World's Greatest Dad is the second film you've had at Sundance. How did it feel going there again?
Oh I don't take it for granted. I wish I could actually give a lecture to people who get movies into Sundance, because everybody thinks they're going to be the next Tarantino and the reality is, as a film-maker, you're just lucky to get your film shown.
Does being a film-maker feel like a fresh start or is there still a connection with the stand-up work?
You know, I retired from acting, and I try to retire from stand-up but it's like Godfather III, I keep getting drawn back in. I go out and do stand-up so I can pay the bills so I can keep making small, indie kind of movies. But it's weird to be almost 50 and to get a second shot. I don't take that for granted either.
You started doing stand-up when you were 15 but you don't seem to have enjoyed it much. Why?
When I first started doing stand up I was making fun of it. I would just read a Dear John letter on stage and cry and go, 'And you people want to hear jokes?' or gut fish and have entrails all over the stage. I then started getting work because I got on Letterman when I was 20, and had to become a comedian because people's expectations was to see a comedy show. I was no longer allowed to do my whole show from inside a box, and all these weird things I used to do. So I ended up becoming the very thing I was trying to parody originally.
I think it's funny that I retired from comedy - well I never do, because I always to go out and do the alimony tour - but I retired from acting the same time people stopped hiring me, so it worked out really well. But getting behind the cameras, I didn't realise how happy I would be, you know? When I wanted to be a comedian, I was eight when I decided. But I think if people were held to the decisions they made at eight years old, there would be a lot more astronauts and firemen.
Why were you drawn to it at such an early age?
When I was a boy I was home from school sick one day and I saw George Carlin on television. I asked my mother, 'What does he do to make a living?' and she said, 'That's what he does.' I thought, 'Wow, that's the greatest scam in the world.' So I was in.
In World's Greatest Dad, when Robin Wiilliams's character, Lance, gets what he wants, he deliberately sabotages it. Did you do that with your career when you set light to a sofa on Jay Leno's show, and smashed up the set of the Arsenio Hall Show?
Oh sure. But I don't see Lance as sabotaging it. Well he does sabotage it but he sabotages it for the right reasons. It's him being honest with himself and being able to say, 'Hey, man, I'm going to make a decision and I will probably be completely alone when I do it. And will I be okay with that? Am I strong enough?' His reward for that is obviously the end of the movie. But I think he sabotages in a healthy way, and I sabotaged in an unhealthy way.
But did you ever think in career terms or about the consequences?
No, I never did. And I still try not to now that I have this new career. I'm developing with Ray Davis this movie based on The Kinks, and that wasn't, like, me sitting at home going, 'What is really popular now? All these kids' dancing musicals.' This is something I have wanted to do since I was 13. So being honest with myself is really paying off. The other side of it is, am I willing to rent instead of own? And the reality of it is, yeah, I am willing to rent instead of own. I've done all that other side of the Hollywood dream and I was so unhappy.
You do touch on this idea in World's Greatest Dad that when Lance achieves the notoriety he sought, he becomes even more isolated. Other people have told me that fame made them feel lonely and I wonder if that was your experience?
Yeah, I feel that like Lance is - and it's done in a jokey way at the beginning of the movie - trying to connect with people for the wrong reasons. He's not trying to write to write, he's trying to write for the results instead of doing it for why you should create. Early on I stopped creating for the wrong reasons. If I did a persona that people were expecting, it could pay. And it paid well there for a while in the 80s.
Did that make you feel more alienated from who you were?
Sure. Completely, yeah. I just became something I resented.
When did you decide to try and turn that around?
About seven years ago. I changed everything in my life. I just downsized my whole life and asked my daughter if she was cool living in an apartment and she said, 'Yeah, let's do it', and only wrote what came out of me instead of what I thought might get made in Hollywood. That changed everything.
But I thought I hated stand up and then recently when I was on the road I went, 'Oh no, clearly I just hated this persona.' So once I jetisoned that, I actually started having a little fun up there.
How does the audience react? Do they still want Zed from Police Academy?
It depends what cities I'm in. There's plenty of cities where that is the expectation, but I couldn't do it anymore.
I read that you'd start out doing the Grover voice, as you call it, and then gradually drop it as the show went on.
Yeah, that's what it used to be and now I just start off saying, 'This is how I talk and I'm sorry if you came to hear me scream for 45 minutes. That would be a dick in all of our asses.'
You've said that if you could go back in time you'd tell yourself not to do the Police Academy films. Was it fun at the time though?
You know what it is, really the first time I was in one it was exciting to be in a movie and see it and stuff. And I know that there's certain people that really have a fondness for that, and I don't mean to sour them, because they're not the same people that necessarily enjoy the movies I make. It's really weird because there's people that come to see my stand up that aren't aware of the movies I make, and vice versa. There's some people that think making arthouse movies for Sundance is a very lucrative profession and can't believe [I'd do stand up].
Which is the real you?
Oh the movies. They're 100% me. Even when I'm being like interviewed on a radio show or a television show, that's not the real me. But I think if you really wanted to understand who I am as a person, if you watched the last two movies I made [Sleeping Dogs Lie, World's Greatest Dad] they'd give you a really good idea. And some people think that I'm a perverted, twisted guy, because of the last two movies, but, you know, that's not my goal. I'm not trying to shock people. I think when people hear what goes on in my movies they think they're like slob comedies or shock comedies, but they're not. That would be much more lucrative for me to pursue.
How has the internet and the shocking stuff online impacted on stand up?
Well, as a stand up, it's like how are you going to shock the next group of people that grows up? How do you shock kids that were raised on Two Girls One Cup?
Have you ever watched that?
I've only seen the reaction videos.
I wish my friends had told me. It's horrible. Why do people do that to each other? Now I've got this image in my head and I know that when Alzheimer's finally kicks in, that will be the only goddam thing left in my head.
It seems to me, though, that it's more subversive to put something like the idea of bestiality, as in Sleeping Dogs Lie, in an emotionally involving narrative with characters we care about.
Yeah, well that's the thing to me. That's not a movie that's an exploration of bestility. That's a movie that's an exploration of honesty. Sometimes people say these are the inciting incidents. They're not. I don't know what film school language you'd use to describe these things ...
Yeah, it is the McGuffin. That's what it is. That's how I see it.
When you write a film you begin with the ending. So is World's Greatest Dad a conscious subversion of the message of Sleeping Dogs Lie, which ended with the idea that it's often best to lie in relationships?
Yeah, it is. It was like, 'Okay, now I'm going to write the flipside of being honest.' Because I don't know what is the truth. When are we supposed to be honest and when are we not? I am obsessed with the lies that I tell myself to get through the day. Every time I pass somebody begging on the street and I don't give them money, I make up some lie: 'Oh well he was high, so I shouldn't have given him money.' It's all these lies we tell ourselves.
I started pitching my wife another script idea and I go, 'You know, it's about those lies that we tell.' She goes, 'Well that's a fresh one. That's all you keep writing about.' But I guess everyone makes the same movie over and over again.
There's also the school aspect. Amy in Sleeping Dogs Lie and Lance in World's Greatest Dad are both teachers, though the latter film is set more within the school environment.
It's funny and now I'm going to do Schoolboys in Disgrace [the Kinks film]. I tell yer, I think by the time eighth grade rolled around I was completely damaged. I think I'm still mad trying to figure out what the nuns did to me. It's time to move past it.
You went to a faith school?
Yeah, I went to a Catholic school in central New York, where I grew up. It was all nuns. My friend Tom Kenney [voice of Spongebob Squarepants] said they were nuns that went to the convent on wrestling scholarships, because they were these big, Amazon-looking women.
So is that where your humour comes from? Is it rebellion?
Sure. And the opression and the constant being beaten down. When you're a kid, you don't know the difference [between reality and lies]. You don't say, 'Hey, this is a work of fiction,' you just blurt out something. So I was always told I was a bad kid. It's good that I decided to go on stage and not rob banks.
Can you see yourself having gone the other way?
If I hadn't channelled all my anger at that into some other field yeah, definitely.
You were pretty angry when you were 19, weren't you?
Oh I've always been angry. You're talking to me and I seem pretty mellow, but I feel that I'm not angry anymore at showbusiness. Because when you're young and you're angry at showbusiness, what you're saying is, 'I should be more famous.' I look at myself and I think of myself as being very happy, because I just pursue these things that come up. My wife has a tattoo that says, 'Get greedy, get hurt.' I believe that.
But it was work for me. I found it was very lucrative to be very angry. You know, to rip people a new asshole and crowds would cheer and stuff. But the toll it paid on me, I said: 'No, if this means I'm done, I want to walk away from it.'
I spoke to a director of very dark dramas and he said one reason he wouldn't do a comedy is because the comedy geniuses he had met were all dark, angry, scary people. Is there a darkness that accompanies comedy and was that what you were getting at with your directorial debut, Shakes the Clown, in which almost everyone seems angry and bitter?
That was the idea behind Shakes. I was trying to make fun of comedians who are really humourless and angry. You know what's funny, the amount of anger in comedians. And then you see these guys on television and they're just friendly and they're universally accepted and loved. And then you spend a little time with them and you still don't see the anger, but you really scratch deep and all of a sudden you go, 'Holy shit you're angry!' I think people have been frightened of me over the years but I've never been quite sure why. Because the musical acts I was drawn to, I didn't think of them as being angry. I just thought of them as expressing themselves.
Talking of which you supported Nirvana on their last tour. How did the audience react to you?
Well about every third show they liked me. And then the other two they hated me. And I would then make it worse. Getting laughs from 5000 people is a really awesome thing. But to have 5000 people hate you, that's really awesome. They go, 'How was Nirvana last night?' and they go, 'Oh, it was the greatest show. But this fucking comedian opened up for it and I want to punch that guy in the face.' I'm like, 'Wow, man. You're talking about me and you got to see Nirvana.'
You knew Kurt Cobain. Did you see anything in him that would have suggested he'd end his life?
Oh sure. Like people say, 'Why doesn't someone stop someone doing something like that?' But, you know, I made a few jokes with him that, in hindsight, you go, 'Wow, that was real dark'. But I truly believe that he died from - and this is just my own feelings - a chemical imbalance. He certainly, maybe, abused substances and all that stuff, but I think they didn't work for thim. I think he really was unbalanced. I think that was what killed him. Everybody can have all these other theories but, you know, I wasn't shocked when he died.
About the casting of Robin Williams: when you put him in a film called World's Greatest Dad, people are going to have certain expectations, aren't they?
Yeah, well there's a dad right now at the screening who brought an eight or 10-year-old girl. I just introduced the movie and I said, 'You know, you might not want her to watch it.' He said, 'Oh, it'll be okay.' I'm like, 'Alright then ...'
It's a double-edged thing because on the one hand the title makes it seem like it could seemingly sit happily on a shelf alongside Father's Day and Bicentennial Man and ...
Sure it's World's Greatest Dad, stars Robin Williams, and is directed by the dude from Police Academy. That's a lot of hurdles to get to the audience that would appreciate this movie. But I didn't write the movie with Robin in mind. I had written it with another actor in mind [Philip Seymour Hoffman], and he [Williams] read the script hoping he could do a cameo to help me get the movie made, and then he asked to be the lead and that changed everything. I was really happy to have him, not only because he's such a good friend but because he's such an amazing actor. But I never thought in those terms of, will people be able to get past that? Because I see him much like myself, but I see him as two people: there's this brilliant comedian and there's this amazing actor. I just thought this would make great sense. Because I do think this is the first time he got to be funny in a movie and it didn't rely on him having to do all the lifting. He could be funny by being his stripped away persona.
The film touches on this idea of the pornification of teenage sexual desire and the infleunce of the internet. Is that something that concerns you? Larry Clark made a short film called Impaled and the boys he interviewed in it were not unlike Lance's son, Kyle.
I haven't seen that but, you know, to me the villain in this movie is the lack of imagination. I think the instantaneous nature of the internet and Twitter and all this stuff is there's no thought behind anything, it's all reaction: I like this so I'm going to watch more of this. I see something I comment on it. But I never stop and go, 'Hm, you know what? Maybe I don't need to watch a horrible clip.' It's just mind-numbing. There's no creativity involved. I've spent a lot of time on the internet and it's like gambling in a casino. I spent three hours online, I got nothing done, and I was just waiting for three ducks to show up.
Did you research online porn and its effect?
No, not at all. And then I made a reference to Doom, which, apparently, just showed how old I was. All the people on IMDB are like, 'Doom is an old game. I can't believe Bobcat Goldthwait could write Doom into his screenplay.'
How personal are these films? You dedicated Sleeping Dogs Lie to your mother and you said the brother was based on your own older brother.
Yeah and then I did a short. My brother passed away and I dedicated it to the same brother. They're all very, very personal to me. It started on Sleeping Dogs Lie, as kind of like a sick joke, when I said, 'For mom'. The more it sunk in I thought, 'This is the one she would've liked, even though it might seem shocking to people.' I know she would've liked that one. And the same thing here. My dad passed away before he got to see World's Greatest Dad. He was really sweet. He was like, 'You know, I think this is going to be the one.' These movies are extremely personal. Like I said, if you want to get an idea about me, this is what they are.
What about Shakes the Clown?
No, Shakes is a very sarcastic movie.
Very, very angry. I know there's a small world of people that really like that movie, but I just watched it the other night with a group of people who're fans of it and I wanted to say, 'It's not that good.' But I can't do that to them because they have actually memorised the dialogue. It's like that Saturday Night Live sketch with William Shatner at a Star Trek convention, and he just goes, 'Get a life!' A little bit of me, there's like people dressed up as their favourite clown, I want to go, 'What is this fucking monster I made?'
It felt like a big leap from Shakes to Sleeping Dogs Lie.
Yeah, but I would say Shakes was my student film. It's really where I learned, or started to think about, making a movie, and started to see if I could even do it.
As you say, Shakes has become a cult now. But when it was released critics trashed it.
Oh it was loathed.
Was it tough having your film hated that way when you're putting yourself out there like that?
It hurt, but it hurt then for the wrong reasons. I just wanted people to go see it and then it would make money. Now I'm someone who doesn't like these movies, it doesn't hurt as much. I'm not like Lance trying to connect with people; I don't know who I make these movies for. So when people do like them, that's really awesome. But I think I make these movies for myself first. Which sounds horrible, seeing that you use other people's money to do it.
Is it difficult to get the funding for films like this which are truthful and which do often take extreme subject matter to explore their themes? And is it getting harder?
I don't know. The other one [Sleeping Dogs Lie] we shot in two weeks with a crew from Craigslist, and then I did another movie I worked on [Windy City Heat] and it was just on television, and I directed that but that's not like these movies that I write/direct. Once Robin came on board it was easy to get money, but not for the right reasons. So Sarah [my wife/producer] and I kind of held out until we found people that we respected and were going to let us make the movie we wanted to.
The other people would have asked for changes?
eah, and I'm not really interested in that. It's all subjective: either you're in or you're not.
eah, and I'm not really interested in that. It's all subjective: either you're in or you're not.
There is this idea of re-invention in World's Greatest Dad. Is it a reflection of your own experience, and maybe Robin's as well?
Yeah, yeah, and again, you know, my wife had to clearly point out who these people [characters] were in my own life. I was like, 'Oh my God.' I mean I really was that dumb. 'Oh really? Oh my God, she's going to be so pissed when she sees this.' There's people even saying the exact things they said. There's a couple of lines like when the guy's talking about his son and he goes, 'His mother and I were supposed to make a baby together, we just weren't supposed to live together.' That's just this pompous, fucking asshole I know that said that for real, and I just thought, 'Wow, that's the dumbest fucking thing I ever heard.' So I put it in the script.'
Do you think he'll recognise himself?
Well he can go fuck himself. I hope he does. What are you going to say if you're sitting in a theatre and people are laughing at some asinine thing you said? Are you gonna say, 'He stole that line from me'?
At the end of the movie, it's a happy ending for Lance – and everyone says it's upbeat - but what about the people like the football jock whose lives he's probably ruined by revealing the truth?
Yeah, they're totally fucked up. That kid may go jump off a bridge at the end. And in spite of it, you've got to be willing to say, 'Am I going to be okay?'
Is it ultimately a selfish act on Lance's part?
You know, being honest with yourself is a selfish act but I don't think he's being cruel when he does it. That's the most scary thing to say to someone, you know, 'This is really who I am. I'm not waiting around to see if you're okay with that.' And maybe that's what my movies are.
© Stephen Applebaum, 2010