Another shockwave rippled through the comedy world Tuesday with the announcement of the death of Gilbert Gottfried, at 67, from a rare genetic muscle disease. I say “another,” because many of us are still mourning Bob Saget and Norm Macdonald, both of whom departed over the past year. All three were iconoclasts to some extent; all were original voices in standup, and were, by all accounts, incredibly nice men whose offstage lives often contrasted with rough or un-P.C. onstage personas.
I have interviewed Gottfried twice via phone in my career, and in tribute to his passing, I’m re-running the most recent of these articles, below, which originally appeared in August 2013. Re-reading it today, it seems Gottfried might be remembered as the canary in the coal mine for today’s so-called cancel culture—he was canceled before the term became ubiquitous, a result for which he might have worn a badge of pride.
One of Gilbert Gottfried’s signatures, in addition to a voice that makes nails on a chalkboard sound like Mozart, is his propensity to say the wrong things at the wrong time. If there’s ever an opportunity to jeopardize his career and good standing, he’ll take full advantage of it.
On March 12, 2011, Gottfried didn’t wait for the water to recede from Japan’s devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami before taking to Twitter. Less than 24 hours after the disaster, he released a string of callous missives that no one, at that time, was permitted to enjoy, such as “I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, ‘They’ll be another one floating by any minute now,’” and “Japan is really advanced. They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.”
Aflac was none too pleased. The insurance company promptly ended its relationship with Gottfried, who for 11 years helped established the brand’s mascot, the Aflac duck.
“People ask me, do you think twice before you tweet something? And now I think twice, but I do it anyway,” Gottfried says. “It was such a foolish controversy. I feel like I have to give these serious interviews with these hard-hitting journalists, whose most important subject in the world was some jokes Gilbert Gottfried said.
“My favorite tweet I got around that time was, ‘Aflac fires Gilbert Gottfried after discovering he’s a comedian.’ I thought it’s like that scene in ‘Casablanca’ where Claude Rains wants to shut down Rick’s casino, and they say, ‘Why are you shutting us down?’ And he goes, ‘I’m shocked to find out gambling is going on here.’ I’m a comedian who has been doing this style of comedy for years now. I was always doing stuff that was considered ‘too soon.’ To me, it’s like eating cornflakes for breakfast every day, and one day you eat cornflakes and all hell breaks loose.”
Ten years prior, Gottfried had gotten his first taste of politically correct censorship when he became the first comedian to make a 9-11 joke on national television, three weeks after the towers fell. At a Friars Club roast for Hugh Hefner, he quipped that he intended to catch a plane to New York but could not get a direct flight because “they had to stop at the Empire State Building first.” The joke was met with boos, hisses, and milquetoast cries of “too soon!” He recalls the next few minutes onstage feeling like hours, and it took an old standby—the endless, ostentatiously filthy “Aristocrats” joke he told in the hilarious documentary of the same name—to win the crowd back.
“The audience starts cheering and howling and applauding. So a terrorist attacks, that’s bad taste. And jokes about incest and bestiality and all forms of bodily fluid are in good taste. So many times, reporters who were condemning me on the air would secretly say to me off the air, ‘I laughed at those jokes.’”
Not all of Gottfried’s bad-tasting jokes have received the same amount of scrupulous media attention. On his website, at the end of his list of otherwise genuine thank-yous, he adds “Finally, I’d like to thank Osama bin Laden just for being a dear friend.” Gottfried’s freewheeling memoir Rubber Balls and Liquor, published in 2011, is a compendium of caustically incorrect observations that, had he said them on “The Tonight Show,” would have caused many a stir. Like this one, from page 21: “Confession: Watching Natalie Portman on Broadway was the only time I’ve jerked off to a production of The Diary of Anne Frank.” Justin Bieber was skewered for saying much less.
In phone interviews, Gottfried, who is 58, is a different beast than his squawking, controversial on-camera persona. He speaks like a regular guy, adding that sometimes, his vocal shtick takes a toll: “I feel like one day I’ll sound like Rod Stewart.” He answers questions with plenty of pensive pauses and deliberate diction, until inspiration for a joke will strike him. When asked how he reconciles his nice, humble private appearance with his notoriously dirty public one, he responds, “Maybe I just put on a nice guy act, and I’m a disgusting pervert who parks his van outside schoolyards.”
In truth, much of Gottfried’s stand-up act is, in his words, “mostly clean,” and his career has always walked a fascinating tightrope between the obscenely adult and the adorably G-rated. He famously voiced the parrot Iago in Disney’s “Aladdin,” and he contributed his signature screech to a character in a math-based educational show for tweens called “Cyberchase.” He continues to be an in-demand voice actor for cartoons, with in-the-know parents hoping their children don’t google the guy who voiced Santa on “The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy.”
These days, Gottfried’s Twitter feed is still one of the funniest ones on the net, though some things have changed. Rather than wait for the objections and decrials from the moral majority, he embeds his apologies into the 140 characters, like this one, from July 22: “Why did the door go the doctor? Because he was becoming unhinged. I apologize for any doors that feel they were slammed.” Or this one, from a couple of days later: “Why was the dog happy? Because he got a new leash on life. I deeply apologize to dogs, leashes & leeches.”
As for Aflac, the company is still doing fine, despite boycotts from Gottfried’s fans. They hired a Gottfried sound-a-like, as if we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
“What they wound up doing is using my name to get loads of press, and then get someone who imitates me for cheaper, thus bringing closure to a horrible tragedy,” he says. “I get loads of tweets saying it’s just not the same.”