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On Gilbert Gottfried
Thoughts on the Late, Great, Comedian
My first recollection of Gilbert Gottfried was a surreal image of the 1980 cast change on Saturday Night Live. I was in my teens and very much in love with the original cast, which had finally left the RCA Building, never to return as an ensemble. As Gilbert himself pointed out, much of the audience was practically offended at the idea that the Not Ready for Primetime Players, as they were known, could ever be replaced by another group. And yet they were. Nothing looked right, nothing sounded right, and the laughs seemed fewer and less potent. What I remember is Gilbert’s enormous hair (more popularly referred to among comics now as a “Jewfro”), and a rather forced nasal delivery that wasn’t familiar or particularly hilarious. His natural voice was almost a baritone and more becoming of an executive than a comic, though it was likeable. The season lasted 13 episodes – about the half-way make-or-break point for shows that are on probation. Thereafter, I lost sight of Gilbert Gottfried, and though SNL recovered considerably in later seasons, Gilbert was never to return to it.
Roughly seven years later, on Late Night with David Letterman (which debuted a year and three months after the Gottfried SNL cast was introduced) I happened to catch Gilbert again, and my reaction was greatly changed. Gone was the fro, and in its place a complete stage character with an unforgettable voice – decidedly more focused and exaggerated – accompanied by a nearly-blind squint. What caught my attention was his particular attention to the English language and an almost surrealist manner of taking phrases out of context and playing with them, like a kid fascinated with the workings of a tape recorder. The other thing was pure satire – making fun of platitudes, cliches, assumptions, and even storytelling itself.
Then came the impressions – remarkable caricatures of famous film actors switching roles with television characters (like James Mason playing Ralph Kramden and Jack Nicholson playing Alice on a supposed movie version of The Honeymooners). In a clever juxtaposition, Gilbert would offer Jackie Gleason’s Ralph (lecturing Alice instead of Ilsa) standing in for Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, where the famous penultimate and romantic scene on the tarmac was portrayed in Bensonhurst bombast – a routine that was one of Letterman’s favorites. Accompanying the brilliant material was an almost cartoonish use of arms and hands – flailing as if filled only with fluff. Gilbert had redrawn himself as a first-rate funny cartoon – not unlike Harpo Marx’s silent act that, at least for the public, lasted for about 35 years until nearly death. Gilbert’s brilliantly wrought alter-ego managed to last even longer.
What further cemented me to Gottfried’s work was his obvious love of more obscure and older names in the business – most famously his frequent reference to Ben Gazzara – a seasoned character actor whom much of the younger audiences simply didn’t know, even if they’d heard the name. Combining this tendency with a stage voice and attitude that seemed to point to even older references like Jimmy Durante and George Burns, as examples, the world Gilbert Gottfried created was his own.
Not long after one of those late 80’s Letterman appearances, where Dave interviewed him (often including the answer to “How’s your career?” with “My career is over.”) I remember hearing and recognizing Gilbert’s voice on a commercial for a sporting goods retailer. “Good,” I thought, “he’s getting work.”
Little did I know that he was actually getting a lot of work, from regular cable show stints to memorable movie parts, to endless appearances on the Howard Stern radio show. At one point I saw his presentation on the 1991 Emmy’s – notorious at the time for his use of the word “masturbation” in a context that was actually imbued with a bit of compassion for a recently-disgraced Pee Wee Herman – caught doing just that at a movie theater. It was this intelligent underpinning and a nose for the truth that really informed my appreciation of this comedian. Courage was the byword.
Gottfried eventually furthered his reputation telling the dirtiest jokes imaginable, interspersed with caricatures of fellow comics – like one continuous roast – a context in which he was also highly-touted, sparing nothing but hoping that the object of ridicule understood that this was always and only just showbusiness. In 2005 Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza - comic contemporaries of Gilbert Gottfried – created a film called The Aristocrats – a 90-minute compendium of numerous famous (including George Carlin and Gottfried’s late friend Bob Sagat) comics all delivering their versions of a blue joke by the same name – some surprisingly good at it.
The film included a particularly distinctive (and deeply imaginative) performance by Gottfried with which he is still synonymous. What made Gilbert’s approach the stuff of legend and immortality was the intense manner in which he bandied about language that would have condemned Lenny Bruce to a medium term at San Quinten yet done in a way which was strangely innocent – for me a hallmark of Gilbert’s character.
The joke’s celebrated association with Gottfried went back four years earlier as he had been performing at a taped roast for Hugh Hefner in New York – opening with a surrealist joke about the September 11th attacks that had only taken place days before. Any humor about this sensitive and still-raw topic had been strictly off-limits. Hissing and booing and even resentment led to restlessness. Sensing he had lost the room, Gottfried launched into the Aristocrats routine, which, after a number of tense minutes, gradually unfurled itself as an evening of comic celebration and release. Humor had won the day through sheer determination, and it had apparently been needed. Gilbert was the hero of the evening. He had seen beyond the tragic mood of the disaster to a focus on the living.
Nine years earlier this rising tide of fame had also included Disney’s animated feature Aladdin in which Gottfried provided the voice for Iago the parrot – mainly a children’s movie and quickly embraced by them. The role helped to make Gilbert’s voice immortal in the cartoon world and endeared him to children – some with autism and almost incapable of responding to any voice but Gilbert’s, much to the joy of the comic. I’m imagining that they sensed a loving presence – ironic for a comic saddled with the ‘dirty’ moniker. Dirty or not there was an artfulness to Gilbert’s standup – always that attention to the language and the love of certain cadences and emphases.
It was not surprising that he wrote a decent autobiographical work Rubber Balls and Liquor – a title that once again refused to take anything too seriously but a book that hinted at the pain all comics face – that loneliness of being different and of the need to be accepted – to be loved.
Then came the Tweets. For a decade, Gottfried had been enjoying further stardom as the voice of the Aflac (Insurance) duck, who only uttered one word – which was also the name of the product. In March of 2011, as many still remember, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the northeastern coast of Japan’s island Honshu, resulting in widespread destruction and an eventual tsunami that struck the coast with full force – drowning villages and parts of cities – even creating a moderate-to-severe nuclear disaster for the region at the Fukushima Power Plant which could no longer keep its core at a steady temperature.
Gilbert’s roughly ten tweets – uploaded only days after the tsunami – seemingly meant to allow humor into a tragic story – was widely taken, particularly by social media, as an insult to the dead. Aflac promptly fired Gottfried, who had only read about it on-line after apologizing publicly for the tweets. There was no consolation prize – just cancellation in one of the first instances of social media public shaming. Not banned from Twitter, however, Gottfried posted dozens of punish jokes over the next few years, always followed by an apology to something mentioned in the pun, which was part of the comic’s genius – now making fun of his own firing and of the hypersensitivity of the new social horizon.
Three years after Aflac, Gottfried and a friend, writer and producer named Frank Santopadre conceived of a new podcast ultimately to be called Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast – a project that seemed to speak to the two men’s insatiable curiosity about old showbusiness and its performers. Its first guest was Dick Cavett. Here, gradually, we heard a comic revealing himself through his interests and his astonishing ability to remember incredible details about television theme songs from decades past plus entire scenes from films. Additionally, he could sing, famously badly (unless inspired to try to hold a tune) the complete verses and choruses to most of the popular songs of the 60’s and 70’s. Like a true virtuoso, he had it all in his head.
When Gottfried recited and acted scenes from a movie, it was with total fidelity – such as a James Mason scene in A Star is Born or a dramatic moment from The Pawnbroker with Rod Steiger. There were other favorites. Peter Lorre lambasting Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, Lon Cheney Jr. (whom he adored) in Of Mice and Men, and so many quotations from films that it appeared encyclopedic. There were the mashups again – of famous actors and comics in ironic roles – like Chico Marx appearing in Twelve Angry Men.
His impression of an aging Groucho Marx – a hero – became a frequent request. The caricature seemed mean-spirited on first hearing but revealed a love of Groucho combined with a resentment that the once tack-sharp star of stage and screen had been reduced to an old man retelling tales as if to a small child. No other performer had anything like it.
There was no more appreciative audience than Gilbert Gottfried. Though his laughter on interviews could almost be intrusive – at times dominating to the point of a flood – one had to feel that so much of the humor in the room was coming from Gottfried himself, leading the laughter by example and encouraging the show to go on. Each Monday the podcast would renew itself, followed by a shorter edition on Thursday focusing on “colossal obsessions” like bad ape films or obscure record collections or films of a particular director. The guest list for both programs was formidable – everyone from major stars to authors, famous musicians, producers, directors and even one silent film accompanist. For me, it had become a colossal addiction. I don’t think I missed one of the little over 400 episodes in the series.
Gottfried had become a true interviewer along with partner Frank. He showed not only great curiosity in his guests but a true appreciation for their answers. His true non-stage voice gradually came through as there was less reason to guard it. Perhaps there was an understanding, as his rare dystrophic disease encroached, that this was as far as it may go. His energy gradually diminished, though his passion never left the studio. Upon the Covid lockdown in March of 2020, the podcast went remote, and though I would have to confirm this – it appeared never to have returned to the studio with in-person guests, where the laughter and exchange had been a little more spontaneous.
The last new edition of Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast was released on April 4th, 2022. Eight days later Gilbert was dead, revealed to me by a cousin who had just read about it. I was in shock, truthfully, as I had come to feel I knew the man and had planned to get in touch at some point, as we had some old showbiz loves in common – Jack Benny being a particular one. Ironically, Gottfried himself had often discussed late performers he had missed calling and speaking to. On April 12, I found an article about Gilbert’s death in the New York Times, written by Clay Risen and Peter Keepnews, and I added the following comment:
Gilbert was a performer who knew the truth. He understood the sound of language, but moreover he understood what people did with it. There was an underlying sadness to it all, but laughter was a trenchant weapon that he used often.
There was a gentle love in his parodies, and I think this is why people are mourning as they are today. They lost a friend, they lost of true voice, and they lost someone who is, quite frustratingly, irreplaceable.
As an extremely proud Jew, he was in that rare class of comic performers like Don Rickles, Robert Klein, and Alan King who faced head-long into the winds of antisemitism, making it somehow all just a comedy of error. As a result of this and many courageous moments in his stage life, people loved Mr. Gottfried almost unconditionally. His favorite often-heard parodies were so funny they hurt. This ability resided under a truly curious and eternally innocent soul who enjoyed his fame but never let it get to him - a lucky man who really got to live a life, ended of course, with unfair brevity. Olef hasholm.
I recommend seeing the Hulu offering Gilbert (2017) – a sensitive and insightful documentary about Gilbert Gottfried by filmmaker Neil Berkeley. Berkeley proved that Gottfried was not only a family man but one who could barely believe his fortune in spending the balance of his life in comfort with a devoted wife and two beautiful children. He was touring with his live solo act almost to the last week of his life. That had been going on for 52 years.
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