Nearly all the anthology series that have been produced for television in the wake of The Twilight Zone have carried a satirical undercurrent, reflecting back the absurdities of the current era through ironic storytelling or something closer to reportage. What sense of humor was apparent through these programs tended to be fleeting or pitch black.
Bobcat Goldthwait’s new truTV venture Misfits & Monsters flips the proverbial script. As with the feature films that he has written and directed, including the 1991 cult favorite Shakes The Clown and 2006’s Sleeping Dogs Lie, the core of the stories that he tells with this new series are dark, but their most overt quality is that they are incredibly funny and deliriously absurd.
In the debut episode “Bubba the Bear,” Seth Green plays a voice actor stalked by the foul-mouthed physical manifestation of a beloved cartoon who is angry at how he’s being portrayed. In a later installment, Goldthwait pokes fun at celebrity culture with a mockumentary on the career of a vapid teen pop sensation that literally sold his soul to the devil (played with unctuous glee by Michael Ian Black) in exchange for singing talent. (Satan also happens to be banging the pop star’s mom.) The corollaries to real life figures are evident but incidental to the laughs he and the actors wring out of every moment.
The concept for the show is something that Goldthwait has been sitting on for a while. Inspired by his love of Twilight Zone and a desire to challenge his abilities as a director and storyteller, he’s been offering it to networks for the past seven years.
“People would always say, ‘What would you do if you had your own TV show?’” Goldthwait says. “And I’d tell them this is what I’d do and basically they wouldn’t even validate my parking. But thanks to Black Mirror, people know what an anthology series is now. Doing a TV show gives me an opportunity to tell a whole bunch of stories and to challenge myself.”
Telling eight individual tales was daunting enough, but Goldthwait and his team pushed themselves to give each episode its own distinctive look and feel. “Bubba The Bear” has the tone of a creepy horror film where the sanguine early scenes of Green entertaining a group of schoolkids belie the tension and small shocks coming up later. Another installment, “Face In The Car Lot,” has the sweep of a great ‘70s drama like All The President’s Men blended with the mood of a chintzy low-budget monster movie.
The inspiration behind each episode is often spelled out by the filmmakers and actors at the end of the half-hour, which features behind the scenes footage and interviews. It’s through the short segment following “Bubba” that we learn that the story was, in part, a reaction to people still only remembering Goldthwait from the outrageous persona that he used for his early stand-up appearances and Zed, the character he played in three Police Academy films.
“It’s one of those things where I could choose to fight this idea people have of me or I could just accept it because it doesn’t matter,” Goldthwait says. “I remember I saw Spinal Tap perform live around 20 years ago and Rob Reiner was walking through the crowd because, you know, he directed the movie and helped create it. And people were chanting, ‘Meathead! Meathead!’ My heart went out to the guy but he had the choice. ‘Do I wave and smile or do I put my head down?’”
Goldthwait also found a way to work the mess that is the Trump presidency into his work in the episode “Face In The Car Lot,” which follows the political aspirations of a crude, braggadocious car salesman (played by David Koechner) who somehow gets more popular the worse he acts. The twist? He’s also a werewolf.
Initially, Goldthwait had conceived of a story about a James Dean-like character in the ‘50s who also turns into werewolf, but is able to stop the transformation if he shoots heroin. Then the 2016 election happened and it was rewritten as a political satire in the vein of the 1972 political dramedy The Candidate and, as the title of the episode directly refers to, the 1957 Elia Kazan classic A Face In The Crowd.
“That’s maybe even more of an influence with, you know, the cult of personality in that,” he says. “I mean, if you were going to do that movie now, he’d end up winning.”
The overall success of this show, though, is in Goldthwait’s ability to play to a variety of audiences. Even if you don’t get the references to political satires from 60 years ago or pick up on the subtext of other episodes, Misfits & Monsters is still rife with tart laughs and some fantastic comedic performances from familiar faces like Black, Koechner, Dave Foley and Tara Lynne Barr.
“It’s always interesting to me to try and make different kinds of things within one thing,” Goldthwait insists. “When I did Shakes The Clown I was making fun of stand-up comedy and movies like The Lost Weekend but I made it as a clown movie. I can try out different kinds of things because I don’t have a brand. Certain filmmakers, you can watch five or ten minutes and know, ‘Oh, it’s a Wes Anderson film.’ Whereas with me, you watch a documentary about a social satirist who was raped as a child [2015’s Call Me Lucky, about the comedian Barry Crimmins] and then you watch a scary Bigfoot movie [2013’s Willow Creek], you’ll go, ‘I don’t know who made these things.’”
Bobcat Goldthwait’s Misfits & Monsters premieres on TruTV on July 11.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.