Interview: Bobcat Goldthwait, Writer-Director of God Bless America

To those stuck in the ’80s, Bobcat Goldthwait is probably still thought of as the wild-eyed, hair-tugging, whining buffoon of the Police Academy movies. But in fact over the past decades, Goldthwait’s been coming into his own as an independent filmmaker specializing in beyond-the-fringe satire.

First there was Goldthwait’s masterpiece, 1991’s Shakes the Clown (“the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies”), and then came 15 years of trying–and failing–to work within the studio system. (In the meantime, he directed TV comedy shows like The Chappelle Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live, and the TV movie spoof Windy City Heat.)

Goldthwait returned to independent feature films in 2006 with the edgy relationship dramedy Sleeping Dogs Lie followed in 2009 by the excellent comic-pathos satire World’s Greatest Dad, starring his longtime friend Robin Williams.

His latest work, God Bless America, deliberately ups the stakes for those viewers who thought Sleeping Dogs (about a woman’s past experience with bestiality) and Greatest Dad (about a failed writer who achieves literary fulfillment by penning the fake posthumous journals of his son who died in an auto-erotic asphyxiation accident) were already darkly, perversly pushing the boundaries of good taste.

God Bless America follows Frank (Joel Murray of Mad Men and Shameless), a sad-sack, middle-age loner who, upon learning he has a fatal brain tumor, goes on a bloody cross-country killing spree against people (both famous and random) he feels contribute to the collapse of values, morality, and decency in the country.

(Targets include fictionalized takes on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16, Bill O’Reilly-style pundits, the Westboro Baptist Church, and American Idol.)

Frank isn’t religiously motivated–he simply wants people to stop being rude, stupid, and cruel. In other words, his murderous (and deeply, satirically ironic) frustrations with our pop-culture-obsessed, reality-TV-sodden society and its thoughtless, selfish denizens may feel a little too familiar to many viewers. Along the way, however, Frank is joined by cynical, teen-age Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), whose reasons for killing are less “noble” and more thrill-seekingly shallow.

I and another writer sat down with Goldthwait last month in Chicago to talk about God Bless America, how far is too far, and yes, pig flatulence.

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God Bless America is playing in select theaters across the country and is also available On Demand.

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At the beginning of the film we see what really pushes Frank over the edge. After what I assume is a long buildup of anger against stupidity and cruelty, was there one thing that tipped it for you and drove you to make this film?

Bobcat Goldthwait: No, it was kind of a mental zit.

It just got bigger and bigger?

Goldthwait: I do remember one day watching with my wife a commercial, which is parodied in the film—though it’s not parodies, there are no parodies, I just re-film these things, the dialogue is paraphrasing all of the Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, or just re-filming things I see on reality shows. So I’m sitting there at home, my wife and I, and this elephant came on. It comes dancing out and sticks its ass towards us, and it farts. “It’s the funniest ring tone ever! Text F-A-R-T!”

You made it a pig fart in the film, but what’s funny is if it’s a ring tone, how would you know it’s an elephant or a pig?

Goldthwait: A pig is much more high end. I felt it was like, “Bobcat Goldthwait, we’re gonna fart right at you.”

It’s your burning bush, the hand of god coming down.

Goldthwait: Yeah. Thank goodness we don’t have 3D television. I just looked at [my wife] and said, “All right, we’re gonna get some guns.” She is a little more like Frank, because she actually thinks that if there are certain people you kill, mankind will be improved. Whereas I am a little more like Roxy, and I just want to fucking take them down. Start with NASCAR fans and just work your way up.

A popular Tea Party poster is “We came unarmed – this time.” Well that’s just crazy. I see your crazy, and I’m going to raise your crazy. And people ask me, “What would you do if they shot Jon Stewart and Bill Maher in a movie?” I’d say, “I’d be excited that you were expressing yourself in a creative manner.” Why can’t they? I’m not saying “No.” I’m not pro-censorship.

But you know what, I am tired. There is right and wrong, and there is decency. And I’m sorry and I know people will attack me, but at this point I’d rather go out swinging. I’d rather say, “Yeah, you know what? The Tea Party is a white hate group.”

There’s talk in this film about the “Oh No You Didn’t” generation. But isn’t this film asking the viewer to say, “Oh No You Didn’t, Bobcat!”

Goldthwait: But that’s what it was—it is an “Oh No You Didn’t” movie. It’s my answer to it. Instead of me having a clever sarcastic thing for me to say about how irresponsible it is to perpetuate shows like My Super Sweet 16, I’ll just shoot them and kill them.

But really I’m trying to ask, “Why do we watch this crap?” It’s just me saying, “Fuck you, MTV. Fuck you.” Encouraging teen pregnancy, and encouraging rich kids to act even worse? You can do better. I was in England, and we only had a limited number of channels, and one of them was having a My Super Sweet 16 marathon. I’m like, “Oh no, they really think this is who we are.” It really bothered me that this is what we were exporting.

Were there things that you originally had as ideas or notions that you said, “Oh, I can’t go that far?” Was there any self-censorship on your part?

Goldthwait: The censorship would always be that I would go back to Frank’s thinking. Frank only wants people to act nice. He only wants people to act right. So that would be the thing that I would finally go, “Is that a Frank kill, or a Roxy kill?” Because Roxy wants to kill everybody.

How do you sell satire to a country that doesn’t understand irony?

Goldthwait: That’s the thing. Sometimes people get frustrated with my movies because they are not punch-line driven. Punch lines, it’s an art, but you can get that on Two and a Half Men. But I don’t like punch lines. They take me right out of a movie. Even my movies that are just supposed to be little fables, I don’t know what world they live in, but they’re certainly my own. Robin Williams calls it the “Bob Wood Universe” – he thinks I’m Ed Wood.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf
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