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Quieter, Not Mellower

Bobcat Goldthwait comes to Buffalo’s Helium comedy club

“I’m the first one that’s aware that when I die there will be a picture of me in a police uniform,” admits comedian Bobcat Goldthwait about his public image. Thirty years ago he grabbed our attention with a near-incoherent, ranting, sweaty stage persona (devised as a parody of stand-up comedians) that landed him a role in three of the Police Academy films.

Bobcat will be in town next weekend for three nights at the Helium comedy club, but don’t expect him still to be doing that character: he dropped it years ago. His sense of humor hasn’t changed, it’s just that now you can understand what he’s saying.

“I’m not embarrassed of the old persona, but I’m a little over it,” he says by phone from San Francisco. “People will come up to me at the airport and do the voice, and I’m nice and I smile but they don’t realize that some other guy on the other side of the airport just did the same thing. I’m sure Ron Howard gets bored talking about Richie Cunningham and Opie when he’s trying to publicize a movie about auto racing.”

Publicizing his newest movie is what the Syracuse native is doing a lot of these days. Since his first film, 1991’s Shakes the Clown (famously reviewed by the Boston Globe as “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies”) writing and directing has become his main creative focus.

When he returned to standup a few years ago, he had been away from it for “at least 5 – 6 years—the whole time I was directing Jimmy Kimmel Live. I’m kinda enjoying it again now, but it’s really the job I do to keep directing my small movies and stay off of reality TVs shows. I get asked to do those celebrity shows a lot, which take the word “celebrity” to a new low. It’s really strange—people will ask me, ‘Wow, why wouldn’t you be on, like, “Celebrity Wife Swap”’? Gee, maybe because despite my body of work I have a scrap of decency?”

He aired his feelings about this kind of mass entertainment in his last film, the jaw-dropping God Bless America, in which a surfeit of reality and gossip television drives a depressed office worker (Joel Murray) into a killing spree. Among his targets: the head of “TMI,” a celebrity-stalking show with a specific model.

Describing it as “a violent film about kindness,” Bobcat says God Bless America is “the most watched movie I’ve had, if you go by IMDB. I guess if it was put out by a major corporation people would be upset, but most of my movies do festivals and then VOD and cable. I think it’s funny that (TMZ head) Harvey Levin never acknowledged my movie—there’s a guy who looks like him who gets shot in the throat and he’s going to pretend it doesn’t exist.”

“In France it had an indie run—there were subway movie posters and stuff. And it did well. My movies play a little longer in other countries. There isn’t the stigma of a tiny small budget movie over there—in the US if it’s not The Avengers it can’t be worth while.

His new film, which is still playing festivals, will surprise his fans even more. While Willow Creek reportedly has its humorous aspects, it’s primarily a horror film about a couple heading into the woods to look for Bigfoot.

Even more surprising is the format. “It’s the much dreaded found footage film,” he says. “I feel there were things that worked in Blair Witch Project and some of those other ones, even if a lot of them just made you think that it might be a good film if we reedited it.”

For influences he mentions Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man and his friend Charlyne Yi’s Paper Heart. “I like that they used real people and made their story part of the film. I wouldn’t think people would expect a Michael Cera romantic comedy to have been an influence but it was.

“This is the best reviewed film I’ve had. I think it’s because people can wrap their minds around it—they get what it is, unlike my other films which are kind of fucked up, like a rom com with bestiality in it [Sleeping Dogs Lie].”

The film he’s hoping to make next is one that has been awhile in development: an adaptation of The Kinks’ 1975 concept album Schoolboys in Disgrace. “Since World’s Greatest Dad [his 2009 movie with Robin Williams] I wrote six or seven screenplays, and that’s the one I most want to make. It’s my favorite Kinks album—I remember being like 15 and just listening to it over and over.”

Because it will be a musical, it’s going to require a larger budget than what he’s used to working with, but with a new producer on board he’s hopeful it will start moving along.

He’ll be collaborating with Kinks frontman Ray Davies, who he last met up with when Davies performed at UB two years ago. Plans are for Davies to re-record the songs with the film’s cast and write a new one. Bobcat says they’re retooling the songs a bit, and will also use a few songs from the Preservation albums.

“The thing about Ray, he’s a creative guy, he’s not into nostalgia even though he has such a big body of work. He’s interested in making new stuff. I’m the same way. It’s always weird to be publicizing a movie because by the time it comes out I’m working on a new one.”

Along with standup, Bobcat pays the bills by directing for TV. Along with Kimmel, he has directed for Maron, Chappelle's Show, The Man Show and Crank Yankers; his next project is a new Patton Oswalt concert video.

While he mostly works for people he admires, he admits it’s less rewarding than film work. “That’s why I don’t do network TV. It’s lucrative, but you’re not there as a creative person, you’re there lying to yourself about being a creative person. It’s a writers’ medium. Directing Kimmel was mostly keeping things flowing all day. Maron, there’s some creative stuff but it’s mostly making sure you deliver the show. I like working on it because I’m a fan. But yeah, the jobs are different.

“When you’re writing and directing a movie you have a lot more say in everything, which is what interests me. It’s not a question of being drunk with power, but if it’s going to have my name on it I wont to have the most control over it.”

As a comic Bobcat has been reaching new audiences lately, with his Showtime special “You Don’t Look the Same Either” and appearances on the popular NPR news quiz show “Wait…Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” When I ask him what he does to prepare for the latter, he says “I try to bone up [on the week’s news] ‘cause you feel stupid. But I realized that the episodes where I get a lot of the answers right people don’t credit me for it, but the ones where I get a lot wrong people tell me they didn’t know the answers either.

“People ask if the show is scripted but it’s not. [Host] Peter Segal has prepared questions about the news, but the guests are told what the topics will be [for segments like “Bluff the Listener”) and we write our own stuff.” He says he’s been noticing fans of that show coming out to see his live shows, along with “kids who’ve seen the movies and don’t even know Police Academy.”

Bobcat makes a point of praising the venue where he’ll be performing in Buffalo: “Helium is a small chain but they’re well run. It’s less MacDonalds-ish than some of these other chains that make you feel like you're working at Applebees.” That comes from a man who’s not afraid to criticize his host: when he appeared at the then-new Seneca Niagara Casino a few years ago, he said of the glitzy building towering over Niagara Falls, “You took one of the most beautiful things the country has and fucked it in the ass!”

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