But as Kaufman’s legend grew, and his role as the befuddled foreigner Latka on TV’s “Taxi” brought him national fame, he couldn’t do that act anymore. Everyone knew he wasn’t foreign. So Kaufman transformed himself into an insulting, untalented lounge singer named Tony Clifton.
Bobcat Goldthwait, famous for his screeching, nails-on-a-blackboard voice, has undergone a similar transformation. Gone are the days when he’d take the stage, read a “Dear John” letter and cry. That was Bobcat as a teen; he’s 45 now.
“I wasn’t really thinking if the crowd was going to necessarily get it or not,” says Goldthwait. “It was always more about trying to make them uncomfortable. It was very self-indulgent. I was trying to entertain myself.”
The early Bobcat, immortalized on the classic 1988 comedy recording “Meat Bob,” featured a snarling, manic personality, prone to uttering out proclamations such as “Scott Baio is the anti-Christ.” His voice alternated between growling and sounding as though he was about to cry.
“It was a character I did,” Goldthwait says. “It was just my idea of doing someone who shouldn’t be on stage. And I was a big Andy Kaufman fan when I was a kid.”
Tom Kenny remembers Goldthwait’s early appearances.
“Since he’s been around for a while, you’ve got to imagine the impact he had when he first started doing clubs,” Kenny says. “It was unbelievable. Here’s a guy who seemed like he just walked in off the street. He seemed like a mental patient who walked in off the street and grabbed the microphone and was just babbling.”
Kenny and Goldthwait, both members of the Bishop Grimes Class of 1980, attended the Syracuse, N.Y., Catholic high school together. Even then, Kenny says, Goldthwait enjoyed messing with people’s minds.
“In the morning you’d come in and Bob would have set up a lemonade stand in the front hallway of the school and be selling lemonade, just because he thought it would be funny to open a lemonade stand in the hallway,” says Kenny.
Kenny, who followed Goldthwait into standup, is best known today as the voice of the Nickeloden cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. He also appeared as the evil clown Binky in the 1991 cult movie “Shakes the Clown,” which Goldthwait starred in as well as wrote and directed. The movie featured a cameo by Robin Williams and a performance by a young Adam Sandler.
Goldthwait says Sandler probably has the same reaction to “Shakes” as someone else would to finding their role in a porno film coming to light. “I can’t imagine he promotes the fact that he was in ‘Shakes’ when people ask him. … ‘Yeah, I was a young kid and I needed the money.’”
Goldthwait earned his fame — or notoriety, for once setting a chair on fire during an appearance on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” — through decades of appearances on TV and at comedy clubs. He’s well known enough that “Entertainment Tonight” sometimes will remember to call attention to his birthday (May 26).
“When ‘Entertainment Tonight’ does your birthday, you go, ‘Wow. That’s weird.’ And the year they don’t do it, you go, ‘Hey. What happened? I’m still alive.’”
Goldthwait says he knew as early as the third grade that he wanted to be a comedian. He remembers he was 13 when he heard Rodney Dangerfield say comedians have to write jokes. So he began to write jokes. He says he met Dangerfield years later “and he ended up being a big asshole” so he didn’t tell him that story.
Goldthwait can’t remember the first joke he ever wrote. “I found some notes the other day from the early act and it was obvious that Steve Martin was a big influence.”
He was also a fan of George Carlin and “Saturday Night Live” and Monty Python, but it was Kaufman who Goldthwait wound up emulating the most.
“He wanted to mess with people’s perceptions,” Kenny says. “Especially back then, in the early ’80s, a standup comedian was a guy with a suitcoat or a sweater and maybe the sleeves rolled up. ‘Who’s on dates? Anybody on dates? Who’s dating? Men and women are different, aren’t they? Why do women take so long to get ready?’ There was this sort of hackneyed observational standup style and Bob just went up and blew that to smithereens. One of his lines was, ‘How’s everybody doing tonight? Scratch that. I don’t care how you’re doing. I’m never going to see you again.’”
“I just kind of was interested in what I thought was funny,” Goldthwait says. “I wasn’t really thinking if the crowd was going to necessarily get it or not. I was always more about trying to make them uncomfortable. It was very self-indulgent.”
After initial success in Syracuse, Goldthwait struck out for Boston. Kenny, who performed as Tomcat to Goldthwait’s Bobcat while still in school, wound up following Goldthwait, first to Boston and then to San Francisco.
“I was always kind of just a couple of steps behind him in his wake,” says Kenny, who reveals it was Goldthwait who pushed him to do standup comedy.
“He encouraged me,” Kenny says. “I wouldn’t have tried it if it wasn’t for him. He pushed me to do it. I always had this secret desire to do it but was a little shy about it. He was the more outgoing of the two of us. He pushed me up on stage and gave me the confidence to do it. I actually owe him for that.”
People magazine in 1984 singled Goldthwait as one of the stars of tomorrow, alongside such whatever-happened-to names as Patrick Ewing, Tom Cruise and Glenn Close.
“I first started out as trying to make fun of standup comedy,” says Goldthwait. “I’d be this guy who couldn’t get a joke out. Then I went on Letterman when I was 20 and then what happened was I started getting booked as a comedian. Before that, I was just in Boston, where I all I had to do was 15-, 20-minute sets so it could be very abstract. And I became a comedian. I became the thing I was trying to make fun of.”
“Since he’s been around for a while, you’ve got to imagine the impact he had when he first started doing clubs,” Kenny says. “It was unbelievable. Here was a guy who seemed like he just walked in off the street. He seemed like a mental patient who walked in off the street and grabbed the microphone and was just babbling. Then the more you listened to the babble, the more it was really great jokes and points of view that made sense and well-observed social criticism and topical humor.”
Goldthwait’s career began to take off, and he found his Bobcat persona in demand for a series of largely forgettable film roles, including three of the 1980s “Police Academy” movies and the 1987 movie “Burglar.” Based on the Lawrence Block mystery, “Burglar” offered Goldthwait as an unusual casting choice; in the book his character is a lesbian dog groomer.
“I think Whoopi [Goldberg] originally was supposed to play the lesbian dog groomer and Bruce Willis was supposed to play the burglar. And by the time it got made, I was the lesbian,” Goldthwait says.
Goldthwait says he’s only been in a couple of movies that don’t embarrass him. He was in the 2001 cocaine drama “Blow,” which also featured another manic comic, Pee-Wee Herman (in real life Paul Reubens). He also doesn’t mind “Shakes the Clown.” Goldthwait also voiced the character of Pain in the 1997 animated Disney movie “Hercules.”
“I do run into parents that go, ‘I am so tired of hearing your fucking voice,’” says Goldthwait, who adds seeing his character turned into a toy for McDonald’s Happy Meals was “pretty surreal.”
Goldthwait could be heard during the mid- to late 1990s as the voice of a stuffed rabbit named Mr. Floppy on the WB series “Unhappily Ever After.” The Antichrist himself, Scott Baio, directed an episode. “Oddly enough, I don’t think he even brought that up.”
Goldthwait also found himself as the voice of Charlton Heston’s penis during a segment on “The Man Show,” the Comedy Central program that co-starred Jimmy Kimmel and ended each episode with girls bouncing on trampolines. Goldthwait directed various segments of the show.
On the phone, Goldthwait is soft-spoken, thoughtful and funny. He admits he’s happier now than he was years ago, when he was facing more public scrutiny as he became more successful.
“There was a period when I was going from movie to movie,” he says. “I’m sure they assume that’s like people’s dreams, but I wasn’t very happy. Maybe I’m just happy now because I’m old.”
He limits his standup performances now, spending his time instead directing episodes of the ABC program “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and working on other projects. He brought his third feature film, “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” a dark comedy about bestiality, to the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. (His second film was “Windy City Heat,” a 2003 movie about a man who doesn’t know his Hollywood celebrity is all part of a big joke.)
Goldthwait released his long-awaited follow-up CD, “I Don’t Mean to Insult You, But You Look Like Bobcat Goldthwait,” in 2003.
Kenny says his friend’s act has “more Bob in it than Bobcat” these days but that “he still retains a fair amount of that punk rock tilting at windmills kind of sensibility.”
Goldthwait’s fans should appreciate the fact that Goldthwait isn’t the angry, bitter comic he appears to be on stage. Offstage, he’s just Bob.
“I like the fact that I have a persona,” Goldthwait says. “I’m not the life of the party. If I was at a party, I wouldn’t be the loudest guy, cracking jokes, or I wouldn’t be the guy sitting in the corner making fun of other people. I would just be an average guy. So I like having a persona ‘cause it’s like someone else does the standup comedy.”