Bobcat Goldthwait tells us why he got rid of “the voice”
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bobcat Goldthwait on his circuitous comedy career and why he got rid of “the voice”

The longtime comedian, and now film director, shares his comedic influences and talks about his new stand-up film, Joy Ride
Photo and image: Bobcat Goldthwait and Dana Gould (Gravitas Ventures)
Photo and image: Bobcat Goldthwait and Dana Gould (Gravitas Ventures)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

To say that Bobcat Goldthwait has had a circuitous career in show business is putting it mildly. While his outrageous stand-up persona got him gigs like the Police Academy movies and an appearance on Comic Relief in the 1980s, in his latest film, Joy Ride, released last month, he explains that he “couldn’t take being famous just for being famous,” which led to a series of destructive talk show appearances. He eventually started making his own small independent movies about stories he cared about—like the 2015 documentary Call Me Lucky, about comedian Barry Crimmins, or the 2017 short American Bigfoot—in addition to directing comedy specials for other comedians like Patton Oswalt, Marc Maron, and Cameron Esposito.

In Joy Ride, he returns to the genre that first brought him fame, back when he was known for an eardrum-splitting voice and frequently over-the-top stage antics more than punchlines. The documentary, which he directed, is a 70-minute journey into a stand-up tour with his friend Dana Gould. It includes a car crash, a look back at both of their careers (as well as a surprising rivalry with Jerry Seinfeld), and a reckoning with their friendship and his return to the stand-up stage. Goldthwait talked to The A.V. Club about the film and his winding journey in comedy.

The A.V. Club: You’re doing so many other things now, like directing and writing, so what brings you back to stand-up?

BG: I guess it sounds corny, but I think it’s in my DNA. It was interesting not doing it for 15, 16 months, and then getting back there. I was like, “Oh, this is who I am.” Actually, there was a time where I thought I hated it, and I was wrong. I just really hated the persona that I was doing. So I had to make a decision to stop doing it. And I did it that one night in Nashville. And I knew I had to go on as myself, and it was funny because people were yelling out, “Do the voice!” and stuff like that. Which is my daughter’s favorite heckle. She likes to yell that out when I’m doing a show.

AVC: How long ago was that, when you quit doing the voice?

BG: It really had to be at least 15 years ago. Maybe even more. Sometimes I would do it in the alt venues in Los Angeles, go up as myself. But on the road, it’s just, there’s this expectation. And I think I had this working-class kind of idea like, “Well, I have to do this show that the people want to see.” And then eventually I realized, I can’t do this anymore. It was just doing an act and not being myself.

AVC: It also must have been really hurting your vocal cords after a while.

BG: I think it hurt other people more to hear it.

AVC: When you were a kid, what stand-ups did you gravitate toward? Who were the people that influenced you?

BG: Well, in the doc, we definitely talk about it a little bit, like Andy Kaufman. Also, when I was a kid and when I discovered Mel Brooks, I saw Young Frankenstein. It was the first time. I was probably 12 or 13. I bought a ticket and watched it and went out in the lobby and bought another ticket and went back in and watched it again. And now I know I could have just sat there.

In Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks took two genres and he did a comedy, but out of all of his movies, that’s the one truest to the story. You know, moments where it’s just sad and you wonder if they’re going to get back together. And because of that, I feel that definitely influenced my movies. Like, I’ll do a movie like Call Me Lucky, which is a film about child abuse, and it’s as dark as it gets, but there’s still comedy in it. So I love mixing genres when I’m making stuff.

So, like Mel Brooks, Monty Python, the original SNL, and George Carlin was a big one. Dana [Gould] and I both had the same experience where we watched George Carlin doing this poem on hair that he did, and he did it on Dinah Shore. And I saw it, and it was the first time I realized people did that for a living, and it made me [think that] I would do this.

But it’s interesting. I was always writing ideas for sketches and movies, even though I was thinking about what I would do onstage is a comic. All this when I was a little kid, and I wish I could find those notebooks. I was just saying that this morning to my girlfriend, Nora, talking about how much George Carlin changed my life. And then later on in life, I worked with him and became friends with him. It was pretty great.

AVC: Looking back at your lifetime of stand-up, do you have a favorite bit?

BG: Oh, that’s interesting, I think I am partial to that bit in the show when I just went up on The Tonight Show and said my dog died and I made an old man jump through hoops instead, you know? I guess I kind of always like the concept stuff more than the actual bits. Like on Comic Relief. I remember saying that people sing better in the shower because they’re relaxed. I think I’m funnier in the shower. I was saying I was nervous. And then I did a monologue in a shower.

So, I think the concepts are kind of funny. I also dressed up as Christ, the amazing Christelle and did magic tricks on Comic Relief. You know, I’m not claiming to be Jesus Christ. I’m merely an illusionist that can re-create some of his more showstopping and startling routines: wine into water, water into wine and back again.

It’s funny, I would have this persona that people liked a lot. So I thought, “Well, why won’t they like it if I dress up as Christ?” And then they didn’t. Or I would say, “Well, they like that character, so of course they’re going to love an alcoholic clown movie, right?” Which is funny because as Shakes [The Clown], I’m not doing the persona that people knew me for. If I had done a character-driven movie on that character, it might have worked for more people. But I was more interested in making a noir drunken clown film, as you do.

AVC: What’s your history like with the documentary format?

BG: I did a documentary, Call Me Lucky, which is a documentary about Barry Crimmins, and am in fact turning that into a narrative movie with Judd Apatow. And then I made other little docs here and there, just going to a Bigfoot conference and filming that. This is the first time that I’m the subject, which is weird. And it wasn’t until I started watching the footage that I realized if I was going to cobble any kind of narrative out of this movie, I would have to make myself the heavy. And that’s what happened. [Laughs.]

AVC: Well, the car accident didn’t hurt.

BG: Yeah, but it’s funny. The car accident, you would assume that there might be a narrative around that, where it was this life-changing moment. In reality, it wasn’t, outside of the fact I don’t remember much around the accident and it took me a while to get my brain working again. But I don’t even think by the time we shot the special, well, whatever we want to call this, I was still completely all the way back, you know?

AVC: Right, like when you can’t remember the word for “concussion” onstage and Dana has to fill it in for you.

BG: [Laughs.] That’s the kind of stuff that I like about the show, capturing those moments that are genuinely ad-libs and they are real. We’re not doing a buddy act. It’s not Abbott and Costello. But I think what we do have in common with, like, Martin and Lewis, not at the end of Martin and Lewis, but in the heyday of Martin Lewis, they really loved each other. And Dana would squirm if he heard me say that. He’s really hard. If I say, “I love you,” he’s like, [Dismissively.] “Yeah, me too…”

So, there’s the suppressed Irish Catholic, the Conan O’Brien, the Dana Gould, and then there’s me, which is more like The Pogues: I’m going to get arrested, I’m going to fight my demons, I am going to cry, and I’m going to fall in love, and I’m going to be very messy. And Dana internalizes. And it’s interesting that I didn’t realize until now that while I was smashing up television shows and all that, Dana, at the same time, he imploded and had to be hospitalized. So right around the same exact time, he went destructive in his brain, and I went destructive on a more public level.

AVC: It’s interesting that you mentioned Martin and Lewis because you two do have that same sort of intriguing tension. Like when you guys start out talking about how you hated each other when you met, and how that built into a relationship, but that’s what makes it so effective. 

BG: It was interesting for me to look back and realize it wasn’t like, “Oh, we met each other and I was polite.” We met each other, and I didn’t like him. I was rude. I made it clear that we were not going to be friends. And that went on for years. And I learned in the movie that he was afraid of me, that he would hide when he saw me coming. I laughed, but that was really hard to take and realize. And my apology to him is sincere and even then it’s funny how he has to deflect it. He has a hard time with that kind of stuff.

AVC: It’s hard to imagine, because you seem like such a nice person. It’s hard to picture you going off like that. 

BG: Well, that’s nice, but I do feel like there was a lot of people that I would aim my anger towards, and in my head I would have some justification for it for him. For him it was because I thought he was being derivative of Tom Kenny, and in my head I was standing up for my friend. But if I psychoanalyze that, it would be that I was probably not comfortable with the parts of me that have been influenced by Tom Kenny. Tom Kenny was the funniest person I ever met in my life. And he and I growing up together, it was always like that. You don’t become a better tennis player by playing tennis with people that are worse than you. You play with people who are better than you. And I don’t think I would be a comedian if it wasn’t for growing up with Tom Kenny.

AVC: With this partnership with Dana in the movie, did you have other comic duos in mind? Like Bob and Ray or someone?

BG: Being onstage with someone else—it’s always been my goal and my dream. And I never really found it. It’s interesting because there was a point in my career where I would do things onstage that people wouldn’t do because I just thought it was funny and I was bored. Like opening for Nirvana. I don’t think a lot of comedians would do that, but it’s kind of funny, you know?

But I definitely regret—like, David Bowie and myself talked seriously about doing performances together. And then when he started saying, “Well, I’ll book small venues,” and he reached out and started sniffing around about doing 2,000-seat theaters. And for him, that’s a small venue. And if that was me and him, they would kill me. But now I would have done it because I just would have thought it was funny. But I think what David and I should have done was booked my shows and then he shows up. Because no one’s going to bum out that he showed up. But people at his shows are going to bum out if I show up. But in hindsight, I would have done it. Even if I got tore apart by the audience now, I would’ve just done it and thought it was funny.

Performing with other people, it’s so much fun. You know, someone just posted about The Meltdown. It was this venue behind a comic book store in L.A. And I was in the back going to go do a show, and then I got a text from Robin Williams, my buddy, and he was buying comic books in the front. And then we went up onstage together and we had fun. And then it was interesting because before The Meltdown closed down, I went up onstage with Noel Fielding and I had so much fun. And as I was walking offstage, there was this really nice sense-memory thing. I realized that I had thought that I was never going to have that kind of fun onstage again after Robin had passed away. And then it was like, I have that kind of fun. I love being onstage with another person. My friend Caitlin Gill and I hosted a show in L.A. for a year called Crab Apples, and I just like playing off of other people. I’m not really about trying to top the other person. I actually enjoy the other person.

AVC: It also takes some of the pressure off, right? And you have this energizing interplay with your partner.

BG: Yeah, Dana and I were doing our shows, not together. We’d come out and we’d flip a coin to see who is going to be the headliner that night. But the time onstage flipping the coin got longer and longer, and then we realized that people were enjoying that a lot better than our individual sets. So, “Let’s just go up and do our acts and intertwine them.” And the interesting thing is, we usually think we’re up there for an hour, but the show itself would be two, two and a half hours long.

Oh, but the movie is only 71 minutes, because at the end of the day, it is a comedy special with a narrative thrown in. And I just think, just for comedy’s sake, you know, I direct a lot of people’s specials for Netflix and things. And so I knew that keeping it around that ballpark is what they’re looking for. But then again, you probably shouldn’t spend a chunk of your time making fun of a guy they paid $200 million to put on Netflix. So I can see where I erred.

Joy Ride is in limited release in theaters and is also available for streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, and other services.