LAUGHING TO KEEP FROM CRYING: Comedian Gilbert Gottfried finds the humor in the darkest of situations
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Gilbert Gottfried has no hidden agenda.
As a working comedian since the age of 15, he’s cultivated a reputation as a funnyman who pushes the boundaries of taste and sensitivity. His jokes aren’t graphic or grotesque, but with his grating tone and squinted expression, he has the ability to jerk laughter out of fans, many of whom find themselves wondering if they should be laughing at all.
He is, in a word, inappropriate. He knows it, and fans know it. Apparently, it took the insurance company AFLAC 11 years to notice it, and after they did, much pomp and circumstance was made out of Gottfried’s 2011 dismissal as the voice of the AFLAC duck over comments he posted to social network Twitter in regards to the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
“That kind of humor has always appealed to me,” Gottfried told The Daily Times in a recent phone interview. “Even the people who act shocked by it, I kind of feel like they feel like they’re supposed to act shocked. Way before the Internet, after every major tragedy there would be six or seven jokes, and everybody knew them the next day. When the earthquake happened, I put up a bunch of jokes on Twitter, things like, ‘The Japanese are really advanced — they don’t go to the beach; the beach comes to them.’
“So it really struck me as strange that anyone who’s ever heard me on the radio or seen me on TV or seen me on stage would go, ‘Oh my God! Gilbert Gottfried did something tasteless!’ To me, it’s like comedy and tragedy are roommates. Wherever there’s a tragedy, comedy is right behind it.”
Which is how he chose to look at his “firing” by AFLAC, if it could be called such. After all, his Twitter account exploded with new followers, and suddenly fans who wondered if he’d lost his edge because he’d loaned his voice to a duck smiled at the knowledge that Gottfried still has it. And AFLAC made a big deal out of hiring a new “duck,” Daniel McKeague.
“I found out through the Internet, when I clicked on all the news stories and read about how I’d gotten fired,” he said. “I’ve always said they wound up finding a guy to imitate me for less money, thus bringing closure to a horrible tragedy.”
Gottfried wasn’t old enough to vote when he started doing stand-up at comedy open-mic nights in New York City. It wasn’t exactly welcome news to his parents, he said; back then, the comedy revival of the 1970s was still transforming stand-up and television.
“The idea that you said you wanted to have a career in comedy was like saying, ‘I think I’ll make a living being the next Charlie Chaplin,’” Gottfried said. “But I think the main thing that attracted me was that I realized if you were stupid and incompetent but were in show business, all those traits were admired. If you worked in a grocery store and had trouble tying your shoes and adding and reading were problems, you were an idiot. But in show business, if you find out Johnny Depp doesn’t know how to lick an envelope, you think he’s an artist.”
Like all comedians, it took time for Gottfried to develop his style. These days, he’s got it down pat: The beady-eyed squint, the high-pitched voice and the stooped posture are stereotypical loud-mouthed New Yorker, but when he was first starting out, the comedian he was then bore little resemblance to the comic he is today.
“All those years where you’re learning how to do it, you’ll have shows that are just great, and the room is with you and laughing and applauding, and you go, ‘That’s it. I’ve made it. I’m a great comic,’” he said. “And then the next show you do, it’s utter silence and people are walking out. I think it was Steve Martin who said, ‘It’s easy to be great; it’s harder to be good.’”
After a few years, however, he developed a reputation as “the comedian’s comedian.” When the original cast began to leave the sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Live,” producers brought Gottfried on board as a cast member. He was only on for the 1980-81 season, and the incoming class that year featured only two additional names that casual “SNL” fans might recognize: Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. “Classic” cast members Jane Curtain, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Garrett Morris and Laraine Newman had all departed the show in 1979, and many television critics considered replacing them to be blasphemous.
“Even way before the show aired, all the papers and press were writing about it, saying things like, ‘How dare they think they can go forward with a show without the original cast,’” Gottfried said. “It was like in the midst of Beatlemania replacing The Beatles with four other guys. Today, the ‘SNL’ cast changes in between commercials, but back then it was like, ‘How dare they!’
“We got a lot of bad press, and we went on, and it did suck. But it was my first good TV show. And from there I went into auditioning to appear on MTV, and I just went in and improvised for over an hour. The next thing I know, they chopped it up and were running it throughout the day, and people started noticing me.”
His MTV promos led to appearances on “The Cosby Show” and “Late Night with David Letterman,” as well as bit roles in films like “Beverly Hills Cop II” and voiceover work for animated series (“Ren and Stimpy”) and movies (“Aladdin”). He was a cast member on the most recent version of “Hollywood Squares,” hosted the popular late-night movie series “USA Up All Night” and was given bit roles in a number of films. These days, he’s an old hand at the acting gig, and he realizes it’s not all he thought it would be as a young comedian just breaking into the business.
“Sometimes I’ll watch a movie, and there’s a big action scene where they’re running through the sewer and shooting at each other, and I’ll think, ‘Wow — that looks like that must have been a fun movie to do,’” he said. “Then you think about it, and you realize there were in the sewer for a few months straight filming it.”
These days, he’s taking parts whenever he can, he said: “The way I run my career is with no rhyme or reason. I always say that some performers answer the phone, ‘Hello?’ I answer the phone, ‘I’ll take it!’”
He’s also still doing stand-up — and will perform in Knoxville this weekend — and he recently released a memoir that’s equal parts commentary and off-the-wall observations. “Rubber Balls and Liquor” is his first attempt at literature, although those who have heard his hilarious reading of the sex-and-bondage novel “50 Shades of Grey” or seen his part in the documentary “The Aristocrats” realize that equating anything Gottfried does to high art is a stretch.
But it’s all he knows.
“I still haven’t realized I have any talent in that area, but it’s too late to back out now, because I have no other skills,” he said.
And in his own way, he’s performing something of a community service to fans who can get past the shock factor. Being able to laugh in the face of adversity — and especially tragedy — is a powerful coping mechanism. During a comedy roast of Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner in September 2011, Gottfried was vilified for making one of the first post-Sept. 11 jokes. It was met with utter silence and a few boos, but today, fellow comics admire him for taking that step forward.
“Things like that really do help people survive,” he said. “If you don’t have a sense of humor about it, you would just fall apart. I love when I’ll get in trouble for something — which is every three seconds — and people say, ‘Aren’t you aware? How could you joke like that? Aren’t you aware of the tragedy and heartbreak of this situation?’
“Yes. I am aware of it. But I like to laugh.”