As much as I enjoy making fun of Sundance – the fashion, the faux-intellectualism, the pretensions of being “indie” – one of the great things about it is that you can be on your way somewhere, get lost, and stumble into a random bar where Bobcat Goldthwait is running a comedy show. So it was last night on Main Street in Park City, where Goldthwait hosted a quickie show in a small room, featuring sets by Kevin Pollak, Ken Jeong, Gregg Turkington (best known as Neil Hamburger), Barry Crimmins, and the Bay Area’s own Caitlin Gill.
Goldthwait was in town to promote his new movie, Call Me Lucky, a documentary about comedian and political satirist Barry Crimmins. With all the performers likewise in town to promote something, the sets were less about jokes and bits and more about their behind-scenes-anecdotes about filmmaking. As a dabbler in stand-up, it can be hard for me to watch comedy without feeling some form of either jealousy (for performers much better than me) or disgust (at bad audiences, bad comedy, bad venues, etc). But the way Goldthwait structured his appearance as more of a storytelling exercise was compelling, frequently hilarious, sad, and even touching, without really feeling like “material.” He opened telling us about shooting part of his first feature in the garage of a Hollywood house that seemed to be abandoned, using a crew hired from Craigslist. He described telling the crew to be quiet so as not to disturb the neighbors. When one knowingly asks, “Bob, did you not get a permit again?” Story Bob answers “Permit? I knocked the lock off the door and broke into the garage.”
Goldthwait introduced Ken Jeong next, who told a few anecdotes, mostly about his wife and kids, in a more subdued way than, say, The Hangover. He was funny and charming, and it was still slightly obnoxious to see how huge a reaction he got any time he did a louder voice or silly accent. People really do want comics as human cartoons.
If you’ve seen any of Bobcat’s movies, you know, or you may just know by reputation, that he has a willingness to go “dark.” That was certainly on display as he offered more anecdotes before introducing the next performers. He broached the subject of Robin Williams, “my best friend,” and the disease that killed him, a form of Parkinson’s. His sadness was present and palpable even as he ridiculed the “competitive grief” that seemed to break out after Williams’ death. He talked about losing his best friend and getting divorced and breaking up with his girlfriend the same year (along with a couple other traumatic events I’m probably forgetting here), living in a one-bedroom apartment as a 52-year-old man. Things briefly flirted with “too real” before Goldthwait brought it all back, with laughs at the expense of something just as real. “People always want to know if Robin ever talked to me about suicide. We’re comedians. Of course we talked about suicide. We knew each other for 31 years. Occasionally we talked about other things.”
Neither did he shy away from Bill Cosby, saying, “I’ve been talking about Bill Cosby being a rapist onstage for 20 years. Only I didn’t know it was actually true.”
Gregg Turkington, who usually performs in character, played himself for the night, sharing stories about shooting in some of California’s worst places, like Oildale and Ridgecrest, where his crew was invited into the home of a local fixer to recharge some equipment, only to be greeted by a massive Nazi flag. Kevin Pollak used his rightly-acclaimed impressionist skills to tell a Jack Nicholson anecdote from the set of A Few Good Men. Barry Crimmins did a short set of his activist-style comedy (“people always say ‘well if you think this country has so many problems, why don’t you leave?’ And I say ‘Because I don’t want to be victimized by its foreign policy.'”). And Caitlin Gill, who I already know from the San Francisco comedy scene (and didn’t expect to see), talked about helping Bobcat research Bigfoot nuts for Willow Creek, doing ten minutes of wonderful Bigfoot material. It was an evening of absurdist surprises.
Towards the end, Bobcat asked the crowd “Who’s that band that sucks?” And the crowd shouted, near-unanimously, “NICKELBACK!” without even knowing that Bobcat was actually about to tell a Nickelback story. I’d nearly shouted “Maroon 5!” after the question, and was glad I hadn’t, which would’ve spoiled that beautiful moment.
Prior to last night, I already knew Bobcat Goldthwait more as a movie and TV director and engaging interview subject than as the funny-voiced guy from the Police Academy movies, but this was the first time I’d seen him live. The way he moved the crowd through all the emotions of his stories – funny, touching, sad – in a way that felt adroit, but still off the cuff, was… well, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, kind of brilliant. He had the balls to take us some place dark or sad or even pitying (the kind of emotion that can totally derail a stand-up set), with either the confidence to be able to reel us back in or the f*ck you spirit not to care if we ever got back. But he did reel us back, and watching him do it was inspiring. Not inspiring as a person who ever wants to make an audience sad, but as one who wants to believe that if you just tell a story well enough, you don’t have to squeeze in punchlines where they don’t fit. I don’t know if these are the kinds of stories he usually tells on stage (and if so, I apologize for spoiling a couple of them), but I would’ve watched him for four hours. If you’re like me and you have the chance to see him get up somewhere, do it.