"When I left San Francisco is when stand-up started to feel like work," says Bobcat Goldthwait. Before the Hollywood comedian was a household name, he molded his brash, nonsequitur'd comedy persona in the 1980s at comedy incubators such as the Other Cafe, Wolfgang's, and Cobb's. The latter is where he met future friend and collaborator Robin Williams, whom he most recently directed in 2009's World's Greatest Dad.
Goldthwait's latest written and directed feature film, God Bless America, is a murderous send-up of reality television. As that readies for theatrical release (it's now available via video on demand), he's giving stand-up comedy some fresh enthusiasm. He'll appear at Tommy T's Showroom for three nights starting Thursday.
We spoke with Goldthwait about how living and working in San Francisco affected his comedic outlook, what he'd like to do to MTV, and learned the name of the one crappy reality show he still allows himself as a guilty pleasure.
How did being in San Francisco shape your stand-up career?
When I was here, it was when I kind of became a headliner and also where I would get struck with an idea during the course of the day and just try it on stage. People were coming to my show because they would hear me on Alex Bennett [a comedy producer and radio personality who had shows on KITS (Live 105), KMEL, and KQAK] and wanted to know what I looked like, so I'd do my show from inside a cardboard box, the whole set.
I also remember that the Other Cafe was across the street from a laundry, and so myself and the opening acts would do our laundry during the show, to the point where we'd take off our clothes and just perform in our underwear [laughs] while waiting for our cycle to be finished. So it was very fun, and then when I left it became a job because it was kind of like what I was doing for a living and people had expectations of what they were going to see when they saw me, so I kind of got stuck doing this act that wasn't necessarily fun for me anymore.
So you think of your time here as a bit more fun?
Oh yeah, it was really fun. It was probably slightly indulgent, but it was very fun.
Do you feel sharper as a comedian nowadays?
I'm probably back to the point where I have a lot more freedom onstage, so yeah.
Might you get back into a cardboard box?
[laughs] Yeah, maybe! Except the box will have to be a little bigger now.
What can people expect when they come to see you this week at Tommy T's?
It's a mixture of autobiographical and then whatever else is just kind of popping in my head. And also, because I have done stand-up so long, worst case scenario there's always some material to rely on. I'd rather not, but it's a little bit like a wedding band when you go, "Oh, this isn't working. I'd better do 'Big Butts' [Sir Mix-A-Lot's 'Baby Got Back']."
Your lead character Frank in God Bless America goes around killing annoying people from reality television. Is he getting to act out a personal fantasy of yours?
I think the big difference between Frank and I is that he went around taking out individuals, but I would just blow up MTV. I wouldn't kill the participants or the fans, I would totally go to the root. Joel [Murray, who plays Frank] and my wife insist that I'm Frank, but I know I'm not. Because I know I'm a lot happier than he is.
Do you watch any reality television at all?
I allow myself one show: RuPaul's Drag Race.
What? Why that one?
I just think this one guy Sharon Needles is great and I want him to win.
It seems pretty clear what you think about the genre in general, but as a writer and director, has it ever appealed to you to create a reality show, even in a warped way?
No, not at all. And obviously, being somebody who was famous in the '80s, trust me -- I've been asked to be on quite a few. No, for some reason I just view them as the enemy because they really do put actors and writers and directors out of work. So I try not to be part of it. Just RuPaul's Drag Race.
Bob Goldthwait appears Thursday-Saturday (April 12-14) at Tommy T's Showroom, 1000 Van Ness (at O'Farrell), S.F. Admission is $15-$30.