“I was terrified of Willie Whistle,” comedian Dana Gould confesses, at which point Bobcat Goldthwait launches into an unsettling impression of the creepy, squeaky-voiced clown who terrorized local TV audiences on WSBK TV-38 Saturday mornings throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. We’re backstage at the Brattle Theatre just prior to the Independent Film Festival Boston’s premiere of “Joy Ride,” a new documentary directed by Goldthwait. The scabrously funny and surprisingly touching film chronicles a comedy tour he and Gould undertook in 2019, one that almost ended before it began thanks to a car crash on the way to an early gig in Atlanta that August. The two men came very close to dying on top of one another, and the punchline is they didn’t really like each other before then.
Goldthwait and Gould first met while coming up together in legendary Boston comedy clubs like the Ding Ho and Play it Again, Sam’s back in the early 1980s, and did not get on at all. “I was really s----- to him,” the director sheepishly admits. Indeed, his rambunctious, larger-than-life Bobcat persona haunts the documentary via old video footage, trashing the sets of talk shows and bellowing vile insults in the demented, strangulated scream that became a cable TV staple via three increasingly unwatchable “Police Academy” sequels. What’s maybe most jarring about “Joy Ride” is the contrast between the mellow, reflective Goldthwait of today and clips of the berserker behaving badly in the past. “I am the villain of the movie,” he concedes.
"I am the villain of the movie."Bobcat Goldthwait
Over the years, Goldthwait has become an IFFBoston mainstay with a string of low-budget, aggressively independent movies. I first encountered him as a filmmaker in 2009 at a Coolidge Corner closing night screening of his gasp-inducingly funny “World’s Greatest Dad,” a shoestring affair which starred his best friend Robin Williams in a sicko suicide comedy so brazen it shook the auditorium walls. He fondly remembers Williams calling him during the movie, “Robin wanted to know if he was getting laughs. I guess we’re all insane and insecure. So I stood in the back of the theater and held the phone up so he could hear that reaction. Isn’t that funny?” When I mention that the raucous Somerville Theatre premiere of his 2015 “Call Me Lucky” was the first time I ever saw a movie critic get thrown-up on at a film festival, Goldthwait smiles wistfully, “Boston never disappoints.”
Originally intended as a straightforward standup special, “Joy Ride” became something else entirely after he and Gould’s near-death experience. When the tour eventually resumed, a still-concussed Goldthwait put cameras in the backseat and shot their searching discussions that came about on the road. “One of the reasons the conversation in the car went to where it did was that we did have a moment when we both thought we were dead,” Gould explains. “It got a little heavy.” Noting that standup comics are not exactly known for this kind of emotional availability, he quips, “I’m bidding on a rare photograph of a comedian having a conversation and listening to the other person.”
The film alternates between navigating the comics’ rocky personal histories and hilarious performance footage in which their contrasting styles quite unexpectedly complement each other. Gould is all over the stage, doing wild voices and oversized gestures. His childhood dream was to someday play the weird assistant in a horror movie, which is why Goldthwait calls him “the Renfield of comedy.” Meanwhile, the formerly frenetic Bobcat stands stock still with his arms folded, soft-spoken and struggling with confessional anecdotes about getting older, like when he was sexting his girlfriend Erin without wearing his glasses, and accidentally sent intimate messages to local automobile magnate Ernie Boch Jr.
The two comics originally headlined their own solo segments of the show, but soon found both they and audiences preferred when they were working off each other. There’s an affection that’s contagious, however hard-won. “To me what this film is, it shows two people who are comedians. It doesn’t show how they became comedians, but it does show you why they became comedians,” Gould elaborates. “If anything in the film is beautiful it’s that you’ve got two people who had a lot of issues and animosity and other s--- in their lives, and that we are able to become friends because we let go of things.”
“People surviving being comedians,” Goldthwait chuckles. “It’s interesting, taking comedy seriously. I do believe it’s overdocumented and I do believe it’s over-commented on. People who obsessively and — comedians especially — who talk about the nature of comedy and dissect comedy are like those guys who are always very explicitly talking about sex and you think, ‘This guy doesn’t get laid.’ Those comics who dissect comedy are never the funny comedians. They turn comedy into sports.” And don’t get him started on the comedians who are making headlines today by complaining about cancel culture.
“It’s a Ponzi scam,” Goldthwait scoffs. “They’re all f---ing millionaires. They are never punished. They never suffer. They just make more money. It reminds me of the ‘80s when shock jocks would be like, ‘The man is destroying me, the FCC is breathing down on me, the management, the sponsors are giving me a hard time.’ Then their fans all rally and they end up making millions of dollars. No one’s freedom of speech is at risk. If you work for a corporation, if you work at McDonald’s and they say, ‘Hey, would you not say [the c-word] when the customers are here?’ You can’t say ‘But my freedom of speech!’”
"There is no line in comedy. You can say any f---ing thing you want. But there are consequences."Dana Gould
“I’m being muzzled!” Gould mockingly cries, “Listen to my new podcast, ‘Muzzled!’ Buy my new book called ‘Muzzled!’ They say there shouldn’t be a line in comedy. There is no line in comedy. You can say any f---ing thing you want. But there are consequences. They just don’t want to be held responsible. Why should you be exempt?”
The subject comes up again during the post-screening Q&A. When an audience member brings up “Airplane!” director David Zucker’s recent editorial in the New York Post about how political correctness is killing comedy, Gould takes a moment to pull up on his phone an article from 1954, in which beloved comic Jack Albertson laments the loss of blackface and complains that minority groups are making life rough for comedians.
“There are bits that you could do a couple years ago that you can’t do now. When has that not been true?” Gould asks. “Culture evolves and mores change. You can’t go back. And the flip side of it is, you have to let people adapt. If you said something that was untoward eight years ago, well it was eight years ago. Good for you, if you’re willing to learn and grow. You can’t call yourself a progressive if you don’t let people progress.”
Such progress is the theme of “Joy Ride,” in which Gould discusses how his routine used to begin with bits about AIDS, rape and 9/11. At the Brattle, he tells me he never noticed until Boston comedy legend Steven Wright pointed out how strange the topics looked written out like that on the setlist. (Goldthwait interjects with a dead-on impersonation of the monotone comic: “That’s the weirdest grocery list.”) These two former frenemies seem committed to evolving their acts together. “We’re not done,” the filmmaker promises. “I think there’s value to a little hindsight. It’s frightening how many things Dana and I have in common.”
So Gould has also accidentally sexted with Ernie Boch Jr.?
“Not accidentally,” Gould laughs. “I was trying to get a deal on a Prius.”
“Joy Ride” will be available on VOD starting Friday, Oct. 29.