Fifteen years of lucidity might sound like a career-ending proposition for a comedian best known for his nigh-incomprehensible standup act and his role as a twitchy gangleader-turned-cop in the Police Academy films, but Bobcat Goldthwait has parleyed sanity into a career behind the camera. After writing, directing, and starring in 1992’s Shakes the Clown, Goldthwait directed several shows for Comedy Central, took the reins at Jimmy Kimmel Live! for three years, and had two films screened at the Sundance Film Festival (2006’s Sleeping Dogs Lie and 2009’s World’s Greatest Dad). Goldthwait occasionally returns to standup comedy; this round brings him to Knoxville this weekend for a three-day engagement at Side Splitters.
When people think of Bobcat Goldthwait the comedian, they obviously think more of your older material. How does that guy contrast with your standup now?
A lot of what I did—being the guy who lit the Tonight Show on fire, that kind of thing—I did to get a reaction, and I think it worked when I was young, but I don’t think I would want to see me get on stage now and yell like Grover from Sesame Street for 45 minutes.
Has it been difficult to get out from under that persona, or do you worry about that kind of thing?
Not really. The key to that was, about five or six years ago I just started only doing things that make me happy. I know nobody believes me when I say it, but if a network called me up tomorrow and offered me a dumb sitcom, or even probably a smart one, I wouldn’t take it because it wouldn’t make me happy.
And that was happening much?
Yeah. When Deal or No Deal hit, the big thing for a while was game shows, and I think my name came up right after Howie Mandel.
So the list basically went Mandel-Goldthwait-Foxworthy?
I don’t know if I was right before Jeff Foxworthy or right after him, but I was up there.
What first got you into directing?
I think initially it was frustration. I didn’t like making things when the person in charge wasn’t there. A lot of people who get into making comedies are there to do something like Police Academy so they can have a reel to sell and go on to make watered-down Judd Apatow films. Plus I had the perspective of being a comedian trying to make something, so when I work with Jimmy Kimmel or direct something like Chappelle’s show, I can appreciate what they’re trying to do with it.
Did you see it as a way to maybe pursue something more legitimate?
I really don’t think in those terms. I just wanted to make my own stuff, and from an early age, I realized that fame was really just silly, and even more so now. Right now, I’m in the most creative part of my life, and even if I’m the only guy at Sundance who leaves his screening to go play an Indian casino the same night, I still love it. I know I’ll always be remembered for things like Police Academy, but after that I’d like it if it said, “and he also did some really messed up indie films.”
You’ve been directing for about 20 years now, and you seem really happy with that work, but you’ve seemed ambivalent in the past about performing. What brings you back to performing when you decide to do it?
Yeah, I used to be pretty negative about it. After a while it just became like having a job for me. I’d go out and try to do the best job I could, but it was still work. But I started looking at it differently after a while. I went back to comics like Lenny Bruce, who people remember mostly for being “edgy” and “vulgar” but was really great because he could understand something absurd and really champion it.
How is the standup experience different from the atmosphere back in the day?
Advertising. Back in the ’80s, your job would be to write jokes and perform them, then maybe do a few talk shows and after that get a special. Now it’s like, you do a show, then you’re expected to go Twitter about it. We’re really a shameless society, but after a while all that self-promotion becomes too much typing. I got into the business as kind of a rebel, and that just feels like too much of an office job. I mean, I like to write, but if I’m typing something up I want it to be a screenplay.