Writing about comedy is, unfortunately, not my day gig. I spend most of my time as a graduate student in American Studies, trying to parse the weird idiosyncrasies of our culture and politics and learn more about what makes our nation tick. So films like comic Renaissance man Bobcat Goldthwait’s latest effort, God Bless America — not to mention his latest stand-up release You Don’t Look the Same Either — are right up my alley.
The story centers on Frank (played by Joel Murray) who’s mad as Hell at the depravity of American life, which has manifested primarily in reality television, ungrateful children and deeply polarized politics. Ultimately, he’s so fed up with this decline of human decency that he, along with Roxy, the all-too-enthusiastic young gal (played by Tara Lynne Barr) go on a nationwide killing spree to off the worst offenders and, with any luck, repair our now-frayed social contract. Although you won’t find many folks agreeing with the protagonist’s ultimate course of action, it’s easier to agree with his critiques of our society.
Last week, I chatted with Bobcat about his new film (which you can stream here), the state of the nation, and the contemporary practice of comedy. You know, light-hearted topics. Enjoy!
God Bless America is really fascinating to watch – I have a pretty high tolerance for dark comedies, but the film is really something else to me. Can you talk about where the film’s ethos or theme came from? What compelled you to make this film?
After World’s Greatest Dad, I sat down and wrote five more screenplays. This was one of them. And the germ of this movie came from a couple of different sources. One, was I was in London, and there was a My Super Sweet 16 marathon on. That was my first exposure, so I was like, ‘All these children should die.’ Another thing was – it’s kind of a Christmas present for my wife, you know, when I first wrote this screenplay, so I guess a little bit has to do with me being a cheap guy. But I think that lots of people confuse me for the character that Joel Murray plays in the movie. At times, I guess I can be frustrated with where we’re going as a culture, but overall, I don’t feel like him because I’m not mad at a lot of people around me. If you run into me in the course of a day, I’m not going to be mumbling in the corner like Ted Kaczynski.
I hope not! The film’s certainly imbued with a lot of violence, though.
I think that the violence in the movie is very cartoony. Most people who go to movies are already second or third generation first-person-shooter games people, so I don’t really portray it as real violence. But you are supposed to feel uneasy. The idea is that you’re actually kind of rooting for these people who are doing horrible things, you know, and then this movie works for someone that, by the end, you’re kind of realizing that their ideology is extremely flawed.
Murderous rampages and flawed ideologies aside, why do you think the film might resonate with audiences?
I think it’s one of the byproducts of the digital age – I don’t know if that’s what it is. It could be. But we seem really intolerant of each other, and really – I think the Internet caters to breeding narcissism and I think technology is breeding more and more narcissism. I mean, I don’t know what it was like in the turn of the last century, which was an even nastier time, but it feels like, from my very unscientific view of the world, we’re becoming more and more inconsiderate of each other. Why does that resonate? I think it might resonate because I think most everybody – if you’re not a person who lives your life as a reactive person, you try to think about what’s going on, so you’ve probably noticed that too.
The film seems like it has a real moral message in it, whether intended or not. Do you hope that audiences come away having reconfigured their understandings of humanity in any way? Was there ever a broader project in mind?
Well, I think the message at the end of the day was to ask the viewer, ‘Are you in or are you out? Are you part of the problem, or are you a part of the solution?’ You know, I’m guilty of plenty of things that Frank [Murray’s character] rallies about. I just made an active decision six or seven years ago to change my life. I do try not to watch reality shows, I do try to do simple things and I do try to pursue what makes me happy. You know, that kind of stuff. I also, in my stand-up years ago, I made a decision – and occasionally I’ll still slip or I’ll take a shot at someone – but I really stopped being someone who celebrity bashed for no reason at all, just because I just don’t want to be known for that. It’s something I’m good at, and it’s a very lucrative thing if you’re willing to do it. But at the end of the day, I just didn’t like the way it made me feel.
So this is one of a few films that you’ve written or directed or both. Do you see it as a substantial departure from your earlier work in any specific way?
The theme is very similar to World’s Greatest Dad or Sleeping Dogs Lie. They’re all kind of about honesty and also about kindness. This one’s just a broader movie. Those other two were small movies about people with internal problems. But I hope that they’re all different. I do realize that the movies that I make have a similar tone, which you can’t escape unless you make movies within the studio system. And then the goal of those movies is to appeal to every single person.
And who wants to do that?
Well, you know, it’s just like stand-up comedy. People do it for all different reasons. Some people want to be famous, some people do it because they have something to say, and some people do it because they want to be liked. All different reasons. I guess I make movies because these are the stories that come out of me. That’s why I make the movies at the end of the day.
Do you have any future projects that you’re particularly excited about, or are you taking a break from the screenwriting and directing stuff for a while?
No, I have a bunch of different movies. I write movies and then I try to get them going. I would rather not make the screenplays I write than compromise them. My big dream project is a movie I wrote based on a Kinks album called Schoolboys on the Stage, and I’ve been working on that for years. I know I’ll make it someday, I just want to make it the right way. I would hate to disappoint Ray Davies.
Have you thought about moving to other forms of media, too? So many comics these days are building up fanbases through social media. Do you have any desire to do that kind of thing?
It seems like it’s inevitable. You want to know what I really think? [laughs] I really love what Marc Maron does, because it’s kind of fascinating. When Maron does his thing, it’s classic storytelling, you know? There’s a beginning, a middle, an end. He starts with a person, where they are, what happens to get them recognition, and then where they are now. That’s fascinating. But so much of [the other stuff out there] is just people interviewing each other and just talking. I want to make stuff, I want to create stuff. I don’t want to be famous just for being famous, I don’t want to just go on a microphone and blather about current events or what I ate or feud with every comedian. I like making stuff. I like being creative.
That’s a pretty resonant impulse, especially since the scene is so saturated with ad hoc discussions like you mentioned.
Yeah, but they’re popular. It’s kind of funny. They are popular. I don’t understand what that’s about, because you could just have a funny conversation with your friends, or talk to them about current events, you know what I mean? Some people make an effort, some of them are funny, but for me, to get up and talk for a couple hours every week about how awesome I am… it seems pretty indulgent.
I couldn’t agree more! [laughs]
This is the new wave of blowhards. It’s not really comedy, it’s just people being blowhards.
That’s all I have for you – anything else to add?
Yeah, look for my new podcast. [laughs] No, I’m going to keep writing odd little movies and keep doing stand-up so I don’t have to go to the poor house.