Unsung Auteurs: Bobcat Goldthwait

June 2, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: stand-up comedian and wild-man comic filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait.

No matter how good his films as a director might be, Bobcat Goldthwait will in all likelihood forever remain better known for his bizarre on-stage persona as a stand-up comedian, and for his unforgettable performance as whacked out gang leader Zed in the superb sequel (no arguments, please) Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment. While Goldthwait’s subsequent comedic on-screen performances and multitude of voice work for animated TV series have cemented him as a front-of-camera talent, his warped genius as a screenwriter and director remain tragically unsung. The successful stand-up’s filmography might be relatively small, but it’s packed with wildly irreverent, ribaldly offensive, and utterly ingenious movies that should by now have seen Bobcat Goldthwait acclaimed as a modern great of big screen comedy.

Robert Francis “Bobcat” Goldthwait was born in 1962 in Syracuse, New York to a working class family with no ties to the entertainment industry. Dreaming of a career in comedy since his teens, Goldthwait rose to prominence with a variety of records and TV specials in the 1980s, which led to his major breakthrough in the aforementioned Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, which in turn led to more film roles in the likes of Scrooged, Tapeheads, Hot To Trot and two more Police Academy movies. Goldthwait’s unpredictable bizarro wildman comedy schtick was set in stone; he was so profoundly strange that a career as a film director didn’t appear even remotely possible.

Bobcat Goldthwait in Shakes The Clown.

Bobcat Goldthwait’s 1991 writing/directing debut Shakes The Clown remains one of the true unheralded gems of the decade, a florid miasma of filth and madness deserving of major cult status and massive rediscovery and reappraisal. Sitting somewhere disgustingly between John Waters and David Lynch, Shakes The Clown is surreal, sick and utterly hilarious, as Goldthwait’s eponymous children’s entertainer – who is a hopeless womaniser and drunk – is caught up in the murder of his boss. The film is a bruising work of comic genius, and it upset many upon its release, including clowns, who complained that it made them look bad. “People always say there are things you shouldn’t bring up or do,” Goldthwait told The Morning Call in 1993. “I bring up everything. It’s the slant on a topic that’s important. If your slant is opposed to my take on something, you’re going to be offended.”

Busy doing more comedy and directing TV and comic specials for other performers, Bobcat Goldthwait’s next feature didn’t come until 2006, but Sleeping Dogs Lie was well worth the wait. Made in two weeks for next to nothing, this comic firebomb stars Mad Men’s Linda Page Hamilton as a young woman coming to terms with a past sexual relationship with her, um, pet dog. Only Bobcat Goldthwait could make a great film about a woman whose life implodes when her need to unburden to her nearest and dearest the fact that she once blew her dog becomes too great. The truly extraordinary thing about Sleeping Dogs Lie is how profoundly sensitive, sweet, thoughtful and moving it is. “I guess it is kind of funny that I made this dark, weird movie which ends up quasi life-affirming,” Goldthwait said upon the film’s release. “That might be the ultimate joke.”

Bobcat Goldthwait and Robin Williams on the set of World’s Greatest Dad. 

Goldthwait went bigger with his next film, which starred his good buddy and frequent collaborator, the late and great Robin Williams. Set in small town America, 2009’s wonderfully sad and dark World’s Greatest Dad is the story of Lance Clayton (Robin Williams), a dejected writer and school teacher struggling to find satisfaction in his job while trying to balance a new relationship with a fellow teacher and his obnoxious son (Spy Kids’ Daryl Sabara), whose hobbies include sexual asphyxiation and misogyny. “Lance is a little bit autobiographical, but then I also wanted to write a movie about a guy growing up,” Goldthwait told FilmInk in 2009. “A coming-of-age movie for a middle aged man. A couple of pages in, Robin actually said, ‘Oh, I get it. I’m playing you.’”

Thanks to the incredible performance of Robin Williams, this wholly uncompromising black comedy got Goldthwait his biggest audience yet, but this black jewel of a film deserved far greater praise for its thematic daring, razor-sharp dialogue, and deep understanding and sympathy for its characters. World’s Greatest Dad saw Goldthwait take it up another ingenious and uncompromising notch, but again, critics and commentators were not nearly enthusiastic enough in their praise and support of this truly brave and stand-alone piece of comedy. “If you try to appeal to the masses, you end up shaving off all the edges,” Goldthwait told FilmInk in 2009. “My films might be a little indulgent – they might actually be extremely indulgent – but I just write these movies and you know what, I’m really shocked when they end up at Sundance or when people actually go see them.”

Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr in God Bless America.

Goldthwait went even harder with his next film. A seething, caterwauling ball of hate, anger and sadness, 2011’s God Bless America follows fifty-year-old Frank (Joel Murray), who wants to clear society of those who, according to him, deserve to die. A true sad-sack, Frank is pushed over the edge by the vapidity and soullessness of today’s society. After witnessing Frank’s fumbled yet successful attempt to kill a spoiled TV star, sixteen-year-old Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) becomes his kill-spree partner. Together, they go on a rampage inspired by Bonnie And Clyde…as well as the writer/director’s own wife and daughter. “I base my characters on people that I know,” Goldthwait told FilmInk in 2011. “And then I write them. In this movie, Roxy is based – Freud would have a field day on this – half on my wife, and half on my daughter. A lot of what Roxy says is basically right out of both their lives.”

God Bless America remains Goldthwait’s angriest and most truly black comedy. “It doesn’t tie things up,” Goldthwait told FilmInk in 2011. “World’s Greatest Dad and Sleeping Dogs Lie are more life affirming movies. At the end, there’s a positive message. This one doesn’t end with a positive message.” Goldthwait eased up on the nastiness for 2013’s little seen Willow Creek (about a couple trying to find evidence of Bigfoot), and impressively flexed his documentarian muscles with 2015’s masterful Call Me Lucky, a fascinating portrait of fellow comedian (and major Goldthwait hero, influence and touchstone) Barry Cribbins. Disappointingly, Goldthwait hasn’t directed a feature film since, though he did team with comic Bridget Everett for 2017’s funny and moving telemovie Love You More.

Bobcat Goldthwait

Sure, he’s been busy helming TV specials and stand-up shows for other artists, but we desperately need another feature from Bobcat Goldthwait. He’s made some of the best comedies of the past three decades, and boasts a bravura debut that most comic directors would kill for. Hilarious, profane, creative, daring and utterly original, Bobcat Goldthwait is a comedic master, end of fucking story.

Additional reporting by James Fletcher and Rebecca Butterworth. 

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Donna Deitch, Frank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.


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