We had a really fun show last month as part of San Francisco Sketchfest, thanks to everyone who came out, our great performers and interview guests, Sketchfest and the Eureka Theatre. If you missed it, it’s all here for you in convenient podcast form.
Baron Vaughn is a standup comedian who splits his time between LA and NYC. You can also see him on the USA series “Fairly Legal”.
Kasper Hauser is, of course, one of our favorite sketch groups and an important part of the San Francisco comedy scene. You can subscribe to The Kasper Hauser Podcast on our site to hear more from them.
We also have a chat with Steve Dildarian, creator of the HBO series The Life and Times of Tim (you might know several of his Superbowl Budweiser spots, among many other commercials, created in his former life as an ad man). (Transcript)
We brought on the very funny writer, actor, and director Bobcat Goldthwait to talk about his latest directorial effort, World’s Greatest Dad, why he quit standup comedy, and setting the record straight on some of the past antics. (Transcript)
JESSE THORN: My guest on the program is a gifted television writer and performer; he had a long career as an advertising creative guy, having won, it says on my piece of paper, “40 or so,” CLIOs. When you lose track of the number of awards that you’ve won, and by the way, I’ve won zero or so awards for anything. He’s won 40 or so CLIO awards, he created the Budweiser lizard, and now he’s the creator of the very funny, very awkward television program, “The Life and Times of Tim”, which returns to HBO for its third season later this year. Let’s watch a quick clip from the program.
Please welcome Steve Dildarian!
JESSE THORN: How are you Steve?
STEVE DILDARIAN: Doing alright, how are you?
JESSE THORN: I was excited to learn when I was reading about you that you actually live a significant portion of the time here in San Francisco.
STEVE DILDARIAN: Yeah, I just find it hard to actually pick up and move to LA. I like it and have to be there for work, but I just prefer it up here.
JESSE THORN: Let’s talk a little bit about how your career went from advertising to television. First of all, how did you end up in ad world?
STEVE DILDARIAN: In advertising? I just knew I was going to write comedy in some way through high school. I originally wanted to write shows, but I couldn’t pick up and just move to LA in my situation, so it just seemed like advertising in New York. I can just zip up the turnpike and not have to fly across the country.
JESSE THORN: It was really just a matter of transportation logistics?
STEVE DILDARIAN: It kind of was. It didn’t seem realistic, honestly, with me and my life and my background. Flying to LA and becoming a comedy writer was not something that seemed like I could achieve, honestly. I started taking night classes at SVA in New York and did well and before you know it, it took off. And probably 15 years later it all came full circle where some of the Budweiser work I did opened doors. They said, hey, why don’t you come down here and write TV shows and I said, yeah, that was always plan A a long time ago. And then it worked out.
JESSE THORN: I read that August Busch III of the famous Busch family that owns the Busch Brewing companies was part of how you ended up becoming a performer.
STEVE DILDARIAN: I wrote a commercial where there was a donkey who wanted to be a Clydesdale, it was the dream of his life, and it was on the Super Bowl in ’05. We must have cast hundreds and hundreds of voices in every city in the country, and we had a bunch of celebrities audition and it came down to two guys. Internally in our company, no one wanted to use me – – probably because, who is this guy, trying to slip his own voice in there. You read the things as a scratch track, just because something’s got to be there for the edit, and people just got used to hearing me. It got pushed to the top, and August Busch III said, this guy sounds more like a donkey. So that back handed compliment sort of launched my career. After that I also played a toilet in an ACE Hardware commercial.
JESSE THORN: And here you sit today.
STEVE DILDARIAN: Exactly.
JESSE THORN: I want to ask you about the transition from writing for television commercials to writing for pilot scripts, because one of the great challenges of writing a television commercial – – I’ve never written a television commercial, but what I imagine to be one of the great challenges is not only do you have to convey whatever brand qualities the client wants, that this is a fun beer or a cool beer or whatever, but you also have to have a real narrative in the context of 24 seconds or however much time you have before the logo comes on the screen.
STEVE DILDARIAN: Yeah.
JESSE THORN: And television is a very different situation where you’re talking about 24 minutes. Was it difficult to gain those other muscles to do something that was such a different form?
STEVE DILDARIAN: I’m not sure I’ve gained those other muscles. I think that’s why “Tim” feels a little different and unique in that way, because it doesn’t come from the same mold. My strengths are in creating characters quickly and creating characters that you feel like you know very well in a short amount of time and rhythm and dialogue and pacing and comic timing. The stories in “Tim” aren’t particularly sophisticated or well structured, even now. Honest truth, they’re kind of dumb, simple stories, but they work moment to moment because you can keep laughing and you love the characters and you’re engaged and you care.
I have actually gone out of my way to not learn everything about it, and to not become too good at it, in all parts of the show; writing, drawing, animating. I really am very leery of getting too good at it. I think with this project, with this show, that’s what was good about it. That it feels honest and real and feels like a bunch of people were just screwing around and having fun and just stumbled upon something.
JESSE THORN: You really were just screwing around and having fun when you stumbled on this. When I interview animators they often come from, specifically, visual arts or animation backgrounds. People who make these shows sometimes just come from a comedy world or television world to make an animated show. But often it’s people who invested their lives into the world of animation, and they think about everything in terms of how they can punch jokes by changing the size of the characters head or whatever. I get the impression that Angry Unpaid Hooker, the first short film that you did that led to “The Life and Times of Tim,” was something that was almost a happenstance animation.
STEVE DILDARIAN: Yeah, it’s a hard thing to even explain. It happened so organically and so real – – everything about it. the drawings were just me with a BIC pen and my girlfriend colored them in, and we said, do you think we can make animation? Can we string together a bunch of stills in iMovie and make it move? And the writing, can I write a six minute piece and have it feel like something? Everything about the show was learning through scratch, as if I had never, and I really hadn’t, done much of a voice except a donkey commercial. I hadn’t drawn anything. I hadn’t edited anything. So we learned the skills to make an animated show the hard way.
The thing that makes the big difference, and the thing that makes it original, is that we were trying to make it great. Everyone says it’s so crude and so raw and so terrible looking. I was trying to make it amazing looking! Most people go the other way; they have the skills and the talent and try to make it look raw, as a look. They try to make it look this way to make it different. All I was trying to do was make it great and funny, and the earnestness comes through. When something is original and unique, you can’t put your finger on how you got there. I couldn’t do it again today if I tried. That’s my thing.
JESSE THORN: This week’s show was recorded live at SF Sketchfest in San Francisco. My guest is Steve Dildarian. He had a vibrant career in advertising before he quit and took a pay cut to create the HBO series, “The Life and Times of Tim.”
The show has this amazing tone that is very consistent. It’s one of the slowest comedies I’ve ever seen on television, and it is driven completely by discomfort, basically. Relatively few jokes in the show, as well. Do you have to defend that tone? Do you have to remember not to be sitcomy when you’re making it, not to get too Hollywood writery?
STEVE DILDARIAN: Honestly, like I said before, I don’t think about much of anything when we’re making it, it’s all just out of instinct. I’m not trying to make it slow or fast, I’m not trying to make it jokes or not jokes. Usually people analyze it after the fact and say oh, you don’t really write jokes, and I say, what do you mean I don’t write jokes? I thought I was writing jokes. But when they analyze it, it’s like, oh no, jokes are written like this, your stuff is just funny in the situation.
Maybe I’m not as much of a student of it as other people are, and maybe that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know, but I do it out of instinct and I just write what makes me laugh. Usually when I’m writing a script I’m pretty good at making myself giggle as I’m sitting there typing. That’s when I know it’s working or when it’s not. So beyond that I just don’t think about it a whole lot.
JESSE THORN: After the second season of the show, it was, as I understand it, and you can color in between the lines here, but as I understand it, it was cancelled for a while and then stopped being cancelled?
STEVE DILDARIAN: Pretty much.
JESSE THORN: Is that even a thing?
STEVE DILDARIAN: It is now. I knew it was cancelled longer than most people did. First we didn’t want to tell anyone, because there was a good chance someone else would buy it, so we kept it kind of quiet. Then we knew that there were rumblings that they might have changed their minds earlier than we could announce. So for the first six or seven months I knew we were cancelled, most people knew for about two or three months. It was crazy, we thought we were doing great. Everyone was into it, we kept doing better and better.
I was on vacation after the season wrapped. They called in the middle of the vacation and said you’re cancelled, so that kind of ruined that trip. But yeah, they still haven’t explained it, and I don’t think they need to, I don’t care. If the answer is yes, I’ll take that as the final word. But who knows, maybe other networks were interested, that might have played a role. I know Adult Swim and the Independent Film Channel and Comedy Central all expressed interest – – sometimes that plays a role. They always loved the show; I think it was a tough decision to cancel it, to be honest.
JESSE THORN: Did your life flash before your eyes? Did you think about going back to your bath full of CLIOs? I presume you have a bath full of CLIOs.
STEVE DILDARIAN: Yeah, we keep them in the bathtub. Not, it was actually a weird terrible stretch. The thing I learned about myself is no, I’m not going back to advertising, this is my new job. It’s very hard and time consuming to create something new the right way, without just saying I’ll take a job to make money. So I just burned through a lot of my cash and sat there for seven months waiting. A lot of people were saying, someone’s going to buy this show. The show’s not done, there’s too many people that love it. If HBO doesn’t want it, someone will buy it.
JESSE THORN: Did you have any agency? Was there anything you could do?
STEVE DILDARIAN: Nothing. I sat there trying to write other shows, other animated shows, other screenplays, but you know, you’re ready for a year or two of pitching and talking before you have a job to go to. So it was an odd time for me, and every week it was always, this network wants it! Get ready! You’re going to work next week. And that went on for seven months. It was a very weird stretch, and a stretch where I realized how much I appreciated what I had, all the fans that were on the Facebook page saying, “Save it!” I had a good little fan base there. It made it that much greater when it came back.
JESSE THORN: Did you get a phone call where they checked in to see if you had called no backsies?
STEVE DILDARIAN: It was a very staggered reveal. They did it to us twice, which was cruel. They called and said, HBO changed their mind; they want to do it, put a budget together. A week later they said, nah, we’re not going to do it. The second time when it happened, four months later, they did it again and I said, I’m not going to believe you until you send me a paycheck and an office to go to. It was a weird time, but like I said, now that it’s back and everyone appreciates it so much, the actors and staff, you kind of realize what you had there the first time.
JESSE THORN: Well Steve, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the sound of young America, it was really a pleasure to have you.
STEVE DILDARIAN: Thanks for having me.
JESSE THORN: Steve Dildarian, ladies and gentlemen!
Steve Dildarian is the creator of HBO’s “The Life and Times of Tim.” You can get the first season of the show on DVD now. The second season DVDs and the third season on television are coming later this year.
JESSE THORN: Our next guest on the program was the extraordinarily successful stand-up comedian and actor in the 1980s and 90s, with an outrageous persona and a ridiculous voice. He re-made himself in his own actual image over the past 15 years; he’s become a very successful director of both television and film. His last two feature films have been shown in the Sundance Film Festival, he directed the Jimmy Kimmel Live program. His latest film starred Robin Williams and is called World’s Greatest Dad. Please welcome Bobcat Goldthwait!
I didn’t realize that you had started performing when you were a teenager, and the first time that you were on Letterman you were 20.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: Yeah. I was 20, and I started when I was 15.
JESSE THORN: What were you doing?
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: At that point my act wasn’t even audible. Really I was trying to make fun of stand-up comedy; I was never really a big fan of it. I thought it would be funny just to be this guy who shouldn’t be on stage. Then, lo and behold, I got popular and had to become the very thing I hated.
JESSE THORN: It’s such – –
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: A horrible vortex to fall into.
JESSE THORN: It was such an odd world that you entered in, early to mid-1980s.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: Yeah, I was huge in the 80s! I was the Dane Cook of the 80s!
JESSE THORN: Where stand-up was growing so fast and was such an exploding medium that just the distinctiveness, that doing something that nobody had seen before – –
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: Well it was weird, the persona comedy that came out of it. I just did a show with Emo a couple months ago.
JESSE THORN: Emo Phillips, another stand-up comic.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: Yeah, I call him Emo, we’re tight. It wasn’t some skinny whiny guy with eye-liner singing folk songs. It was the monsters of 80s persona comedy. It was really strange, I started my comedy a long time ago and I was always – – Andy Kaufman was a big influence on me, but I don’t think Andy Kaufman would do this interview. Well, one, he’s dead, but two – –
JESSE THORN: Yeah, we tried to book him on the show, you were our second choice.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: I’m flattered! I don’t know what to say, I just never wanted to do traditional stand-up and I was always doing weird things when I got started. My early act would just be me reading a dear John letter and crying. I’d go, Thank you, it feels really good to be here tonight. It doesn’t feel good to be here. And then I’d get really mad at the crowd because they were laughing while I was in tears. It didn’t have any jokes, it was just weird, and then I’d go, Now I’d like to gut a fish. My roommate would have a fish, I’d go, does anyone in the audience have a fish? And he would give me one. And one night it was rancid.
JESSE THORN: I thought you just meant that your roommate would have a fish at any given time. You could count on your roommate to have a fish. That was the source of this bit.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: He was just a plant, you know. Anyone have a fish? No. But there’s a baby here, that’s weird. What is your target audience? Hello, baby!
JESSE THORN: It’s not really bound by age, I would say the uncomprehending.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: Okay, the uncomprehending. Hello, baby! It’s all downhill from now!
So yeah, I got a fish, but once it was rancid because it was in the trunk of the car, and then this woman threw up in the front row and I put the mic down so you could hear it. That would be my act when I first started. The guy that ran the club was a Chinese man, it was the Ding Ho in Boston. And he’d go, “Bobby, you weird.”
JESSE THORN: Fair.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: “Bobby, you weird.”
JESSE THORN: Was it fun for you? Was it something you were doing because you wanted to do it? When did I start to turn into something different?
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: I loved stand-up when I was a kid but by the time I became a late teenager I kind of turned on it. I’m not saying I hate all stand-up comedy, but I do think it’s very limiting in a way. There are, of course, plenty of brilliant people, but for an audience it really is just like having dessert. I sound really pretentious right now. Now that I’m a filmmaker, if I heard myself talk I’d punch me in the throat.
JESSE THORN: All I ask is that you not say that you’re just here to tell stories.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: I just like to tell stories! I like to take the audience on a ride! It’s weird, because I had some kind of success at one point, I don’t really pursue that anymore; although, I do do stand-up to – – well, who am I kidding, it’s the alimony tour when you see me on the road. It feels great to be back here, we’re paying for a pool that none of us swim in. That sounded way dirtier than I wanted it to, I’m trying to be clean on your show.
It kind of started becoming a drag, and then for a long time I really had this thing in my head like – – you know where you start thinking, I wish I could teach a course to people who start popping and say, first of all, don’t buy the house. Everyone’s going to say go buy a house, and don’t do this, and don’t do that, and when that voice inside you says no, go yeah, okay, no. There was a voice in me going, “Don’t do Police Academy, you’re going to be talking about it for the next 45 years!” But then I was like, alright, I’ll do Police Academy. I wish I had a time machine and could talk to the 23 year old Bobcat Goldthwait and go, dude, really, this is the only thing you’re going to be known for if you do this.
JESSE THORN: If you had a time machine what would you have told that 23 year old Bobcat?
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: I would have told me to go bite me. I wouldn’t have listened to me. I’d say, how did you come back here from the future? Why don’t you just give me lottery numbers? I don’t regret those things, but it’s just kind of like, I know no matter what I do or what I achieve that will be my obit photo, it will be me in a police uniform with a talking horse next to me and they’ll go, “Oh, he also cured AIDS. But he played Zed in Police Academy!”
JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. We taped this week’s show live on stage at the San Francisco Sketchfest. My guest is Bobcat Goldthwait. He made his name as a wild and crazy comic on stage and on film in the 1980s. He’s since transformed himself into a critically acclaimed director.
You do this wonderful little arc on the Larry Sanders show, the HBO satire of late night comedy from the 1990s that’s now out on DVD.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: Right.
JESSE THORN: And it was right after you had gone on Arsenio and spray painted the walls. Did you light Leno on fire or Arsenio?
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: I set The Tonight Show on fire – – well, I set a chair on The Tonight Show on fire.
JESSE THORN: Not the entire thing.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: I like when I run into people and they’re like, hey, you set Letterman on fire! Not that they should know.
JESSE THORN: So you set The Tonight Show on fire and did crazy stuff on Arsenio, and then you did an arc on Larry Sanders. And the arc on Larry Sanders was that you were going to be the guy that hosted the show after Larry Sanders or you were going to be Larry’s guest host or whatever. The tension of it was you being introduced by Larry Sanders as a really bright, interesting, funny guy, and you trying to figure out whether you were just going to act crazy like Bobcat Goldthwait the stage character, or be someone who was an actual person.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: During that period when I was very destructive on shows, it wasn’t like a career move. It wasn’t like, I’ll do this and then I’ll get my own series. I was really, when I look back, I was really angry and just over it. I would get on TV shows and my career wasn’t going forward, and so I was really frustrated. I kind of thought a little bit – – here’s a pretentious thing – – but like, Okay, what if I start doing stuff that’s not even planned? And the problem with that is sooner or later you end up in jail. On The Tonight Show I had to go to court, four years of probation.
JESSE THORN: Really?
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: Yeah, I stood in front of a judge. My attorney goes, plead not guilty when they ask. I go, I saw the footage. I’m pretty sure it’s me. There’s not a third arsonist in the grassy knoll, I might be going down on this one. The funny thing is, I had to do PSAs. That’s 45 minutes I’ll never get back that day I went in to film them. And I usually do a bit where I’m like, “Hi, I’m Bobcat Goldthwait, if you’re ever on a talk show don’t set it on fire! AGHGHGH! Back to you McGruff! Here’s your old friend Kelsey Grammer with some safe driving tips!” “Hi, I’m Chris Brown for domestic violence.
…Can I do this as an exclusive?
JESSE THORN: Sure.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: The real commercial was way more embarrassing. I found it recently, and the editor that I work for, Jason Stewart , we were laughing real hard. This is the commercial, I’ve never done this anywhere, it’s a real PSA.
I go, “Raraaaagh! Hi, I’m Bobcat Goldthwait! I can switch back and forth, but if you’re seriously injured in a fire…” It’s so embarrassing. That’s more embarrassing than when I was on Sister Sister.
So I exploited it, I was embarrassed, and then six or seven years ago I was like, I’m done. I won’t pursue or do things that don’t make me happy, and if I’m broke I’m broke. I think in America we don’t really have this idea of fulfillment; it’s really unimportant to be fulfilled as a creative person. That’s not important. What’s important is being number one. We are the people’s republic of spring break. I think people will think it’s weird that I choose not to be in the movies that I make, and we just make them. We don’t have an agenda.
My wife, when she wasn’t my wife, read the script for “Sleeping Dogs Lie”, which was called “Stay” at the time, and she read it and said this is a good script. She said we should just make it. I said I don’t have any money, and she said it doesn’t matter, we’ll just start. And that’s how we made it, we got a crew from Craigslist, shot it in two weeks, and then it got into Sundance. So that’s how you do it, it’s really easy.
Really, when Sundance called I was working at the Jimmy Kimmel show and I thought it was his cousin Sal doing a prank call, “Hi, I’m the president of show business, you’re in Sundance.” But it really was. I was at Sundance and they had all the directors having a breakfast, and Robert Redford is talking, and I hear, “Cling cling, chomp chomp, cling cling cling.” And I go, who is eating? Oh, me! I was like six feet away from Robert Redford just going, “Did you try these rolls?!” Afterwards they go, Bob wants to see you, and it was Robert Redford, and he goes to me, “You know, your film is very reminiscent of Edward Albee’s The Goat: or, Who is Sylvia? Have you ever seen that play?” And I did twice but I just lied to him and went, No! I thought I was getting kicked out of Sundance. No, I created it entirely in a vacuum, Bob! Edward Albee, pfft! He’s a hack!
JESSE THORN: I want to ask you about that idea of the lack of personal fulfillment in the world, because I thought that was an interesting theme in World’s Greatest Dad. If I could sort of encapsulate the setup for World’s Greatest Dad, minor spoilers ahead, it’s about a father played by Robin Williams whose son is a real jerk. His son dies accidentally while in an act of Onanism, and essentially the film from that point forth is the story of the deification of the son as everyone sort of takes that son to mean something that glorifies themselves. Every single character in the film takes that son as – –
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: Everybody makes any death about them. I shouldn’t say everybody, but I experienced a lot of death when I wrote that, and it was just like – – I think people’s first instinct is usually kind of good, and then it gets corrupted and they make the death about themselves.
JESSE THORN: Death is like the biggest thing that could happen. Most people, I can’t speak for everyone here, but I am horrified of death. So when someone else dies, I’m both sad that they died for them, and it reminds me that I’m going to die and that’s horrifying.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: Yeah, that is horrifying. I really want to make a movie about that I just haven’t figured out how yet. In my movies people die.
JESSE THORN: In a way the movie is about Robin Williams character – –
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: Look, here’s the thing. He does become fulfilled and he doesn’t get all the trappings that we as an American culture use as fulfillment. I used to use an analogy that was this: at a dog track, when the dog catches the rabbit, he doesn’t want to run anymore, so they reward the overachieving mutt by destroying him. And in show business when you catch the rabbit they just wait for you to destroy yourself. This is getting way heavier than I wanted, but instead of destroying myself I kind of put the brakes on and started making movies and I’m really happy now.
I still go out on the road, but – – we make them really down and dirty. Robin goes, “What is this going to be, eight or nine weeks?” I go, if I was making Lawrence of Arabia. Some of them, like this next one, I’ll shoot really quickly with all my friends, it’s very pirate ship. On “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” there’s a key scene in a garage, and we didn’t have a garage when we were filming the scene. So I go to this guy and say what’s going on with this house across the street? He said someone just moved, and I’ll say somehow the lock fell off and then we rolled the car in and shot this scene in a home that wasn’t any of ours, it was just an empty house that was on sale. The crew was all these young kids and I told them we had to be really quiet that day because it was a very heavy scene for the actors. And one of the kids goes; you don’t have a permit again, do you? I said, I don’t know whose house this is! That’s how I make these movies.
JESSE THORN: Bob, thank you so much for taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America again, it’s a real pleasure having you on the show.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: Thanks for having me on!
JESSE THORN: Bobcat Goldthwait!
Bobcat Goldthwait on the stage of the Eureka Theatre at SF Sketchfest in San Francisco. Bobcat’s most recent film, “World’s Greatest Dad,” starring Robin Williams, is available on DVD. You can visit him on the website at Bobcatswebsite.com.
About the show
Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.
Bullseye has been featured in Time, The New York Times, GQ and McSweeney’s, which called it “the kind of show people listen to in a more perfect world.” Since April 2013, the show has been distributed by NPR.
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