Anyone familiar with Bobcat Goldthwait might consider him an odd role model for a thirteen year old, but in 1987 his tremulous blend of humor and frustration was just the sort of influence that helped me harness my angst and find some self-esteem.
By the time I was thirteen, I had bounced back and forth between four different households as my parents split up and tried to figure out the custody situation. These transitions meant saying goodbye to friends and changing schools more often than I liked. The last move uprooted me from rural Westport, Massachusetts to an urban setting when my mom accepted a new teaching job in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In Westport, I had grown accustomed to the possibility of escapee cows wandering into our backyard from a nearby pasture. In Bridgeport, I needed to get used to the idea of drive-by-shootings: like when our neighbor attempted to start a neighborhood watch, and the neighborhood disagreed.
I didn’t handle this transition well. I started the seventh grade as the new kid in an already established classroom community. I had the wrong clothes, the wrong haircut, and spoke with a thick Massachusetts accent. I may as well have been sporting a straw hat and a sprig of wheat jutting out of my mouth, a country mouse in the city. In spite of my painful awkwardness, I was able to make some friends. I whittled away at my Massachusetts accent, learning to articulate my Rs and slipped into the role of class clown. I amused my peers with armpit farts, insufferable Pee-Wee Herman impressions, and gross-out drawings inspired by Mad Magazine and Garbage Pail Kids.
As I caught my reflection in the fun house mirror of puberty, I realized that I was the lowly jester in the social hierarchy of my classroom. Angry and upset, I missed my friends and family back home in Massachusetts. My grades declined, and I quickly became one of those kids the teachers described with phrases like “acting out,” or “emotional problems.” My mother taught some of the younger grades in the school, so most of my behavior was reported to her in real-time, though this never stopped me from acting out. In fact, her being a teacher there likely provoked my disruptions to differentiate myself and prove that I wasn’t a narc. I felt isolated in the realization that the world was a confusing, unfair, and often unsafe place. It was likely a paranoid by-product of my general anxiety surrounding the move, but I started to feel I was going crazy and was certain everyone could tell.
I’d stop at nothing for a laugh, one time resorting to micro-explosives to entertain my classmates. On one occasion as our teacher turned her back to write on the blackboard, I sniped around her with Pop Pop novelty noisemakers. She spent most of the lesson demanding to know the identity of the sniper. Stifling our snickers, my classmates and I responded with stone faces. She eventually caught me with me with the open box of explosives, confiscated them, and slammed them down on her desk in small explosion of gunpowder and sawdust. Alone, Pop Pop noisemakers are painless, but I have to imagine that an exploding box-full might sting a bit. I drove that poor woman nuts.
That year, I was given a hand-me-down Betamax VCR by a man my mother was dating. This top-loading behemoth served as a welcomed distraction from my troubles. As the Betamax had already lost to VHS in the great format wars, it wasn’t easy to find things to watch. The Bridgeport public library housed a very limited collection of Betamax titles like Moscow on the Hudson, WarGames, and Sixteen Candles. Luckily, one of my classmates who also had a Betamax was kind enough to pass on viewing material pinched from his father’s collection. He provided viewing material like A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, the raunchy sex-romp Screwballs, and an unlabeled girl-on-girl late night cable feature that ultimately left me feeling uncomfortable. My favorite hand-me-down beta tape was a copy of Bobcat Goldthwait’s HBO comedy special, An Evening with Bobcat Goldthwait: Share the Warmth.
Looking beyond the gonzo persona, Goldthwait’s comedy is astute and painfully honest. Like most of his earlier performances, his act is delivered in a series of shouts and stammers that serve the material as an onomatopoetic articulation of confusion and disgust with the socio-political landscape. One might imagine that it was the hypocrisy and absurdity that had driven him to madness. The material in Share the Warmth is sometimes bizarre and dark, but transcends the affected persona in Goldthwait’s ability unapologetically skewer socio-political topics revealing the absurdities and hypocrisies within. Admittedly, my thirteen-year-old brain didn’t entirely understand all of the higher brow satire, but I understood enough to know that causing discomfort in others through forced introspection was comedy gold.
Share the Warmth remained in my VCR and suffered many replays and rewinds. Bobcat’s surreal stage persona reflected how I felt inside. In no time, I started perfecting my Bobcat Goldthwait impersonation, and memorizing bits from his stand-up routine to the delight of my seventh grade classmates. Even some of the older eighth graders would stop me in the hallway and ask me to do my Bobcat impersonation. I gladly obliged barking out one of the comedian’s tremulous jokes to be rewarded with laughter, applause, and the occasional, “you’re so crazy,” which always felt like equal parts compliment, complaint, and insult.
The popularity of my Bobcat impersonation prompted me to enter the seventh grade talent show. With a queasy stomach, I walked out onto the stage in front of a packed gymnasium, and delivered a solid four minutes of material, most of which was cribbed from Share the Warmth and censored for my target audience. In hindsight, intentionally stammering into a microphone at an audience who expects the standard talent show fare hardly seems like a good idea. Maybe I was crazy.
Luckily, my performance was videotaped allowing me to be mortified for years to come. If cringeworthy entertainment is your thing, watch the video below.
The video opens with a second grade teacher introducing me as mimicking the comedy of “Bobcat Goldwith.” Her mispronunciation of Goldthwait, suggests that at least one audience member had no idea what she was in store for, but I imagine she was not alone. As the curtains opened onto the audience full of teachers, parents, and students, I began with a series of hoots and shouts, trying my best to imitate not only Bobcat’s voice, but body language. With all eyes of the audience on me, I’m surprised I didn’t piss myself. Thankfully, my baseline nervous energy and stage jitters only enhanced the performance.
The initial audience response was silent and apprehensive. Worried that I was losing them, I improvised some bathroom humor and was able to win them over and get a few cheap laughs, allowing me to dive in to the “higher brow” elements of the routine delivering material about U.S./Iran relations, Nancy Reagan, and the war on drugs. The adults seemed to like the political material, and kids ate up the shouting, but peppered throughout the applause was a tone of nervous energy. As much as I enjoyed making people laugh, it was the ability to project my own sense of discomfort onto the audience that really felt powerful. I’d enjoy a similar dynamic many years later fronting a punk band. This feeling of dangerous entertainment is what attracted to me to Bobcat Goldthwait’s comedy in the first place.
As planned, my performance was punctuated when an asylum orderly (one of my classmates, in a white sweatshirt and hat) dragged me off the stage. Somehow I won first place in fifth to eighth grade category and was handed a trophy by the Superintendent of Schools. Maybe it was because my stiffest competition was a group of fifth grade boys wearing their mothers’ makeup and shredding (literally) cardboard guitars in a lip synched performance of Poison’s Talk Dirty to Me. Maybe the judges were afraid of the potential repercussions of not letting the innervated, shouty kid win. For whatever the reason, winning was a much needed boost of confidence.
I began to accept the idea that maybe I was a little bit crazy. And, perhaps I needed to be to get by in a very crazy world. After all, we all go a little mad sometimes…