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Aspen Laff Festival: In defense of offensive comedy

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
LAS VEGAS - JUNE 14: Actor/director Bobcat Goldthwait poses for a portrait during the 11th annual CineVegas film festival held at the Palms Casino Resort on June 14, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for CineVegas) *** Local Caption *** Bobcat Goldthwait
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ASPEN – Bobcat Goldthwait has been working on a screenplay about Bigfoot for several years. Recently he ran a bit of the script by his wife to see if she thought there was any danger of offending what Goldthwait refers to as “the Bigfoot community.”

We should pause here and review the above; some explanations are in order.

First: Yes, Goldthwait has capacities beyond the hyperactive, high-pitched comic persona he has cranked to full volume on stand-up stages and late-night talk shows and as Zed in the “Police Academy” movies. Goldthwait has written and directed several films, including 2009’s intriguing “World’s Greatest Dad,” which starred Robin Williams as a single dad with ambitions to be a literary giant. And much of his career has been devoted to directing for television; he has had a long and successful run as director of “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

Second: No, Goldthwait doesn’t mind revealing trade secrets, such as the subject of his next film. Goldthwait might make movies that involve ordinary topics – the first film he wrote and directed, 1992’s “Shakes the Clown,” was about a clown – but the twists he puts on his stories are the kind that could not be stolen and that nobody would likely care to take. (Shakes, played by Goldthwait, was a depressed, alcoholic clown framed for murder.)

“I never worry about someone taking the idea. If Michael Bay were to make a Bigfoot movie, it wouldn’t be anything like mine,” Goldthwait, a 49-year-old native of Syracuse, N.Y., said from his home in Los Angeles. “My movies are just their own thing.”

Three: Yes, Goldthwait is concerned about offending people. OK, this one I had questions about myself. This is a guy who seems to live to challenge if not outright offend audiences. One of his early TV specials was titled “Don’t Watch This Show”; another was “Bob Goldthwait – Is He Like That All the Time?” He once set the couch on the Jay Leno show on fire. He protested the cancellation of “The Arsenio Hall Show” by spray-painting “Paramount Sucks” on a glass wall and destroying a bunch of equipment. Even when he’s not wrecking stuff, his performances can be edgy to the point of discomfort.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who wonders when exactly Goldthwait started becoming concerned about being offensive. After he ran the Bigfoot script by his wife to gauge its offensiveness quotient, her response was, “Are you kidding me? You just made a movie about a guy who wants to shoot everyone.”

This was a reference to “God Bless America,” which is due for release in April. The film centers around Frank, a middle-aged man who might be terminally ill and definitely is sick of the ills of contemporary society – the rudeness, the obliviousness, the shallowness. Frank enlists a teenage girl to help him in his quest to eliminate America of its most noxious inhabitants.

Goldthwait sees “God Bless America,” which showed at the Toronto International Film Festival, in the vein of “Network” and “Badlands.”

“There’s certainly been a lot of movies about spree-killers on the road,” he said. “People bring up ‘Natural Born Killers,’ but that didn’t work for me because it blamed the media. I don’t. I blame our own appetite. I don’t blame the people who make reality shows – I blame the people who watch reality shows.”

Compounding the artistic bite, “God Bless America” doesn’t merely ask the audience to share in Goldthwait’s umbrage toward society. The film allows viewers to empathize with Frank, and Goldthwait has problems with an audience that can identify with a mass murderer.

“You kind of go on this ride with him. Even though he crosses all these lines, you go along with him. He’s become one of those people he’s trying to kill,” he said. “What gets me is those gray areas.”

Goldthwait lives in a bit of a gray area himself. A few decades ago, when he was focused largely on stand-up comedy, he created a shrill character – Bobcat – whose satirical and political instincts were largely obscured by his eccentricities. He says his brand of comedy was a mixture of his parents: a sarcastic mother and a weird father who entertained the neighborhood with gags such as putting a jar of mayonnaise on the floor, climbing on top of the refrigerator and announcing he was going to jump into the mayo.

“He was a guy who did a lot of strange stuff,” Goldthwait said.

Goldthwait still does stand-up – he performs Wednesday as the opening-night headliner in the Wheeler Opera House’s Aspen Laff Festival, and he has a new Showtime special being broadcast in April – but he has mostly dropped the voice that was once his signature. He adds, though, that he does a small segment in the voice and spends some time explaining “that character.”

“Because I do know there’s a tiny percentage of people who come only because they know that character,” said Goldthwait, who comes off as thoughtful, clear-headed, even mellow. “It’s me doing ‘Free Bird’ – you don’t want to disappoint the people who came to see that one hit.

“I’m definitely pigeonholed in people’s minds. But if people are judging me from watching movies that I would never watch, movies I was in when I was in my 20s,” he said, trailing off.

The perception of Goldthwait might be fixed for many people, but it has not stopped the comedian from moving forward.

“I never concerned myself with people’s perceptions,” he said. “It was more important that they listened to me than that they like me. Which is a weird way to be in show business.”

Goldthwait says he doesn’t disregard people’s perceptions. Rather, he tends to be unaware of them. It doesn’t occur to him that an alcoholic clown probably will alienate a substantial portion of the audience.

“Sometimes I come up with an idea and think everybody will like it – and why wouldn’t they?” he said. “But they don’t always. I know people think I’m trying to make people upset. I guess I always try to do things that are contrary to what the expectations are.”

Goldthwait, though, may be maturing in a way. He recognizes that “God Bless America,” which rips into the heart of mainstream America, might offend some.

“It’s the first time I actually went out and looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, this is dark,'” he said.

The Aspen Laff Festival runs through Saturday, with events nightly. Performers include David Brenner, “The Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead, “Cash Cab” host Ben Bailey, themed shows devoted to Wall Street and parenting, and more. For a full schedule, go to http://www.wheeleroperahouse.com.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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