About a decade ago, backstage at Zanies comedy club in Nashville, Tenn., Bobcat Goldthwait felt so sick of doing the whinnying shriek and guttural grunt of the character that made him famous that he decided to kill him off. Then he walked onstage and shocked everyone by acting like himself. “It was shaky,” he said of the response to his composed manner. One frustrated fan yelled: “Do the voice!”
He had heard it before, and knew a quick howl would appease the crowd. Instead, he dug in and has remained there since, with a few fleeting exceptions. But his tortured relationship with his own persona remains a preoccupation, including in the first episode of his darkly satirical “Bobcat Goldthwait’s Misfits & Monsters,” a “Twilight Zone”-like anthology series that has its premiere Wednesday on TruTV. It tells the macabre story of a beloved cartoon character named Bubba the Bear who enters the real world to terrorize the actor who gave him his dopey voice (Seth Green).
Mr. Goldthwait, who wrote and directed the series, imagined the episode as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” meets “Cape Fear,” but once it was finished, his daughter, Tasha Goldthwait, the show’s costume designer, helped him understand its real subtext when she pointed out that he has a Bubba haunting him.
“I’ve always been battling this perception people have of me, this character,” he said over coffee in downtown New York during a recent trip from Southern California to finish editing. “It follows me around. Bubba the Bear shows up when I’m checking into a hotel, when I’m on a plane. I can’t get upset with people if they’re only aware of a small part of my body of work. But inside I do.”
Mr. Goldthwait, 55, projects a cerebral and cheerful presence offstage, but it’s not quite the polar opposite of his former persona. His eyes still sometimes dart around, often downward, and he’s jarringly comfortable displaying vulnerability and sharing his insecurities. Talking to him makes you think there’s more connective tissue between him and his alter ego than you might assume.
“Monsters” represents the latest step in a remarkable comeback for a stand-up prodigy, who started killing in front of crowds as a teenager, became a superstar a few years later, then plummeted fast like so many 1980s character comics (Pauly Shore, Andrew Dice Clay) had before him. The compromises of success have found their way into his work but have also led to his reinvention, helping him move behind the camera to make eccentric independent movies (“Shakes the Clown,” “World’s Greatest Dad”) and an acclaimed documentary (“Call Me Lucky”).
It all began with that voice, whose origins can be traced to a sketch group called the Generic Comic in 1970s Syracuse, N.Y., run by Mr. Goldthwait, born Robert, and his childhood friend Tom Kenny, known now as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants. As teenage oddballs with a love of punk rock, Andy Kaufman and classic comedy, they pushed each other to perform.
It helped that Mr. Goldthwait’s father was a sheet metal worker who specialized in “Budweiser-inspired performance art” like putting on a cape and telling neighbors he would jump off the refrigerator into a mayonnaise jar. (“He would stop, then say, ‘No, it’s Hellmann’s, that’s the wrong brand.’ ”)
Mr. Goldthwait developed a gullible, gibberish-spouting character who tells the local news about seeing aliens or Bigfoot. After some success, he started to go onstage at comedy clubs in Syracuse and later Boston as this wild-eyed fool, Mr. Kenny recalled. “It was a mind-blower,” he said, adding that it seemed like a maniac had accidentally stumbled onstage until he started telling jokes. “They didn’t know if he was for real, and then there was this big relief laugh.”
As the character developed, Mr. Goldthwait adopted an adversarial stance to standup itself. “My wife is so fat,” he yelled, and when the crowd responded: “How fat is she?,” he retorted with a mixture of anger and hurt. “She’s real fat. I don’t have a joke for everything you know.”
His formally experimental early stand-up arrived a decade before alt comedy, which made it seem all the more out of place amid comics in sweaters making fun of commercials and airline food. But his work holds up remarkably well, and his inspired album “Meat Bob” is one of the absolute funniest of the 1980s.
But the freshness of his act eventually was lost as he crossed over into rock star-level fame. He played 4,000-seat arenas, embraced a rock aesthetic, wearing eyeliner and mascara, and became friends with David Bowie, who invited him to do a double act. (Mr. Goldthwait said no.) At the height of his fame, Mr. Goldthwait even attended a costume party at Prince’s house. Dressed as Peter Pan, Prince greeted him warmly, asking if he wanted a drink. “When I said no, Prince said, ‘It’s good not to drink because there’s lot of weird people here.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, you and me, we’re the regular Joes.’ ” Then Mr. Goldthwait laughed recalling the episode. Prince’s voice, he added, “dropped 10 octaves and said, ‘That’s funny.’ ”
But as he starred in forgettable movies like the talking-horse comedy “Hot to Trot,” his act hardened into gimmickry. “I started out making fun of comedy,” he said. “Then I became the thing I was making fun of.”
“I felt like I was turning into Richard Simmons, a novelty, and I had anger about that,” Mr. Goldthwait said. Mr. Kenny had another theory: “He was trying to burn himself down, consciously or not.”
If so, it worked. Mr. Goldthwait had increasing trouble selling tickets, once playing a show at a casino for only two people. When he tried to pivot to directing, he couldn’t get any work — until Jimmy Kimmel, who knew him from radio, asked him to make taped segments for “The Man Show” and then his talk show. “Kimmel hired me to direct his show when most people were using my name as a punch line,” he said.
Mr. Kimmel said he was looking for a director who could add jokes the way Hal Gurnee did for David Letterman. “I noticed that Bobcat would get scenes much quicker than other directors because he already knew what was funny,” Mr. Kimmel said, adding that he would rib him on set, responding to an instruction by saying: “‘Do the voice. Do the voice!’”
After leaving talk shows, Mr. Goldthwait dedicated himself to independent movies, making as few artistic compromises as possible. To pull this off, he radically scaled back his expenses, even moving in with three roommates to save money. “A lot of people would never do that,” he said. “But it was super freeing. I could say no to things I didn’t want to do.”
He’s still doing stand-up, recently going onstage in Los Angeles to talk about the death of his friend Robin Williams (“We were comedians. We talked about suicide for 31 years. Sometimes we talked about other stuff.”) He says he may want to do a Netflix special, but right now, he just wants to connect with audiences.
“There’s such an emphasis in our society on making it as opposed to the quality of your life,” he said, flashing a smile: “Success is for creeps.”
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