Comedian/actor/director Bobcat Goldthwait is an American institution. To many he is best known as Zed, the boneheaded cop with the zany voice from the Police Academy series. But anyone who has mentally typecast Goldthwait as that high-pitched character from the High Hair Generation is missing out on a hilarious body of work. It wasn't until 1991 and the second half of his career that Goldthwait really began to hit his stride after writing, directing, and starring as an alcoholic clown in Shakes the Clown. Since then he's gone on to make legendary cult classics like Windy City Heat, World's Greatest Dad, and Willow Creek.
His latest feature, Call Me Lucky, chronicles the life and career of legendary Boston comic and political antihero Barry Crimmins. In the 90s Crimmins took on America Online—at the time an internet juggernaut—for inadequately dealing with the child pornography circulating through its chat rooms (there was a "three strikes" policy for offenders). The film explores Crimmins's battle against the company, as well as his own horrific experience with sexual assault as a four-year-old boy. But for all the darkness, Call Me Lucky also takes a look at how Crimmins used stand-up as an outlet, and the countless comedians he inspired over the years.
I caught up with Bobcat after a recent screening of Call Me Lucky at the Montclair Film Festival to discuss Barry, the transition from comedian to serious filmmaker, which topics are off limits joke-wise, and a number of other things.
VICE: Before we get into Call Me Lucky, I wanted to ask about your start as a comedian. On Wikipedia it says you began doing stand up at age 15. What was your material like?
Bobcat Goldthwait: Yeah, probably even a little younger with Tom Kenny [voice of SpongeBob SquarePants]. Early on I would go on stage reading a Dear John letter and then start crying and go into, "My wife is so fat..." while still in tears. Someone would yell, "How fat is she?" and I'd say, "I told you I don't even have a girlfriend." I was really influenced by Andy Kaufman. I'd just be weird up there. It was fine because Tom Kenny and I were kids and Tom would get up there and talk about his therapist and he didn't even have a therapist, he just loved Woody Allen. We had nothing to draw from; we were just teenagers. That's when I met Barry [Crimmins]. He thought we were adult men because we called this ad he placed looking for comedians but then two teenagers walked in and so he called us the Kiddie Core. But he put us on stage and he kept putting us up there. I guess we didn't ruin the show.
How did you avoid all the illicit drugs and alcohol that permeate comedy clubs? I didn't when I was a teenager. I got sober when I was 19. When I was a kid we were underage and in bars and nobody treated us like kids so I didn't avoid those vices. But I've been clean since. Everyone thinks I was high when I set the Tonight Show on fire, but Barry says his drug of choice was friends, and I think my drug of choice was anger.
Any advice for aspiring 15-year-old comedians?
Yeah. Don't do Police Academy.
I think they're safe on that.
No, they're not. They're rebooting it. TMZ hit me up saying, "They're rebooting Police Academy. Don't you think they should use the original cast?" I said, "No. A lot of us are dead. I think if they reboot it they should do what they did with 21 Jump Street and make it a comedy this time." Both those comebacks made it to air, but when I said, "I don't know if it's a good time to be making a wacky police comedy seeing as police are killing civilians right now," that didn't make the air.
Tough crowd. It's funny, I know those early movies always get mentioned despite all the amazing directorial work you've done since. I once puked on TV and it keeps coming up (no pun intended) and I always joke that I could cure cancer and it would be overshadowed by vomit.
Yeah, my obit will read: Bobcat Goldthwait cured AIDS and it will have a picture of me in a police uniform beside a talking horse. It's whatever. I live with it and embrace it. If I let it get me angry it would be ridiculous. Fortunately I've had another career and have a real fondness for the young people who do come my shows because a lot of them weren't even born when I was relevant.
Well Call Me Lucky addresses the very dark and heavy topic of child sex abuse. With all that's happening in the news lately— Jared Fogle and Jerry Sandusky before him—it seems like this is the right time for this film. Why did you choose this subject for your first documentary?
Well when Barry testified on the Senate floor at the judiciary hearing against AOL it was like a Frank Capra movie to me, with this little guy taking on this major corporation for allowing child pornography to be exchanged because they were making money back when it was dial up and AOL was really the only game in town. Even if I didn't have this personal connection with Barry I gravitated toward the story, so on a shallow level I knew it was a really good story.
Those judiciary scenes are shocking to me because of AOL's old three-strike rule toward child pornography in the 90s.
Yeah, that's the best. That made me laugh. People actually gasped when the movie premiered at Sundance when the guy from AOL says, "We have a three strike policy," and then Barry says, "No, I think one strike is enough." It's the ugliest of topics and it's easiest for all of us to not deal with it and turn a blind eye, and that interested me in making this movie, just sparking that dialogue. Like Barry talks about disclosing incidents instead of admitting, which implies that the victim had something to do with these crimes. I think perpetrators are able to do these crimes by continuing to live in the shadows, so if the movie does anything I hope it's a small piece of the puzzle that makes it OK to discuss these things.
As the father of a four- and six-year-old, as well as the victim of physical abuse as a child, I cried through much of the film. The loss of innocence is a difficult topic for me and something I strive to defend and protect. You're also a father. How close to home did this film hit for you?
My daughter is an adult now, but in cases where a kid feels not protected is such a horrible thing. All kids should feel that they are free to be kids. I was really trying to make a movie about my friend, but one of the byproducts of this film is that I didn't realize just how many lives are affected by abuse and I don't know if I was necessarily ready for that. At these screenings all these people would come up after and disclose trauma from their own lives. I'm a bit of a misanthrope so I had to learn how to start hugging strangers, which is a horrible byproduct of this movie. It's weird that this is the movie that hit the broader audience because on paper it's the least commercial thing you could do: a movie about a guy you probably haven't heard of and child sexual abuse.
It's apparent in the film that Barry was angry for many years. Has opening up about his rape and making Call Me Lucky changed him?
It's weird to have this guy who lives out in the woods get put under a microscope, but it's shown him that not only do we like him, we love him and want to hear more from him and about him. It's definitely intense for him, though. It's like the Godfather, when he thought he was out, I dragged him back in. He's already getting stand up dates and there's interest in him as a speaker, which I think is perfect for him.
Despite the nature of the crime against him it seems as if he has come out the other side whole.
That's why I thought it was so important to include him going back in the basement [where the rape occurred]. We actually had a big fight about that. I didn't want him to go in the basement; I was just filming there. I didn't want to do a reenactment and he was like, " You don't want to do a reenactment???" You see in that scene that he's come out the other side fine and has moved on with his life. I think it's really hopeful. Like he says in the movie, "I don't want to make shrines to demons." There's a part of children's innocence that we have to compromise in order to protect them and keep them safe.
You and Barry are comedians by nature, and like you I enjoy making light of difficult topics. How tough has it been for you two to do press for a child sexual abuse film and still keep some levity?
That's the thing; I really don't think there is any topic that you shouldn't be allowed to joke about. So Barry and I would make jokes, and we still do sometimes, but I think Barry earned it and I got an honorary degree in it. It's comedy that we use to break the tension. The big goal was trying to make laughs in the movie because it's such a dark topic. I think we'd be doing a great disservice if we made a movie about Barry Crimmins and it wasn't funny.