Gilbert Gottfried has gotten a bad reputation. In fact, the veteran stand-up comedian with the squinty eyes and squawking, Brooklyn-tinged voice is perhaps best known for being annoying. But in the new dirty-joke documentary The Aristocrats, Gottfried's other reputation—as a daring, sharp "comic's comic"—is firmly cemented. Gottfried's legendary telling of his version of the "Aristocrats" joke at the 2001 Friars Club Roast of Hugh Hefner was the inspiration for Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza's movie, as well as its much-needed anchor.
A taut knot of screeches, rants, and obscenities, Gottfried has had one of the most bizarre and contradictory careers in comedy. He began performing stand-up at open mics around New York City at the age of 15, and thanks to his ear for imitations, he quickly became a club favorite. He did a stint on Saturday Night Live in 1980, then took a string of quirky roles in lackluster movies like Problem Child 2, Hot To Trot, and Look Who's Talking Too. But he was always best suited to playing his stage persona, even if it sometimes got him into trouble. In 1991, he was cut off during the Emmy-awards broadcast for expounding on a Pee-wee Herman masturbation joke. Less than a year later, he voiced one of Disney's most beloved characters, the snappy parrot Iago in Aladdin. Nowadays, he still straddles the line between adult and kid humor: He's both a favorite guest on The Howard Stern Show and a favorite voiceover artist for children's cartoons like PBS' Cyberchase. His new DVD Gilbert Gottfried Dirty Jokes (featuring an extended version of his Aristocrats joke) is due out this fall, but meanwhile, The A.V. Club talked to the surprisingly soft-spoken Gottfried about Stern, censorship, dirty words, and, of course, opening for Belinda Carlisle.
The A.V. Club: You don't sound like you.
Gilbert Gottfried: I know. I sound amazingly nice. I guess that could be in my obituary.
AVC: Well, it is amazingly nice, because your onstage persona is always described as "annoying" or "obnoxious." What is it like to be called "the comedy equivalent of nails on a chalkboard?"
GG: To me, as long as I get a buck for it, it's fine.
AVC: But you cultivated that persona like a character.
GG: Yeah, but not consciously. I don't know where it all fell together.
AVC: Is it true that you originally squinted your eyes because of nervousness?
GG: No. I don't know, maybe. I don't make any conscious decisions one way or the other.
AVC: So were you annoying from the beginning?
GG: It's funny, because I remember one time, there was a review of me in Variety and they said, "He's the most unpleasant thing to happen in show business since the snuff film." I guess I should feel proud. When I first started, I was mainly doing imitations. I don't know when the rest of it started, really.
AVC: People are either saying stand-up is dead or resurging— there's never really anything between. Which theory do you ascribe to?
GG: With my act, it has always been dead.
AVC: Did you really once open for Belinda Carlisle?
GG: Yeah. I think it was in Long Beach. Before I went on, the stage manager says to me, "There's a lot of little girls and their mothers in the audience, so you gotta keep it clean." And I went on, and I was attempting to work clean, and I was going nowhere. So, after about three minutes, I did just about every dick joke I know.
AVC: What happened?
GG: Well, I was supposed to do a couple of other dates with her. But after that, I get home, and my agent calls and says that the people from her camp called and gave me the classic line, "Everyone loves you there…" Which is show-biz lingo for "You've just been fired." Once they say anything good about you, it's the end. The term "We love him here" means "You can forget about that." It's like being out with a girl and having her say, "Look, I think you're a great guy…"
AVC: Do you set out to offend people?
GG: No. I just have a natural ability. I definitely work clean the majority of the time.
AVC: Really? Like on the Emmy awards?
GG: That was another case where I got in a lot of trouble. I was a presenter. It was right after Pee-wee Herman got arrested for masturbating in a theater, and I went on and said, "If masturbation is a crime, then I should be on death row." I said, "By age 14, I was already Al Capone," and "How exactly did they do it, did they dust for prints?" [Laughs.] I got into a lot of trouble for that. They censored it.
AVC: They cut it.
GG: Yeah, they cut it from the thing. And the producers were going on the air and sending out apologies. Some critics said it was "a sneak attack on the unsuspecting American public." [Laughs.] Then, a short time later, Jerry Seinfeld does a masturbation episode that is looked upon like a classic of television. But me? I was responsible for killing people. And the funny thing is, more people ended up seeing it because it was censored. Every news show would pick it up and they would introduce it as a horrible moment that doesn't belong on television, and then they would broadcast the entire thing. "It's okay, because we're a news show. We're not happy showing this, but we have to."
AVC: Did you think that episode of Seinfeld was accepted because he's Seinfeld, while you have a dirtier reputation?
GG: I'm sure it didn't hurt. After the Pee-wee Herman joke, every report was calling me "dirty-mouthed comic Gilbert Gottfried." But then, after that, I did an HBO special—with no restrictions—and I went totally clean. Most of the time, my set is really clean. I mean, I've done Disney corporate events.
AVC: But it seems when you get into trouble, you fall back on raunchy. Like the night of the Hefner Friars Club Roast.
GG: Well, that was a very peculiar night, because it was shortly after Sept. 11, so there was a very weird feeling in the room. And I remember that whole time period was very strange, because no one knew how to react. There was this whole thing like "Show biz is coming to a close, and no one can ever do comedy; no one can ever do anything frivolous." I forget if it was the Oscar or the Emmy awards coming up right after that. In deference, I guess, to all those who perished in the World Trade Center, they decided they would still hold the awards show, but not in fancy outfits. [Laughs.]
So at the Roast, I just went up there, and I was doing well 'til I hit a snag in the road. I wanted to be the first one. At any tragic event that happens, there's always about five jokes that seem to be everywhere all at once. I wanted to be one of the first, so mine was "I have to leave early tonight. I have to catch a plane to L.A. Unfortunately, they couldn't get me a direct flight. We have to make a stop at the Empire State Building." And that was like, you know, groans from the audience. Boos. One guy yelled out "Too soon!" I guess I should have waited five minutes.
AVC: And then you told the Aristocrats joke.
GG: Yeah, I was still up there, you know. Before that, I was doing dirty jokes too, so I just basically continued with dirty jokes.
AVC: So what made you think of that joke at that time?
GG: I always sort of enjoyed it. Cause, you know, it's one of those be-as-disgusting-as-possible type jokes. It was always fun. But, I mean, the joke itself isn't really that funny.
AVC: No, it's really not. That's what's funny about The Aristocrats. It's this whole movie about a joke… but the joke kinda sucks.
GG: I think a lot has been made about it. Like saying it's some deep, dark secret of show business. To me, it's a dick joke, you know?
AVC: The movie makes it seem like it's some kind of secret handshake.
GG: Yeah, it's like there's some secret comics society that meets on a mountaintop somewhere.
AVC: There isn't, though… right?
GG: No, we meet in a cave. Comics aren't in that good of physical condition to climb to a mountaintop.
AVC: Some people think that your version of the joke is the best.
GG: Well, I'm certainly not gonna argue. If someone says that I'm the best at anything, I always just agree with them. Because of the movie, there's been a lot of press, but it's the kind of compliments that say, "No one in the movie is as hilarious or disgusting as Gilbert Gottfried." I suppose that's a compliment.
AVC: You were on the "lost season" of Saturday Night Live. What was that like?
GG: It was really weird, because it was right after the original cast was gone and Lorne Michaels was gone. It became a news event. "How dare they think they can continue Saturday Night Live without the faces we are used to?" And nowadays, it seems like the cast changes in between commercial breaks. In a way, I felt like we were the sacrificial lambs to make it okay. We were kind of on a suicide mission. There were constantly articles about it saying, "Oh, its just a disaster waiting to happen." Granted, I'll never hide the fact that the show was awful. All of the sides of the press said that the show sucked. But I always felt the press never knew what to say, because they were saying, "Well, we don't know who these people are." And I felt like, "Did anybody know who any of the Saturday Night Live cast members were before they became Saturday Night Live cast members?" They were already saying it was bad before it even aired. That was the strangest part. For a year, just preparing, putting the show together, there were constantly articles about it. I have always said that now Saturday Night Live is beyond funny or unfunny—it's just a restaurant in a good location.
AVC: The show has a reputation for reining people in. Did you feel like that was true?
GG: What I found odd there was the censorship thing. But I guess that's changed a lot over the years all over. When I watch the show now, I'm amazed at what they are able to get away with. I remember being on that show where everything was being censored left and right. Stuff that was nowhere near dirty. Now they are doing everything. I remember when saying "ass" on TV was the worst thing possible. It was like the worst, the most pornographic. I'm starting to sound like Lucille Ball now. [Laughs.]
AVC: A little. You can say "ass" on TV now.
GG: You can say "ass," but you can't say "asshole." That's why I always cringe when a character in a TV show refers to someone as an "ass." Unless you're British, calling someone an ass really doesn't work. But those are the rules of television. You can be a dirtbag, but not a scumbag.
AVC: You can't be a scumbag?
GG: No. Maybe now you can be. I've certainly been enough times. But I do see them say "dirtbag" a lot. My favorite one that they use when they dub over movies for TV is "Forget you!" instead of "Fuck you!" I always think, "Yeah, a lot of times I've lost my temper and yelled 'Forget you!'" I've been sorry afterward for going so far, but in the heat of passion I would yell, "Forget you!"
AVC: It's great when they do that, because you can clearly see the actor's mouth saying "Fuck."
GG: I've seen some movies that I've been in re-dubbed for TV, and they don't even use me.
AVC: They don't? Where do they get the voice?
GG: God only knows. The way it sounds, from people who have never even seen me before, because the voice is so different. I have seen that in a lot of movies, where it is so obviously somebody else doing the voice to clean up the words. That always throws you out of the picture.
AVC: Does that annoy you? Because your voice is so recognizable…
GG: Oh yeah. At least let me yell "Forget you!" and pay me for a day's work.
AVC: You do a lot of voices for kids' shows. Like the bird in Cyberchase.
GG: Yeah. And the parrot in Aladdin. I'm also the AFLAC duck. I've kind of cornered the market on birds.
AVC: Do you even have to audition for those voice roles anymore?
GG: Most of the time, when they ask for me now, it's without an audition. But when I got the AFLAC job, they called me in and I was standing in front of the mic yelling "AFLAC" a few times.
AVC: Is that all the duck says?
GG: Every now and then, there's an occasional groan. It's a very subtle performance. It looks easy, but… Once, I was going to record a bunch of commercials for Miracle Whip. Then they heard me on The Howard Stern Show and decided it wasn't the kind of image they wanted for their product, or something. They were very offended.
AVC: So you were too offensive to sell mayonnaise?
GG: Yeah. When Stern heard about that, he had someone go out and get a jar of mayonnaise and we all tasted it on the air and talked about how awful it was. [Laughs.]
AVC: What's it like to be a semi-regular on Howard Stern's show?
GG: What's weird is being on stage and having someone yell out "Howard!" It's a kind of heckle there is no answer for. Sometimes when I'm walking down the street, people will yell out "Howard!"
AVC: They make fun of you a lot on that show. Mostly about how you're, um, thrifty.
GG: That's part of the territory there. I love when people say to me, "I really want to go on The Howard Stern Show." Especially when a woman will say, "I really want to go on The Howard Stern Show, only I don't want him to say embarrassing things to me, and I don't want to take my clothes off." I always assure them, "Oh, that's a great offer."
AVC: How do you feel about the way Stern has been censored?
GG: Deep down, I think Howard probably enjoys a lot of the attacks he's getting. Like he's accomplishing something. I heard recently, I don't know if it's true, that they were doing a crackdown on what he does. Like the fart sounds on the air: how long he can fart for, and the consistency of his farts.
AVC: How do you measure that?
GG: There are special machines in Washington. I think a lot of people have too much time on their hands.