Bobcat Goldthwait, one of the headliners of this year's Limestone Comedy Festival, has had a career path that's pretty unusual for a standup act. After honing his chops in clubs in the Northeast, Goldthwait was cast in three Police Academy movies and the Bill Murray vehicle Scrooged before turning his talents to directing. "I actively made a decision years ago to not be in front of the camera," he says. "Once I did that, I became really happy."
After helming his first feature, the cult comedy Shakes the Clown, Goldthwait picked up small-screen directorial gigs — including several hundred episodes of Jimmy Kimmel Live. His return to standup "affords me the ability to say no to being on reality shows. I can do standup, and then I get to pick the behind-the-scenes stuff that I want to do."
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Goldthwait got his start in Central New York state at a club booked by an older comic named Barry Crimmins. Bobcat and Tom "Tomcat" Kenney (now the voice of Spongebob Squarepants) followed Crimmins to Boston, where Crimmins would book acts in the bar of a Chinese restaurant, the Ding Ho. The Ding Ho became a critical part of American standup: Paula Poundstone, Steven Wright, Dennis Leary, Kevin Meaney, Dana Gould, Lenny Clarke and a host of other comedians began their careers at open-mic nights in the bar Crimmins booked.
Barry Crimmins, in addition to becoming something of a mentor to Bobcat, is also the subject of Goldthwait's most critically-acclaimed film, a documentary titled Call Me Lucky. Crimmins, whose act could drift into political diatribes and extended rants about America's corrupt political and financial systems, became a nationally-known activist after he revealed — on stage — that he'd been raped as a very young child by a man who'd gained access to the boy via a teenage babysitter. (His older sister had interrupted an attack on Barry that might've proven fatal had she not intervened.)
Goldthwait's film traces Crimmins' career from Skaneateles, NY ("Skaneateles is an old Indian word — it means 'beautiful lake surrounded by fascists,'" cracks Crimmins early in the film) to the Ding Ho to Crimmins' on-stage revelation and into his role as an activist. After coming out as the survivor of sexual child abuse, Crimmins went to war with AOL regarding the ease of access the then-new internet technology afforded pedophiles to share child pornography and target potential victims. The film includes footage of Crimmins testifying before the U.S. Senate in the mid-'90s.
NUVO spoke to Bobcat while Goldthwait was on tour in April.
NUVO: Call Me Lucky — that is a really astonishing film. For those who don't know, give us the genesis of the story — you were originally going to do a fictionalized version and it became a documentary during the process?
Yeah, I was going to do a narrative all the way back to when Barry first appeared at the judicial hearing on the Senate floor. [That was] like a Frank Capra movie to me — an outsider going to the Hill ... a little guy taking on a big corporation. That was the idea. I didn't want to do a documentary because I didn't want Barry to have to relive all that. But I started hearing him on Marc Maron's podcast and some others, and Robin Williams suggested I do it as a documentary. [Williams] gave me the money to start the actual filming of it.
NUVO: One of the most startling parts of the film was the reaction from Barry's sister when she realized you were actually going to go there and talk about the abuse Barry suffered — it was an "I can't believe he's actually going to ask me about this shit" look at that moment.
She did know what we were going to discuss, but this is something she'd only shared with Barry. That was pretty brave of her. I knew it would be key that we'd have someone backing up Barry's story. I'm very indebted to her.
NUVO: What also impressed me: You were dealing with this horribly revolting subject matter, and — even through the worst part of it — there was always an underlying humor there. I think that has a lot to do with Barry himself. You always feel for the guy.
I needed to help the viewer let off some steam. Barry was always about hiding things by making people laugh.
NUVO: At the end of the film, when he's in the basement of that house — the place where he was raped — how difficult was it for you to put him in that situation and, more importantly, for him to get into that situation?
We were going to film there and Barry wasn't going to go down there. He came with us, he was going to put the house in perspective, that was the agreement. It was ultimately Barry who insisted he go down there. He said, "I'm going down there. You can film it or not. I'm not going to give this space power over me."
He and I actually had a big argument. I was concerned about his well-being. It's funny you brought up the two things in the movie that my daughter was like, "Dad, you're gonna look like an asshole, leaving that stuff in." Barry lived through this stuff. If I take a hit now and then — that I was exploiting my friend — the reality was I was deeply concerned about what it was doing to him. You learn, though, that it doesn't have a power over him any more.
Structurally, I'm glad he did it, I'm glad he had the courage — but as his friend, it was really hard. You know, I don't drink, but everybody got really hammered after shooting that scene.
NUVO: It's interesting that you mention that — Barry was instrumental in getting you cleaned up early on when you were going down a pretty dark road.
Yeah, I got sober at 19 ... when everybody else was distancing themselves from me because of the way I was drinking, Barry was the one who stood by me. It's funny when people see the movie, 'cause Barry is such a hard-drinking guy, a hard-partying guy, but I always felt that Barry wasn't an alcoholic. When he disclosed to me the events of his life, I was relived in an odd kind of way because everything made sense to me. I understood the drinking and so on.
NUVO: How is he now? Now that the movie's out there?
He's doing dates, he's writing new material. It's funny, since Barry is so disenfranchised with the two-party system, but because this election is so insane, it's forced him to get involved again.
NUVO: I don't think people know about your career arc. I get the sense people think: "Bobcat? He was in the Police Academy movies, then he set the Tonight Show on fire [EDITOR'S NOTE: Google that one. Holy cow.], now he's doing standup again." I don't think people know there was a period of time when you were directing Jimmy Kimmel's show and other things. Was Shakes the Clown the first thing you directed?
I did do a short before that, but Shakes was the first feature I directed. I directed the Kimmel show for three years, and then I was a director on Chappelle's show, and I worked on a whole bunch of shows. I still do. I work on Marc Maron's TV show. I direct comedy specials and I make a movie about every year, year and a half.
NUVO: How did you discover that you had that skill?
I probably should've realized that that's what I was leaning toward ... when I was watching a movie, I wasn't interested in who was in it, I was interested in who wrote and directed it. I was in a lot of movies, and you realize you're just a cog in a machine. Out of frustration I started directing my own stuff.
I'm fully aware of people's perception of me — nobody knows people's perception of me better than me. I was in three Police Academy movies, and the combined time I worked on them was about two and half months. Now I make movies that take eight months to a year and a half. These movies aren't well known, but they play festivals around the world, win awards ... but I know that when I die, there'll be a photo of me in a police uniform.
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