Boston has often been kind to Bobcat Goldthwait. He cut his teeth on the local standup scene here in the 1980’s, his directorial efforts have frequently been the spotlight features of the Independent Film Festival Boston, and it was Betsy Sherman writing for The Boston Globe in 1991 who gave his first film, Shakes the Clown, its defining title as “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.”
In fact, Shakes the Clown had its premiere at the 1991 Boston Film Festival, unleashing this sub-cult comedy about a world where standup comic culture is comprised of depressive, vindictive clowns who never take their makeup off and drift around in seedy bars. So it’s wonderful to see him return to town for the film’s 25th anniversary screening this month.
Unfortunately, the rest of the country wasn’t quite as taken with Goldthwait’s misanthropic satire of the dysfunctional world of standup that he knew, loved, and despised. Jonathan Rosenbaum dismissed it as “a redneck drive-in movie” and even populist Roger Ebert, who seemed to get the vibe the movie is going for in his review, was not sold either on its effectiveness as a comedy. While today it clearly stands as a pioneering work of alt-comedy, it fell into relative obscurity after its release, as did Goldthwait himself some years later.
Mostly remembered for his distinctive character voice – which he kept up for years even during interviews – Goldthwait entered the public consciousness proper in the mid-80’s when he played the role of Zed in Police Academy 2 (1985). Although he’s said in interviews from the 90’s that he never even saw the movies, he appeared in two more sequels of the franchise. This role and many similar ones led to him being typecast as a Gilbert Gottfried-type funny-voice-guy – a professional image that he will likely bear to his grave. He played up his ability for goofy vocals in movies like Scrooged (1988) and a later voice-acting gig in Disney’s Hercules (1997) led him to a good deal of television work in cartoons.
In the 90’s he became something of a perennial guest star showing up as both characters and himself on shows like Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, and the occasional appearance on Hollywood Squares.
While the alt-comedy style of Space Ghost seems more his scene, Goldthwait has always been openly contemptuous of Hollywood and mainstream pop culture, even when he’s an active participant in it. He’s mocked many of the shows and movies he’s appeared in and once famously spray-painted “Paramount Sucks” on the set of The Arsenio Hall Show after learning the talk show had been cancelled. Over the years, Goldthwait has shown no hesitation to bite the hand that feeds him despite his sporadic media work hopping from project to project, guest spot to guest spot.
It’s in his freakout on Arsenio Hall, or the time he lit a chair on fire on Jay Leno, that best exemplifies the contemptuous nature that drives a film like Shakes the Clown. Goldthwait has frequently admitted to being driven on stage by a certain “rage” that can take over at times, and whether or not this part of himself is a positive thing, it definitely leads to innovative and shocking comedy.
In his directorial debut, Goldthwait plays Shakes, an alcoholic birthday clown living in the city of Palookaville. Shakes is slumming it, vomiting in toilets and sleeping with moms while kids wait for him to make balloon animals. At his neighborhood hangouts, he watches his friends get their hopes dashed trying to win the host role on a prestigious afternoon kids clown program – a la The Bozo Show.
The hosting gig goes to Binky (Tom Kenny), a vindictive megalomaniac clown who can’t wait to use his success to trample over everybody else. After being caught by his boss in a drug ring, Binky frames Shakes for murder, leaving him to clear his name and also win back the love of his girl (Julie Brown).
Alt-comedy often refers to an avant-garde approach to standup that infuses a sense of surrealism and offense into sets. The term’s origins go back to the UK where it was allegedly coined by Tony Allen, but in the U.S. it came to be associated with many comics in the early 80s and 90s Boston and New York scenes.
Boston comics like Steven Wright, Janeane Garofalo and Goldthwait helped bring divergent, paranoid characters to the stage in a pre-internet era where the offbeat and transgressive maintained an underground allure. Post-internet, alt humor has been taken to new extremes by people like Tim Heidecker and Eric Andre who must consistently push boundaries to remain a part of the counterculture in an age where memes and viral videos thrive on bizarre non sequiturs. Setting Jay Leno’s chair on fire has given way to Andre getting T.I. to storm off set by pretending to masturbate.
Another signature of modern comedy comes thanks to an extensive podcast culture run by folks like Marc Maron who present a willingness to discuss personal mental illness. Shakes the Clown showed the behind the scenes of standup shows as a collection of miserable failures wallowing in their filth. Today, we have insight into the frequently depressing, drug-addled lives of comics because it’s become the norm for them to talk about their issues in detail both on stage and on podcasts.
The field for filmed specials, once a medium reserved for HBO exclusives or theatrical blockbuster sets (like Eddie Murphy Raw), has now become democratic enough that a comedian like Maria Bamford can make an oddity like The Special Special Special in her living room where she openly discusses her suicidal thoughts with brutal sincerity. In Tig Notaro’s Live, it took more than a year of personal tragedy involving cancer, a stomach-eating virus and the death of her mother and turned it into an iconic, legacy-making comedy special. This type of honesty would never have netted you a spot on Johnny Carson, but with TV shows like Louie, or Maron’s WTF Podcast taking off, there’s something of a demand for media probing the sad, miserable lives of funny people (for that matter, also see Judd Apatow’s Funny People).
Goldthwait was coming from the Boston scene of the 80’s which helped to set the groundwork for this embrace of self-loathing. That era of Boston comedy was almost like New York and punk or Seattle and grunge. It became one of those culture-changing moments where a group of young talents went on to reshape their entire art form.
A Boston transplant from Syracuse, Goldthwait joined the scene at 18 and soon found himself surrounded in the coked-out underground that thrived in clubs owned by the comedians. Steven Wright, Denis Leary, and Paula Poundstone all got their start in town, each with their own unique styling that would later bring them to fame. Others, like Barry Crimmins, remain local legends – figures to whom plenty of A-listers now owe their careers but never made it on to the national stage.
In an interview for the documentary When Stand Up Stood Out (2003), Goldthwait described the scene as one that demanded originality, and all those who were derivative of other comics were quickly shut out and forgotten. “You couldn’t even get on stage” if people thought you were piggybacking on someone else’s style, he said.
But the other side of the scene was one of jealousy and resentment. Goldthwait inadvertently became a source of that jealousy when at 20 years old he was invited on to David Letterman and began a national career, ultimately moving to L.A. Many of the Boston comics who had been performing since the 70’s were growing bitter as younger comedians, some of whom weren’t even from here, seemed to be cutting in line.
This jealousy poured itself right into Shakes the Clown. Although the fictional Palookaville is modeled after L.A. and heavily influenced by the competitiveness of Hollywood, it’s hard not to draw a connection between the pithy clowns in the film and the drug-addled egos and influx of outsider hacks that ultimately ended the golden age of Boston comedy.
Since the early 2000s Goldthwait’s focus has been behind the camera and as of 2006 he has been regularly directing his own scripts. Many of these films, mostly comedies, take after the cynicism and crassness of Shakes the Clown but there is a running theme throughout all his work – Truth, Secrets and Lies.
In Sleeping Dogs Lie (2006), a woman’s life falls apart after she reveals to her family that she inexplicably once gave her dog a blowjob. In World’s Greatest Dad (2009) a man’s son dies while masturbating, so he stages it as a suicide and writes a fake diary that becomes a bestseller. The lie weighs on him and he ultimately reveals himself, inviting the hatred of everybody who had grown to love him. In Willow Creek (2013), a couple go searching for Bigfoot but find themselves stalked and terrified by the truth of what lives out in the woods they’re invading.
His most recent film is a documentary, Call Me Lucky (2015), which profiles Barry Crimmins including his time in the early Boston scene. In the film, Crimmins discusses something he had kept secret for decades – that as a child he was sexually assaulted by a man his babysitter would bring to his house. Tearing down the wall he had built for years to protect himself from his trauma, Crimmins is shown to have finally re-empowered himself and now works as an activist to prevent child abuse.
The truth in Goldthwait’s work is something that is morally imperative to be revealed. Holding on to secrets and lies eats away at the soul until you can’t live with it any more. But it comes at a price and the truth can be horrible, nasty and have dire consequences. But it can also be enriching and empowering. As they say, it sets you free.
So in Shakes the Clown, Goldthwait cuts through the bullshit of Hollywood fame and opts to show the dysfunction and depression behind show business for what it really is. It’s dark and nasty, but it’s the world these people inhabit.
And yet, it’s wildly funny at the same time, just as those comics at the heart of the Boston scene are brilliant performers with fantastic improv skills regardless of their egos. Getting everybody dressed up in these goofy clown outfits to snort coke and commit murder with bowling pins it turns out is really funny. Adam Sandler delivers one of the best performances of his career. Robin Williams – in a cameo as a mime – steals the show with the manic joy that only he can bring to a film. Tom Kenny, who has since gone on to become the voice of Spongebob Squarepants, is pitch perfect as a killer clown delivering facial expressions that make you wish he appeared on camera more these days, because he can turn chattering teeth into pure hilarity.
For all the cynicism, darkness, and dirty bathroom floors of Shakes the Clown there is an honest heart in the film. In a mid-movie break-up scene, Shakes magically leaps along window sills, as if in an Old Hollywood musical, and plucks a flower to give to his girlfriend. She tries to tell him about her day, but he’s not yet capable of listening (“You were talking about Watergate, or something”). She decides to end the relationship and Goldthwait looks dejected.
It’s not a crushing scene, we know he’ll fix it by the end, but it’s soulful. It’s an honest human moment caught inside the cynical world of show business.