proprietor is played by none other than SW political blogger and former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic.

Goldthwait recalls, “I met him with Kurt [Cobain] at an Ann Arbor [Mich.] radio station, because Kurt liked my stand-up and wanted to meet me. I’ve always said that’s like finding out that Jimi Hendrix was a big Buddy Hackett fan. Years later, I emceed and toured with [Nirvana]. Lots of the time, people really didn’t want me there. At that point in my career [the early ’90s], I enjoyed that. I liked the challenge.

“I thought of that scene [as]…I was walking around downtown. I called Krist up, and he goes, ‘Why do you want me in the movie?’ I say, ‘Because you’re funny.’ And he goes, ‘I am?’ Krist is so sweet. His scene played so well, and it’s my favorite kind of scene—people don’t know whether to laugh or not.”