Episode 605: Bobcat Goldthwait, Megan Abbott, The Last Action Heroes

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Bobcat Goldthwait
© Nick Larson

Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait talks about his first stand-up album in 12 years. Also, the award-winning author Megan Abbott on her thriller, “Beware the Woman.” And author Nick de Semlyen takes us behind the scenes of Hollywood’s action movie era.

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  • Bobcat Goldthwait returns with 'Soldier for Christ,' his first new comedy album in 12 years

    Editor’s note: This story contains language and videos that may not be appropriate for some audiences.

    The legendary comedian Bobcat Goldthwait is back with a new stand-up comedy album, “Soldier for Christ.

    You probably remember Bobcat as the loud, raspy-voiced character Zed in the “Police Academy” movies. But don’t ask him to “do the voice.” He doesn’t do it anymore.

    He’ll explain why later in this article. But in the meantime, we recommend that you keep reading. After all, we went to the time and trouble of writing this detailed digital article as a companion piece to the audio interview. It’s the least you can do.

    Goldthwait moved from L.A. to the Midwest a few years ago. He says that he’s considered thin there.

    He’s ssssooo thin that he calls himself “the Daniel Craig of DuPage County, Illinois.” This leads us here at Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” to wonder if that means Daniel Craig is “the Bobcat Goldthwait of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.”

    We should have asked him.

    Goldthwait describes “Soldier of Christ” as being kind of like jazz.

    “There are a lot of bits on there that are really stream of consciousness stories I’ve never told before,” Goldthwait said. “I would go to this club here in Chicago (the Lincoln Lodge) and I would go on stage and do these long sets, and that’s what this is. That’s what the ‘Soldier of Christ’ is from.”

    One day, Goldthwait was late arriving for a gig, and his “stream of consciousness” transformed into a mighty river of consciousness when he saw something on the side of the highway.

    “I was sitting in traffic and I look over, and it’s a graveyard, a cemetery. And a mylar SpongeBob (SquarePants) balloon catches my eye. And, you know, Tom Kenny‘s been my best friend since I was 6 years old. He’s the voice of SpongeBob,” Goldthwait said.

    “First of all, it’s weird because I slowed down and tried to get a picture of it, so that makes me a ghoul. But I wanted to show him. But I was also thinking about how horrible that would be. Like if you’re there visiting a deceased relative and then you look over and you see something sad, or then your grandma. You see a SpongeBob balloon in a cemetery. It’s like, dude, you ruined it for the whole cemetery.

    Goldthwait opens for Nirvana: ‘Here we are now, introduce us’

    During the autumn of 1993, Goldthwait opened for Nirvana.

    He said about every third show would go OK. If the crowd was enjoying his jokes, he would perform longer.

    “Kurt was a fan of my stand-up, which is always weird for people to find out,” Goldthwait said. “It’s like finding out that Jimi Hendrix slugged Buddy Hackett or something. But he (Cobain) liked my stand-up.”

    Goldthwait was actually on the road with Nirvana when they did their “MTV Unplugged” show.

    “And it’s kind of funny because after they did the show they did that cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” I remember the hairs going up on my arms when Kurt sang that. And so they walk offstage, and I was standing there and clearly the producers and MTV would have been happy if they did more. And I said, ‘Oh, don’t go out there. You’re not going to top that.’ So they didn’t go out. So I’m the guy that ruined it for some people,” he said.

    Early in his career, Goldthwait spoke in a loud, raspy voice. Why?

    “Because I was nervous, and I was making fun of stand-up comedy, and I liked to hide up there,” he said. “I didn’t like people actually knowing me or anything about me. And my heroes were Andy Kaufman and Brother Theodore.”

    But then Goldthwait said he became the thing he was making fun of.

    “But I just made a decision. I was in Nashville one night and I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ you know?” he said. “And I went out as me, and people were like going, ‘Do the voice.’ But I kind of stuck to my guns because I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was no longer scared, and I was no longer making fun of comedy.”

  • Megan Abbott's 'Beware the Woman' is a pulsating and propulsive exploration of a young bride's pregnancy

    If David Byrne were to provide a blurb for Megan Abbott’s latest novel, “Beware the Woman,” all he would have to do is quote the following lyric from “Psycho Killer“: “I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax.”

    Actually, that would work for all of Abbott’s novels. She has the uncanny, Abbottesque ability to make your heart beat faster and your eyes read her powerful prose as quickly as possible. Her hot streak continues with “Beware the Woman.”

    It’s about a newlywed, pregnant young woman named Jacy. She and her husband, Jed, take a road trip to visit Jed’s father, Doctor Ash, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

    I think that if Daphne du Maurier’s novel “Rebecca” and Ira Levin’s novel “Rosemary’s Baby” hooked up and somehow had a baby, the offspring would be “Beware the Woman.” What does Abbott think?

    “They were definitely my primary influences. So that that makes sense to me,” Abbott told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.” “They’re both books that mean a lot to me, and they were both hovering in my head quite a bit, so I would take it as the highest compliment.”

    The caretaker character, the mysterious Mrs. Brandt, is reminiscent of the main antagonist Mrs. Danvers in du Maurier’s novel.

    “The caretaker character in ‘Rebecca’ has always been a source of fascination for me,” Abbott said.

    “And she’s such a mysterious, enigmatic figure. Many people may remember her from the movie version, the Hitchcock version, and she’s such a looming presence in that house. So in some ways, I’m sort of doing my riff on her.”

    “Beware the Woman” is told from Jacy’s point of view. As Abbott points out, the first-person perspective “really creates this instant intimacy with the reader.”

    “You get to be so close so fast, and it also creates a kind of urgency. There’s only so much description you can offer because people’s internal voices aren’t really that descriptive,” she said. “So it really gives it this momentum, too. Because the story was going to be confined in a small space, I wanted to have this propulsive quality.”

    Since the reader is seeing the narrative through Jacy’s mind, it gives them the chance to consider the possibility that she may be an unreliable narrator.

    “In some ways, all narrators are unreliable. I suppose that whenever we talk about our own lives, we’re always crafting our story. I think we tend to assume that we’re getting the unvarnished truth. And I think that’s what Jacy is giving us,” she said. “And I think what really helps with first person in a book like this is so much of it is her questioning, whether her growing paranoia is just paranoia or if there’s really something to be worried about.”

    Abbott said “Beware the Woman” derived completely from the anxieties and fears that were dwelling in her subconscious concerning reproductive rights.

    “There were a lot of anxieties about women and about women’s bodies and legislation and courts,” she explained. “And it was sort of hovering in the air. And I don’t really write explicit books about any of these things. But the fear was in me and I tend to write out of my own fears. So I think that’s how it kind of came through.”

    When Abbott is writing, she said she likes to feel fully immersed in the work so she knows the reader will be also be captivated.

    “I don’t have a healthy distance from it, so I do really get in that headspace and sort of smelling the smells and hearing the sounds and feeling the whisper of the wind on my back is really a big part of that. I’m always glad when I finish the book. “It’s sort of like escaping from my own private hell.

    “Beware the Woman” is set in Abbott’s home state of Michigan, something she said she’s only rarely done.

    “And it was so beautiful and exotic up there. It had sort of different customs, traditions, its own slang, and it just felt like such a fascinating place to set the book because of its remoteness, its sort of pristine beauty, and that it would be pretty mysterious to Jacy who’s never been there. And so it’s just almost like entering another country for her. So it puts her at this double disadvantage because she doesn’t know the landscape or that world at all.”

  • Nick de Semlyen's 'The Last Action Heroes' offers behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood's most muscular era

    In the summer of 1985, in the wake of the TWA 847 hostage crisis, then-President Ronald Reagan prepped in the Oval Office for a televised address to the nation. While testing the mic for the technical staff on hand, the most powerful man in the world uttered that he was happy he’d watched “Rambo: First Blood Part 2” the night before, because, “I know what to do the next time this happens.”

    “It’s fascinating, because I can’t think of another example where you have a serving President of the United States being so friendly with a star,” author Nick de Semlyen tells Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.”

    That star, of course, is Sylvester Stallone.

    It wasn’t the last time the President would gush over a Stallone film in front of a mic. The two famously spoke over the phone while Stallone was filming “Rambo III” in 1988.

    “Reagan would show these big action movies in the White House. And you can’t help but think he must have been a bit affected by what he was seeing in them because, you know, you’ve got his friend waging war against the Russians when he kind of wasn’t allowed to do it himself. But it’s a really fascinating dynamic,” de Semlyen says.

    Stallone headlines this era of action movies from the mid-70s through the mid-90s that de Semlyen covers in his book, “The Last Action Heroes: The Triumphs, Flops, and Feuds of Hollywood’s Kings of Carnage.”

    These stars were really at their absolute zenith and just cranking out these iconic films, which people still love today, and they’re still inspiring sequels and remakes,” he says.

    Much like the country, stars like Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were engaged in their own “cinematic arms race.” Unlike his onscreen alter egos in the “Rocky” and “Rambo” franchises, Stallone was a bookish thespian with a passion for writing.

    “(Stallone’s) story is kind of incredible. And it was really interesting to chronicle because he really, really struggled for a long time,” says de Semlyen. “It’s almost unbelievable. It’s almost like a Dickens novel, like what he went through to get to where he went. You know, he was basically living on the streets of New York.”

    After studying abroad in Europe, Stallone was determined to make it as an actor in New York City, cleaning the lion cages at the Central Park Zoo for rent money. After being peed on by the big cats and suffering through a high level of degradation just to work, he was offered a chance to funnel all of those feelings and emotions into a script.

    “He got there through sheer force of will. It’s almost like watching one of his own movies. He got there through writing. Writing the ‘Rocky’ script and then refusing to let anyone else star in it,” de Semlyen says.

    ‘They couldn’t stand each other’

    The other titan of the action films era was the flipside to Stallone’s coin. Arnold Schwarzenegger was about as far away from Stallone’s bookishness as possible, but he had a similar sheer force of will that led to a very similar rags-to-riches story.

    “He just came to America and he was not going to he was not going to accept any ‘No’s.’ He came with a list of things he wanted to do, and becoming a big Hollywood star was just one entry on his list,” de Semlyen says.

    Much like his decision to transform his body when he was a teen, the former Mr. Universe focused on building his career with the same intensity and focus.

    “Arnold was thinking about becoming a serious actor, and he was doing these very serious acting exercises. And then at a certain point, he decided, ‘I’m going to become an action star.’ And I think a big part of that was just he saw that was where he was going to make the most money,” says de Semlyen. “He was very upfront about, ‘I’m going to make money.’ And when he set his mind to something, he just went ahead and did it.”

    Stallone and Schwarzenegger famously feuded during their early careers. At the 1976 Golden Globe Awards, as Stallone silently stewed over the ongoing snubs of “Rocky,” he grew impatient with the boisterous Austrian sitting at a nearby table.

    “It was literal War of the Roses, really, because it started with an unbelievable story in which Stallone picks up a bowl of flowers at the Golden Globes and lobbed it in Schwarzenegger’s direction. So, they already disliked each other at that point, or certainly Stallone disliked Schwarzenegger at first glance, and it just intensified from there,” de Semlyen says.

    “They couldn’t stand each other,” he continues. “They obviously were extremely competitive at the box office, but it spilled over into interviews where you would have Schwarzenegger talking about how much he hated Stallone’s fur coats and they’d make fun of each other and each other’s films.”

    The feud peaked when Schwarzenegger leaked he was interested in doing a comedy film, “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot,” opposite Golden Girl Estelle Getty. When Stallone got wind of it, he pulled out the stops to get in the picture. The movie flopped and Schwarzenegger laughed that he’d fooled Stallone.

    They buried the hatchet for financial reasons. The two of them — along with fellow budding action hero Bruce Willis — were investors and promoters of the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain. Turns out at the time, there was no limit to the audience’s appetite for action movie atmosphere.

    “It was actually huge back then. They would fly around, Schwarzenegger and Stallone, in private jets. And it was through that experience that they started actually talking and realizing they were actually quite similar, which is often the way when two people hate each other, often they realize that they actually have lots in common,” de Semlyen says.

    For his part, Willis was fresh off his game-changing action role as cop John McClane in the film “Die Hard,” which would revolutionize both action films and heroes.

    “You can’t overstate what an impact ‘Die Hard’ had. It’s incredible. I can’t think of another genre where you have one film come along and just completely change the course of what everyone else is doing,” says de Semlyen.

    “‘Die Hard’ set this very clean template for the action movie,” he continues. “Which is, your hero is on his own, is in a contained space of some kind, and he’s got this group of villains who are menacing him, who he’s got to kind of outwit in a kind of game of cat and mouse.”

    Numerous films followed this template and still do today. But in 1988, it was fresh and thrilling, largely due to Willis’ vulnerable performance and his lack of a bulky physique.

    “He definitely was less formidable looking than Arnold or Sly at that time and it really made ‘Die Hard’ super effective because you really worry for him because he looks like an ordinary guy,” says de Semlyen. “John McClane is this NYPD cop, and he’s got a gun, but he spends a lot of the movie running away from the terrorists and he’s hiding in advance. And at one point he cries, and these were things that just didn’t happen in the action movie.”

    De Semlyen says Willis’ performance was brave and led to a new breed of action stars.

    “You then had Keanu Reeves, you had Wesley Snipes, you had all these guys in the 90s who were much more relatable guys. They weren’t these giant, muscly gym guys. They were people you could relate to that kind of looked like us. And they were put into these impossible situations and often they were vulnerable,” he says.

    De Semlyen devotes a large chunk of “The Last Action Heroes” to some of the era’s “smaller” martial arts action stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and Jackie Chan.

    “I think (Chan) does amazing things that frankly, no human should do. Again and again, I don’t know how he’s alive, but he has such a fearsome commitment to action. He’s dedicated his entire life to it and risked his life many times over,” says de Semlyen.

    “He was trying to break into Hollywood several times and it just kept going wrong. And then, finally, it was Stallone who actually invited him over to Hollywood and kind of facilitated his breakthrough.”

    It’s unknown if Reagan ever shaped his political positions on China from watching Chan’s films.

    The Last Action Heroes” is available now from Crown.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Bobcat Goldthwait Guest
  • Megan Abbott Guest
  • Nick de Semlyen Guest

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