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Recently we had the chance to catch up with Goldthwait and ask him about his current projects, his history with Chicago, and America's addiction to diversion.
Chicago Reader: Hey there, where are you?
Bobcat Goldthwait: I'm calling from Los Angeles.
CR: Ah. What have you been up to?
BG: I just finished a new movie a few weeks ago. I'm over this movie—I wrote it, and it's about a spree killer. We filmed it in May, then we wrapped. Joel Murray, a Chicago-area person, plays Frank—the guy who goes out and kills people.
CR: What is your relationship with Chicago like?
BG: It's touch and go. Chicago has never really embraced me as a stand-up comedian. Even in the 1980s, I couldn't sell tickets in Chicago. The city's big on sarcasm, and maybe when you're just screaming at the top of your lungs, there's no irony there. But it has supported me as a guy who makes movies. I'll take that—it's fine.
CR: Are you in touch with any of the comedians from here?
BG: I have a couple of friends who live there, like Tim Kazurinsky (Goldthwait's costar in the Police Academy movies).
CR: You grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., in a working-class household. How do you think that's shaped your perspective?
BG: It's kind of weird, but I think the movies I make are kind of more personal to me than the stand-up, in a way. Because with the stand-up, you have to keep the dumbest person in the room entertained, and with a movie you don't have to worry about that; they'll just go to Transformers instead of your movie. I guess it would be more lucrative if I kept the theater goers occupied too, though.
CR: With so much focus on pop culture-oriented comedy these days, it seems at times like the working-class perspective has disappeared somewhat from stand-up. Do you agree?
BG: I do think it's disappeared a bit. It's kind of strange. What comes with that background, I think, is a sense of shame—and it seems like there isn't a sense of shame anymore. Now, people are like, 'Why would you even have shame?' The most important thing in American culture now is to be known.
CR: To be a brand.
BG: Yes, everybody's a brand now, and branding themselves. That's what comedy's become—you have to brand yourself. Being a guy or a woman who writes comedy isn't enough: you've gotta Twitter, and there's other social networking, and it's like another job. I really find Twitter to be a great tool for bad spellers.
CR: So you're not big into the Twitter, then?
BG: It's not that I'm not self-absorbed, I'd just rather spend my time doing other things.
BG: That Replacements song was actually the only influence I had on that movie. They were probably a Warner Brothers product at the time?
CR: : Yeah, they'd been signed to Sire by then.
BG: My old headshot is of me wearing a shirt of theirs. I remember playing—they had The Shit Hits the Fans. I used to play that between shows to help clear the room.
CR: Ha! Yeah, that record is a bit of an acquired taste. Do you remember which shirt it was?
BG: I think it was a tour one. I saw them a bunch over the years. I saw the show where [Replacements drummer] Chris Mars quit, and they got a drummer from the audience. And Bob [Stinson, the Replacements' original guitarist, who died in 1995] was still alive. It was pretty amazing.
CR: So, I'm sure many people still think of you as how you were three decades ago, all shriek-y. How do you trace your evolution from that guy into the calmer performer you've become?
BG: Probably seven or eight years ago, I just realized I was doing stuff that I was embarrassed of, or not enjoying. That's when I started making these movies. I jettisoned the persona people may have known me for, and everything kind of changed. Now I'm doing stuff that makes me happy, instead of stuff that makes me embarrassed.
BG: I was only half-kidding about Grover. It really did dawn on me—clearly I was like, 'I like this guy's chops.' Things were always just happening to him, even though he was all hyper. Yeah, I was directing Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Grover was on the show, and that's when it hit me.
CR: What was the voice all about, anyway?
BG: It was easier to hide behind somebody else than to be myself. And I do think even now it's not me 100% onstage. Comedians go up and you're a little more animated. But ... I gotta tell you, I'm not a big fan of comedy. I don't really seek out other comedians, or listen to them to dissect their acts—that all seems very silly to me. I think because of all the podcasts and other things people are doing now, there's this new subgenre that takes comedy really seriously. I don't want to meet or talk to any of those creeps.
CR: Being businesslike really takes the spontaneity out of one's art.
BG: Yeah. Like with the movies, I just write them; I don't write with them being made in mind. I don't enjoy the process, but I write them and get them down so they exist. Then I only send them out to places who will let me make them how I want to make them. I tend to make them with folks who are going to be supportive anyway—World's Greatest Dad, or this new one. I can tell sometimes that people want to make notes, but I say, 'I'd just rather not make the movie.' It's not a passive-aggressive or angry thing, though. And it is a collaborative process—I do listen to people, and they're my friends and peers and stuff.
CR: How has movie-making influenced your stand-up? Do you think you tell more stories now?
BG: I do. And also—I just turned 49—you don't want to do the same act you did at 22 or 23. In some markets I think it would be more lucrative, but I just gotta keep doing what's interesting to me.
As a comedian I've gotten fatter—that's the biggest change in my act.
CR: Material-wise, you don't seem to get hung up on super-topical stuff. I don't see you cracking any Weinergate jokes, for example.
Ah! That's the perfect storm for talk-show hosts. Meanwhile, the Taliban's reuniting: but we've got the Weiner thing to get caught up in. That sort of thing is a big part of the new movie—how everyone spends their time on stuff that's just a diversion. We've got diversion news, diversion politics, diversions from reality. I don't blame people, but it's kind of funny that so many people's conversations are nothing more than them regurgitating what they've heard on a podcast or a TV show. It's one of the things that makes one of the characters in the movie snap—this American Idol-type show where everyone's laughing at a William Hung-like character, and the character, Frank, just can't do it anymore.
CR: You've been sober for about 30 years. Do you think that's helped you to gain certain insights about our culture?
BG: I don't know, I've been sober for so long ... I've always been—I don't think of sobriety as an achievement, so I never talk about it. I'm just like somebody who realized that they were addicted to walking out into traffic—you don't go, 'Great! You're a hero.' I'm not zealous about sobriety—I'm not comfortable around people who don't drink. I'm more comfortable around people who stopped, or still do.
CR: So you think people can become, like, addicted to diversion?
BG: Yeah. It's really weird. In the new movie, the characters—even a burrito has to be an extreme burrito, and in your face.
I'll be happy when I finish editing this movie. I do hope the folks who watch my movies enjoy it.
CR: What else are you working on?
BG: I'm working on a musical based on a Kinks album, Schoolboys in Disgrace. Ray Davies is involved as a producer. We keep working on it. It's just a larger movie than what I usually make.
CR: How did you meet up with him?
BG: Through a mutual friend. I was sweating and couldn't talk and was an idiot. I'm lucky he was nice.
Okay, Grandpa's gotta go to the doctor.
CR: Your grandfather's with you?
BG: No, I'm Grandpa!
I hope people come out and see me. I've never been really good at hyping myself.