These days, Bobcat Goldthwait prefers not to do the voice. Anyone who knows his name probably knows that voice, a guttural yowl that makes him sound like a cartoon character being smashed with an oversized mallet. It made the comedian, film-maker and actor a star during his tenure in the Police Academy films back in the 80s, but no one wants to be reduced to a bit, and so he retired the quasi-persona in 2018.
“It was a decision I made,” Goldthwait tells the Guardian on a phone call from Los Angeles. “I went back on the road after directing the Kimmel show, and I wasn’t looking forward to it … The voice didn’t suit me. But I know people, they’ve worked hard all week and that’s what they expect, so I probably perpetuated it a little longer than I should have. I was in Nashville, and I actually have footage of me going out for the first time, knowing I just couldn’t do the character. I have an OK set, but people in the audience were yelling, ‘Do the voice!’ It’s my daughter’s favorite heckle.”
His new documentary Joy Ride chronicles the chapter of his life informally begun by that decision, as he embarks on a back-to-basics standup tour co-headlined by his longtime friend Dana Gould. The plan was simple. “We started doing some shows, and I figured we’d shoot them, and cherrypick the stuff we liked,” he says. “It would’ve been a pretty traditional special, and then the pandemic hit.”
He’d gotten all the footage he’d need by the time the lockdown began in early 2020, but with spare time on his hands, he busied himself by hunkering down with the editors and building outward. The product of their added labor is a more substantive diptych portrait of two men bonded by the broad contours of their shared life philosophy. Their string of bookings comes to form a broadside against self-righteousness, bigotry and the rest of the world’s assorted bullshit.
“I’ve been back doing standup again after 15, 16 months,” he says. “It felt great, but people have become very emboldened – the same kind of knuckleheads that fuck up traveling on an airplane now show up at comedy clubs and decide this is where they’re going to make their anti-vax stand against The Man. I go on the road, and sometimes there are people where I don’t know if they’re hangovers from Police Academy or what, but they expect me to have a different ideology than I do … I got started in Boston. I’m used to people heckling me. What I’m not used to is a row of Proud Boy wannabes with their arms folded, mumbling about how Covid isn’t real. That’s weird to me.”
One of the key bits in Goldthwait’s set concerns the Police Academy fandom, which has an overlap with the far right that he finds surprising. Cops and their most ardent defenders have claimed the daffy comedy franchise as their own, and don’t always appreciate the progressive bent of its star’s material when they go see him on stage. His time spent as Officer Zed McGlunk may get him out of the occasional ticket, but he’s still half-amused and half-unsettled that law enforcement would perceive this slapstick lark as being partisan in their favor. “It’s a little like the Bigfoot community,” he says. “They love anything about Bigfoot, even the beef jerky commercials. Any press is a win.”
The pair didn’t get too much crowd pushback during the tour that would become Joy Ride, which Goldthwait credits to playing rock clubs with a more self-selecting audience than comedy clubs draw these days. “[At comedy clubs,] half the people are there because they know me and Dana, a quarter are there because of some movies I was in 30 years ago, and a quarter are there because they maybe got a Groupon, or needed something to do for date night,” he laughs.
He’s clear-eyed enough to see through a lot of the ginned-up controversy currently swirling around the comedy world, as talents fitting Goldthwait’s general profile – male, white, middle-aged – air their grievances over a changing climate. His act with Gould stands as a repudiation to the oft-repeated claim that no one’s allowed to push boundaries any more, disproven in their expertly pitched riffs on Klan rallies, the US Special Olympics team, and sexting with Massachusetts car dealership owner Ernie Boch Jr. “People love to say, ‘George Carlin couldn’t do his act today! What would he say about all this?’” Goldthwait says. “You know what he’d say? I know exactly what he’d say. He’d say something hilarious and cutting about your fucking bullshit. There is no cancel culture. It only exists if you’re a whistleblower or a victim.”
One of the biggest names banging the cancel culture drum is Jerry Seinfeld, who appointed himself Goldthwait’s unofficial nemesis with an out-of-nowhere tangent on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. In the clip, Seinfeld rails to Bridget Everett about Goldthwait’s unfunniness, his desperation, his lack of success, and, yes, the voice.
“Every subject should be allowed,” Goldthwait says. “I will defend people’s freedom of speech even when I don’t agree with what they have to say. But at the end of the day, the question is whether it’s funny. When Jerry [Seinfeld] makes a homophobic joke, that’s just pandering to the status quo. He’s not even being edgy. I never had any axe to grind with Seinfeld. Then on his show, he went on that weird tear against me. In an interview, I saw him say that that was his favorite part of that season. He’s a sore winner. I felt like I was in a scene in a western, where the gunslinger has put down his pistols, but then Seinfeld rolls into town, and he’s got to take his Colt 45 off the wall for one last showdown. ‘You really want to get into shit-talking with me?’”
The new film focuses more on friendship than enmity, however, showing how personalities some find off-putting tend to find kindred spirits in one another. Though Goldthwait clearly remembers harassing Gould in their earliest encounters – “It wasn’t good-natured ribbing, I was just really vicious to him and he’d hide from me” – somewhere along the way, they started to appreciate each other’s comfortable company. Goldthwait eschewed dashboard-mounted lipstick cameras for the scenes of time-killing in the car, instead shooting from the back to create the impression that we’re riding along with a couple of buddies rather than watching a performance. “I don’t gravitate to people who are ‘on’ all the time,” Goldthwait says. “I prefer people who are organically funny. In retrospect, I feel like that’s why Robin and I got close.”
He’s referring to the late Robin Williams, a longtime friend and occasional actor in Goldthwait’s films, from a cameo in the cult classic Shakes the Clown to the star of the pitch-black comedy World’s Greatest Dad. He portrays a frustrated English teacher devastated to find his son dead by auto-erotic asphyxiation, at which point he forges a suicide letter to preserve some of the boy’s dignity. His prose touches a public nerve, and before long, the grieving father has falsified a full-blown literary phenomenon far beyond his control. The themes of depression have caused some to conflate Williams’s character with the man himself, now an icon of inner torment cloaked behind an upbeat exterior.
“I get frustrated, because Robin’s character says, ‘I used to think the worst thing in life was ending up all alone, but now I know the worst thing is ending up with people who make you feel alone,’” Goldthwait explains. “And then people on the internet confuse that with something Robin himself said, which couldn’t be further from the truth. You’ll see a stupid meme of him looking said next to those words, and I’m like, ‘He didn’t really say that!’”
Speaking of World’s Greatest Dad – the film was a topic of conversation a few weeks ago for its marked similarities to the musical Dear Evan Hansen, upon the release of its film adaptation. When the musical about a teen faking a suicidal classmate’s journal first gained traction, a friend notified Goldthwait about the oddly specific resemblance between the two. “I get a ticket and go to see it, and I was like, ‘Ah, this is fine,’” he recalls. “Though there is almost a line in the play lifted right from World’s Greatest Dad, which I still believe was a coincidence. But at the time, in the middle of the play, I went, ‘Oh my God!’ quite loudly. I wasn’t doing it for laughs, it just came out. When my girlfriend Nora and I got to the intermission, I asked her what she thinks, and she said, ‘Someone’s got a lot of explaining to do!’ One other thing is that in the commercial for the movie, I don’t remember if this is in the play or not, but the school’s mascot is the Bobcats. I have definitely wondered if there’s someone out there messing with me.”
As ever, life is strange for Bobcat Goldthwait. Even if ditching his alter ego was meant to keep him earthbound, he couldn’t anticipate the surreality of chancing into a following of reactionaries, or seeing his work stripped of tone and disfigured on Broadway, or watching his departed friend transform into a parody of himself. Whatever bizarre turns his path takes, he maintains an even keel by doing the work so lovingly presented in the new film. Every time he takes the mic, delivers his punchlines, and get the laugh, things make a little more sense.
“To be adored, to have followers – it’s not natural, and no one believes me,” he says. “Success is all about fulfillment. Getting to go onstage with Dana and other people I love, laughing and having a great time. That’s what it’s about. Performing in venues where the other star-bellied sneetches get what I do.”