Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Gilbert Gottfried has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in show business, and while that might be considered a blessing or a curse depending on who you ask, it’s a voice that’s served him well enough since he started his stand-up career—at age 15, no less—to keep him more or less gainfully employed for over four decades. In fact, it’s arguable that Gottfried’s voice is the reason he’s been able to survive a time that found him serving as both a cast member during the infamously disastrous 1980-1981 season of Saturday Night Live as well as one of the “resident cast of zanies” on Alan Thicke’s short-lived talk show fiasco, Thicke Of The Night.
Although Gottfried has rarely gone without doing on-camera work on a regular basis, turning up in such projects as Beverly Hills Cop II, the Problem Child franchise, and even Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, his longest-running and most high-profile work has been as a voice actor: In addition to his work as Iago in Disney’s Aladdin franchise over the years, he continues to play Digit on the PBS Kids series Cyberchase. Since 2014, Gottfried has also been keeping his voice in shape as the host of Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast.
Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast (2014-present)—host
The A.V. Club: You’ve had a lot of interesting individuals from the world of entertainment on your podcast, and you seem to enjoy geeking out and asking them about anything you’ve seen, read, or heard about them over the years.
Gilbert Gottfried: Oh, yeah, that’s kind of where the whole idea started. I didn’t think anybody would want to listen to it. I didn’t think they’d like old movie stars or old TV stars and stuff. But I get all these letters from people who say, “I didn’t know who that guy was or who you were talking about… but I still liked it!” [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, the stories definitely tend to be great. Of course, that could be because so many of the guests are old enough that they don’t really give a fuck what they say at this point.
GG: Oh, that’s the best part: When you’ve got people who don’t care what impression they make and they’ll say anything. [Laughs.] One pleasant surprise was when I interviewed Butch Patrick. I was expecting this bitter old drunk, and instead he had a total sense of humor about his career and his drinking and drug problem. He was telling stories about how he used to have on The Munsters this Wolfman doll he’d carry around and how he had some guy make a bunch of copies of it and he’d sell them, but that every penny he made from selling those dolls went to alcohol. But now he’s cleaned up and everything.
AVC: How do you go about selecting the guests for the show? Do you have a wish list?
GG: Well, we’ll usually start thinking of people, and then when you start looking into it, you find out that a lot of them are dead. [Laughs.] That’s always a problem. I don’t know how many times we’ve come up with a name, and then just as we were about to call them, we turn on the TV and find out that they died that day. I was originally going to call it the Before-It’s-Too-Late Show!
AVC: Can you nail down a favorite interview to date?
GG: Oh, ones I actually enjoyed? [Laughs.] There are so many. God, I mean, most of them I’ve really enjoyed. I liked Danny Bonaduce when he was on, because he’s one of those people who has no censor button on him. There was that famous incident a few years ago when he picked up a transvestite hooker and then proceeded to beat her up in his car, and when I brought it up, I said, “Look, I’m sure you’re probably tired of talking about this…” and he said, “No, I’m not tired of talking about it at all!” And he went into full detail about what happened, and he didn’t care. Danny Aiello was a fun one, too.
Oh, you know, we interviewed the songwriter Paul Williams, and he was talking about how when he was a kid… He said his whole family, if you saw them, they’re all over 6-foot-2, and his parents didn’t think he was growing fast enough, so this doctor recommended these growth injections that actually stunted his growth. Then he went into talking about how one time he was doing The Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia, and this actor Peter Lawford called him, “Please have me on as a guest.” And the whole reason was so that he’d have a reason to fly to Philadelphia, where he knew this guy who sold really good coke. [Laughs.]
The Further Adventures Of Wally Brown (1980)—“Bernstein”
Norman’s Corner (1987)—“Norman”
AVC: Most people assume your first TV appearance was when you joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. Before that, though, you did a pilot called The Further Adventures Of Wally Brown.
GG: [Laughs.] I had flown to L.A. to audition for something else, and that thing I didn’t get. Then I had a friend of mine out there who was a comedian that I knew from New York, and he said he was doing this pilot, and they’re casting one of the other roles. He called them and recommended me, and I went in and auditioned, and they liked me and used me. This is a lesson in how show biz works and how things get made: One of the producers or creators—whoever he was—was a big fan of the song “Charlie Brown.” You know, “He walks in the classroom, cool and slow…”
AVC: Sure, by The Coasters.
GG: Yeah. So he liked that song, so he decided to make a TV series out of it. Because there’s so much in one song to go on. So Wally Brown was this black kid, and he had a white friend, and—talk about originality—the white friend’s father was a cab driver who lived in Queens who was a bigot, and he had a dingbat wife. [Laughs.] And amazingly the show didn’t take off!
AVC: There’s two things in the credits of the pilot that stood out, the first being that Peter Scolari was one of your co-stars.
GG: Yes! Then he later went on to Newhart and—most importantly—Bosom Buddies, with Tom Hanks. I wonder if Peter Scolari throws darts at pictures of Tom Hanks. [Laughs.]
AVC: The other interesting thing was that it was directed by Lowell Ganz.
GG: Yes, Lowell Ganz of the team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who created a lot of very successful things. This was not one of them. [Laughs.]
That reminds me: As far as other people I’ve worked with who seem to have the Midas touch, but I guess were wearing gloves when they worked with me, I did what was called a backdoor pilot. That’s when you disguise something as a TV show with the hope that it’ll become a series. They do that a lot on series. You’ll have a show like Married With Children, where all of a sudden Al would say, “Hey, it’s my best friend Doug!” And the audience would go, “Well, if he’s your best friend, how come in all the years of watching this series we’ve never seen him once?” But after Doug showed up, all of the characters from Married With Children would pretty much disappear for the rest of the episode. They do that for a lot of shows: They’ll introduce a character just to see if they’re popular enough to make a series.
But for this one, they made what was supposed to be a special, and it was called Norman’s Corner. I was a newsstand owner, it was about me and all the wacky people I came in contact with, and it was written by Larry David. And, you know, everything else he did turned to gold, but on this one, I think he was just testing out his pen to see if it wrote. [Laughs.] So that was a pretty much forgotten-about show, except that a couple of years later Jerry Seinfeld was wanting to start his show, and they said, “Well, he’s creating it with Larry David.” And somebody at NBC said, “Larry David? Isn’t he the one that wrote that piece of shit for Gilbert Gottfried?”
AVC: The other members of the cast were impressive, especially for someone who’s a fan of old show biz: Henny Youngman, Arnold Stang, and Joe Franklin all made appearances.
GG: Oh, yes, that’s true. Joe Franklin, by the way, who was also on my podcast.
AVC: Yes. And promptly died.
GG: [Laughs.] It’s in the contract! You’ve got to look at the small print when you sign!
The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys (1992)—“The Director”
GG: Yeah, boy, that was a show based on less than the song “Charlie Brown.” [Laughs.] That was created by Howie Mandel, who was also on my podcast.
AVC: And as of this date is still with us.
GG: Yeah, I’m going to have to hit him with my car or something. [Laughs.] He’s supposed to die right after! Actually, I’ll tell you about him being on the show after I talk about this, because he was a great guest.
But this show was based on those ads that they used to run in the back of comic books for the Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys, which would be these underwater creatures that, in the drawings, you’d see these monkey-looking things wearing crowns and capes and holding a staff, and they’d all have different personalities, but when you got these things… I never actually bought any, but I had friends who did, and it would be this small plastic tank—like the size of a pack of cigarettes—and when you looked in it, you saw dots. It basically looked like water with insects swimming around in it… and these were the Amazing Sea-Monkeys! [Laughs.] I don’t know if they were brine shrimp or something, but, yeah, even if you strained your eyes and looked really hard… I mean, there were these little circles on the sides of the tank that were like magnifiers, so that you could see these dots better, but even at that, nothing.
So Howie Mandel made a series out of that. [Laughs.] He got these three guys that they made up to look like the Sea Monkeys in the ads, and they got into adventures. They were kind of like The Three Stooges. And one time they were making a TV show, and I was the director of it. So that’s what that was.
When we had Howie on our show, he was going into full detail about all of his obsessive-compulsive behavior and being a germophobe, and he was telling stories about how when he was doing his TV show, he had to shake hands with the guests. So he’d have Purex handy that he’d clean his hands with, but then on top of that, it got so extreme that he got that soap that surgeons use before they go in to operate, which is a really strong soap. And he’d be constantly washing his hands with that until he started to develop warts all over his hands because he was killing off all the germs that fight off things like warts. You know, it kills the good germs, too. That was definitely an interesting one.
Son Of The Beach (2001-2002)—“Noccus Johnstein”
GG: I did two of those. That was Howard Stern—I guess it was his production company—and… I forget what channel that was on.
AVC: That would be FX in the pre-quality programming years.
GG: [Laughs.] I think I’ve probably been in every show on every station during their pre-quality programming years. You know, before the stations realized how to make good shows. But Son Of The Beach I actually enjoyed. I enjoyed watching it—even the ones I wasn’t on.
It was a takeoff on Baywatch, and most of the jokes were really childish dirty jokes, which I enjoyed. Like, you know, one of the girls’ names there was B.J. Cummings, and another one was Porcelain Bidet. [Laughs.] Noccus Johnstein—so named because the lead character’s name was Notch Johnson—was the Israeli lifeguard, wearing a full Hasidic-looking beard and hat.
What’s fascinating to me about the first episode I did of that was… This was pre-9/11, but the girls from the crew get kidnapped, and there’s a whole terrorist plot, and it’s the brother or cousin of Osama Bin Laden who’s going to drop a bomb on America. This was back when the general public didn’t even know who Osama Bin Laden was. So there was a whole thing on Osama Bin Laden committing a terrorist attack… and then less than a year later, it actually did happen. I thought, “If this show had been a serious drama, people would be looking back on it and studying it.” Instead, it was a silly comedy. But that amazed me.
Oh, and there was a subplot where my daughter wants to marry this German-like guy, and they had this guy who looked and sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger on the show, and I finally say to him, “If you want to marry my daughter, then you’ll have to convert to Judaism.” And he says to me, “Is that your final solution?” [Laughs.] And I said, “Yes,” so he converts, and then afterward he says, “Boy, if my father knew I was a Jew, he’d kill me!”
After that one, I returned to the show—a few months later, he asked me—and they wrote another one. Once again I was Noccus Johnstein, but I get bitten by this girl vampire, and I become Count Noccula. [Laughs.] So now I’m in the full Dracula outfit, doing my [Bela] Lugosi imitation during the show. So those two episodes were actually fun… and the girls were hot-looking, of course. But since then, I’ve watched episodes of it, and the show still makes me laugh.
AVC: As you said, the show was a Howard Stern production, and you were a regular guest on his show for awhile. How did you and Stern first meet?
GG: He just had me on a guest, and at that point, you could still say to people, “Oh, I’m doing The Howard Stern Show tomorrow,” and people would go, “Who?” So he was just building a following back then. But then later on it exploded, and he became the biggest thing on the air. But the first time I did the show, I don’t know, I got laughs on the show, and we just seemed to strike it off. There seemed to be chemistry. I guess my school report would’ve said, “Plays well with others.” [Laughs.] But it got to a point where there were times where, if I just happened to wake up early in the morning, I would get dressed and walk—and it was a long walk—all the way over to where the show was, and back then I could just walk in the office building, and they’d nod and say hi, and I’d ride up on the elevator and then just sit in on the show.
AVC: Not a bad deal.
GG: Yeah, that was fun! It’s so funny that over the years I’d be remembered for bits on that. You know, just various weird things we did, interviews or weird phone calls. I remember one time they sent me out in full Dracula attire. Howard always liked it when I did Dracula, so they sent me out with a cape and white makeup and a widow’s peak and everything, gave me a microphone, and they had me ask black people if O.J. was guilty. [Laughs.]
AVC: One of the first things someone said to ask you was, “Ask him about his Andrew Dice Clay impression on the Stern show!”
GG: Oh, yeah! But it, uh, doesn’t really work in print. [Laughs.]
AVC: No, but there’s a clip of it online, thankfully.
GG: That’s good, because otherwise you’d just have to write down, “Ooooh, ahhhh, ohhhh.” “What are you, a homo?” “Eck, eck, eck, eck,” and that I’m moving an imaginary cigarette around. [Laughs.] But once when Stern had his TV show, he had me on as Andrew Dice Clay, and he supplied a leather jacket that was his. So I wore that, and it was like wearing a tent on me, but I was there with a cigarette doing Dice Clay throughout the whole show.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2011-2012)—“Leo Gerber”
GG: I did two episodes, and I was basically that typical character in those shows who’s in the technical department and is by the computer all the time. On the first episode I did, I just thought like I always do in everything I work on: I try to improvise stuff. And I was acting silly and just making up stuff and getting some laughs from the crew, and then the director walks over to me, and he said, “Could you pull it back a little? This is about a little boy who’s been murdered.” [Laughs.] Then on the second episode, I remember I was backstage getting into makeup, and there was this pretty young actress there who I knew wasn’t one of their regular cast, and I said, “So, are you going to be one of the dead victims on the show?” And she said to me, with a big smile on her face, “No, I’m raped, but I live!”
Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2004)—“Duck” (voice, uncredited)
AVC: You gave voice to a duck in the Lemony Snicket movie, and although you’re not credited, it was clearly intended as an Aflac tie-in.
GG: I was just making regular kind of duck noises, but somehow they were able to fit it in there. So that was my big co-starring role with Jim Carrey. [Laughs.] It was obviously a bit of ad-hoc ad placement, the way a character in a movie says, “Let’s go out and get a Coca-Cola!” And another character says, “Hey, you know where they have Coca-Cola? At McDonald’s!” So they say, “Well, let’s put on our Reeboks and go over there!”
AVC: Speaking of Aflac, were you blindsided when they were shocked that you’d tweeted something potentially offensive?
GG: Oh, yeah. I remember the funniest tweet somebody sent me was one where they said, “Aflac fires Gilbert Gottfried after discovering he’s a comedian.” [Laughs.] It was shocking. It was one of those things where you go, “Okay, so they never saw me onstage, never heard me on the radio, never heard of The Aristocrats, never saw any of my specials, never heard my Dirty Jokes album…” It seemed in a lot of ways a very convenient offense: They fired me, got loads of free publicity out of it, and then got a guy to imitate my voice for less money, thus bringing closure to a horrible tragedy.
Wings (1994 & 1995)—“Lewis”
GG: I was an annoying nephew with a rich uncle, and I was waiting for him to die. The uncle was played by the actor William Hickey, who was very funny, and if he had stayed around a little longer, he would’ve been on my podcast, but back then I thought he was going to drop dead in mid-sentence! [Laughs.] He was great on the show, but, boy, when the cameras were off, he could barely hold a cup of coffee at that point. But, yeah, that was a fun show to do.
AVC: You guys were great together.
GG: He was fun to work with, because we both… I remember there was one line, because he had a really weird voice and way of speaking, so it was funny when he said, “Oh, you know, my nephew’s a nice boy, but he’s got that annoying voice.” [Laughs.]
Saturday Night Live (1980-1981)—cast member
AVC: How did you find your way into the cast? Was it just an open audition?
GG: Yeah, it was an audition. First they saw me in the clubs a few times, then they brought me into their offices and I auditioned there a few times, first by myself and then with other people. It’s very peculiar when I look back on that, because I hear other people talk about how they were so nervous and they hated everybody else who was there auditioning because they were in competition. I don’t know why, but for some reason I didn’t really care one way or the other. I was auditioning for it, and I got the part, and when I got it, I wasn’t, like, jumping for joy or celebrating. It was the worst time to be on the show, because it was right after Lorne Michaels and the original cast left, so it was basically like if, in the middle of Beatlemania, you got rid of John, Paul, George, and Ringo and announced, “We’ve just replaced them with four other schmucks, and you’re going to like them just as much.” [Laughs.]
I remember when it was happening, media-wise, before we even made it to the air, people were attacking the show. It was, like, “How dare they!” Which proves that you shouldn’t be the replacement. You should be the replacement of the replacement. It’s kind of like when Howard Stern left the air. If I was running that station, the first day after Howard left, I would’ve just grabbed anybody off the street and said, “Okay, you be the host.” Because they’re going to hate him no matter what. Then once he’s gone, you’re the replacement of the replacement. If you’re not the replacement of the main guy, nobody cares!
AVC: As you said, your season of the show was critically reviled.
GG: Oh, yeah. [Laughs]
AVC: The musical guests, though, were amazing. You had Aretha Franklin, Cheap Trick, even Captain Beefheart!
GG: Yeah, and it’s funny, because among the reviews, there were a lot of them attacking the musical guests, saying, “They get the worst musical guests!” And it was, like, we had James Brown! We had Prince!
AVC: Did you have any close encounters with the musical guests that stood out?
GG: Not really. Although I remember one time there was some artist… I can’t remember who it was, but they were reggae, and you could basically walk within a hundred feet of their dressing room and be stoned for the rest of the day.
AVC: Well, Jimmy Cliff was on there.
GG: Oh, yeah! It was probably his band. Because I remember there being smoke in the hallway, and I was eating a lot of chocolate and potato chips that day. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s well-documented that morale was plummeting on a daily basis, but was there an episode in the bunch where you can look back and say, “We actually did some decent work on that one”?
GG: I’d be hard pressed to find one. [Laughs.] Particularly from anything I was in. I remember at one point—I think it was the lowest point—there was one sketch that was called “Jack The Stripper,” and it was about Jack The Ripper, but all the male stars were dressed in drag, and I think some of the women were dressed as men, and it was about this guy who doesn’t kill people, he flashes himself. That one was bad.
AVC: Well, at least you were able to go highbrow at one point and deliver a Roman Polanski impression.
GG: Oh, my God. Oh, yeah, very highbrow: I’m Polanski, pulling a girl through a doorway. [Laughs.] I’ll tell you, though, it was funny that when they fired the producer, Jean Doumanian, they wound up keeping as their top writers two of the guys that she’d hired, and they also wound up keeping Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy, who ended up being their main guys. So there was some stuff out of our season that worked. Just not mine.
The House Of God (1984)—“Paramedic”
Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)—“Sidney Bernstein”
AVC: Speaking of Eddie Murphy, you turned up in Beverly Hills Cop II a few years later and had a great scene with him. Was that tied to you having worked with him on SNL, or was it just coincidence?
GG: Yes, I just auditioned. I auditioned a couple of times, actually. But Eddie Murphy told me when he showed up on the set that when he looked at the call sheet that day, that’s the first time he knew I was in the movie. But that scene, where I played the financial guy, Sid Bernstein, I remember me and Eddie were just improvising back and forth the whole day and just laughing and having a good time, and each time they shot it, it was different. But that turned out great, and that’s when everybody started talking about me, really: from that movie.
AVC: Prior to that, though, you’d already been in a movie with Joe Piscopo called The House Of God.
GG: Oh, yes. [Laughs.]
AVC: The cast list is astounding, if oddly diverse: You’ve got guys like James Cromwell, Ossie Davis, and Howard Rollins, Jr. working alongside Piscopo, Charles Fleischer, Michael Richards, and Sandra Bernhard.
GG: The cast list is very impressive and, uh… [Long pause, followed by much laughter.] It’s a very odd cast, but oh, boy. That was based on a book that I think doctors seemed to like, written by someone familiar with the medical profession. But people who’ve read the book have asked, “Which character were you?” Well, I wasn’t in the book. It was supposed to be a comedy, but I guess at some point it was going so poorly while they were making it and was so unfunny that somebody had the bright idea, “Well, let’s just start throwing comedians into it and see if they can do anything.” Which is a bad sign. So that film never got released into theaters, but I think I saw it once on cable at, like, 4 a.m., and… it’s just a mess.
Problem Child (1990) / Problem Child 2 (1992) / Problem Child: The Animated Series (1993)—“Mr. Peabody”
Problem Child 3: Junior In Love (1995)—“Dr. Peabody”
GG: Oh, yeah, that one I auditioned for, got it, and I was the adoption agency worker. Even while we were making it, we all thought, “This is going to be a bomb.” In fact, I remember when my filming was through and I was going home, I was saying goodbye to John Ritter, and he was kind of looking around, shrugging his shoulders, going, “Well, you know the way it is in the business: You do something, and then you go on to the next thing.” I think he thought it would be a failure. And the people involved at Universal, one of them said, “We’re going to treat this like a wounded soldier on the battlefield: leave it there to die and run and save our own asses.” [Laughs.]
Amazingly, people loved the movie, and it became a major hit that no one was expecting. It was such a surprise hit that I think it became Univeral’s biggest hit that year, so that spawned a sequel which was also a big hit. Then they made a cartoon series that, if you find any copies of it, it looks like it was made for about 12 cents.
Then I’m the only one who seems to know about this one, but they made a TV movie. I think I was the only person from the original cast, because they had a different kid, and John Ritter wasn’t there. It was William Katt from The Greatest American Hero playing the father.
AVC: Actually, you might not have had any scenes with him, but Jack Warden did manage to carry over into the TV movie, too.
GG: Oh, okay, yeah. Now, see, Jack Warden is one of those people who, had he lived, I would’ve loved to have had him on the podcast, because he’s one of those actors, like so many of these supporting players, who could do comedy and drama back and forth, it didn’t matter. Throw ’em in a Western, throw ’em in a detective thing, they just do their job, and they’re great at it.
Highway To Hell (1991)—“Adolf Hitler”
A Million Ways To Die In The West (2014)—“Abraham Lincoln”
AVC: Some credits just scream to be asked about.
GG: Oh, God. You know, the credit “Gilbert Gottfried as Hitler” is actually much funnier than the actual scene. I mean, you watch the scene, you go, “Eh, whatever.” [Laughs.] So it’s not worth sitting through the scene… and it’s definitely not worth sitting through the movie. It’s like my credit in A Million Ways To Die In The West. I love watching the closing credits just to see “Gilbert Gottfried as Abraham Lincoln.” With that movie, though, they asked if I wanted to in the credits, because I guess some actors feel like they’re above doing small parts, but that’s one where I’m just so glad when the credits come up, because it always makes me laugh. That was fun.
Highway To Hell, though, that’s another one with a lot of people in it. I think the entire Stiller and Meara family were in it! And there was an actor in that who at the time looked like he was going to be the next big thing, a guy named Patrick Bergin. He was in a movie with Julia Roberts called Sleeping With The Enemy. But, yeah, Highway To Hell, that was also pretty much a mess. [Laughs.]
Thicke Of The Night (1983)—himself
Celebrity Wife Swap (2013)—himself
Unusually Thicke (2014)—himself
GG: Oh, yeah, Thicke Of The Night. Another tremendous success. [Laughs.] I’m sure everyone has a box set of that one. They were advertising Alan Thicke as the guy that was going to knock Johnny Carson off the air… and right now Johnny Carson is not on the air, so I guess it worked! But, yeah, that was a mess.
AVC: Was that a case where you saw the writing on the wall right off the bat?
GG: Oh, yeah. I mean, when they start getting new ideas and changing stuff, and the classic word “reboot” is used… At one point, they came up with an idea that I would go from being one of their resident cast of zanies in the skits to a guy who lived up in the catwalk. Yeah, that was pure funny. [Laughs.] Then I remember that the funniest thing was unintentionally funny: One of their sponsors was a women’s sanitary napkin, and it was advertising how thin it was, how it could fit under your clothes and wouldn’t show, and it said, “Once you try it, you’ll never go back to thick!”
AVC: Apparently, you and Alan Thicke managed to get past the painful memories that you share, since you were on Celebrity Wife Swap together, not to mention that he guested on your podcast and you turned up on his latest show, Unusually Thicke.
GG: Oh, sure. That’s the way it works in the business. [Laughs.] Unless somebody dies, you’ll end up working with them again at some point.
Aladdin (1991) / The Return Of Jafar (1994) / Aladdin And The King Of Thieves (1996)—“Iago”
GG: That’s one of the few quality productions I’ve been involved with. [Laughs.] I auditioned for it, and I also played around with the dialogue and everything. Then for the longest time I hadn’t heard anything, but then they said that they wanted me. So I did that, and I’ve heard a million stories about how crazy it was and what a scene it was between me and Robin when we were recording together, but I never ran into him once during the making of that movie.
AVC: It’s definitely a popular movie. In particular, the clip of you during this year’s Night Of Too Many Stars was incredibly heartwarming.
GG: That shows that I can do nice things if I’m not responsible for them. [Laughs.] There was an article in the New York Times about this guy Ron Susskind who had an autistic son, and I think the son was about 6 or whatever, and he had never spoken to him. They couldn’t speak together, even after they went to different therapists and whatnot. But the kid would watch various cartoons, he particularly liked Disney, and one of his favorites was Aladdin, one where he knew, like, every line of dialogue. So just going for broke, the father had a puppet of my character, Iago, and he put it on and started imitating my voice, and he said to his son, “How are you?” And the son looked at the parrot and said, “I’m not happy. I don’t have any friends.” And that’s what got them speaking from then on.
So then he came out when we were doing Night Of Too Many Stars, the autism benefit that Robert Smigel does, and they showed a little documentary about him. At one point, they filmed me, because Owen—that’s his name—is in a class with kids with autism, and they were putting on a production of Aladdin, and in the middle of it I just walked in and started doing the voice and they all started cheering. [Laughs.]
AVC: How surprised were you by his reaction onstage, the way he grabbed hold of the moment and ran with it?
GG: Oh, he was great. He knew the dialogue better than I did!
AVC: And proved it.
GG: Exactly! [Laughs] And the crowd loved it. It was definitely one of the high points of the evening.
Hot To Trot (1988)—“Dentist”
AVC: What were your expectations for Hot To Trot?
GG: Oh, I was writing out my Academy Award acceptance speech and trying on tuxedoes to see which one would look best on camera. [Laughs.] And I’m still heartbroken that that didn’t get the accolades it deserved!
AVC: You’re actually the third person from that film we’ve interviewed for this feature. We also talked to Virginia Madsen and Dabney Coleman.
GG: Oh, and another person in that was Buck Henry, and I ran into him some years later, and I said, “Oh, you know, we were in a movie together.” And he looked at me with a disgusted expression on his face, and he just goes, “H.T.T.?” [Laughs.] He couldn’t even say the words out loud.
The Cosby Show (1987)—“Mr. Babbit”
A Different World (1992)—“Sergeant”
AVC: You were on what was apparently the highest rated episode of The Cosby Show.
GG: Oh, yes! Back when it was actually an honor that you were working with Bill Cosby. [Laughs.] Now it’s kind of like saying, “I was on The Charles Manson Comedy Hour!” But, yeah, I went in for an audition, but even before I read anything, they said, “Bill was looking for this guy that used to appear a lot on MTV and stuff like that.” And that was me!
So they drove me right from the audition to the show, and it turns out that Cosby… I mean, I had heard before, when I was on Thicke Of The Night, that he was a fan of mine. Because, you know, I also like to drug women and rape them afterwards. [Laughs.] It’s a hobby of mine.
AVC: Well, I set you up. I knew what I was getting into.
GG: [Laughs.] So I did the show, which was already a hit show, and for some reason or other that episode wound up being the most watched episode in the history of the series.
AVC: You must’ve stayed in good stead with the Cosby camp, because you went on to appear in an episode of A Different World and—apparently, anyway—his series Cosby as well, although they don’t list a character name for you for that one.
GG: Oh, yeah, I was on another of his shows. The one when he came back with that peculiar show where he was an unemployed airport worker or something, with the same wife but none of the same kids.
AVC: Do you have any recollection of who you played on the show?
GG: Yeah, at one point, due to a series of mix-ups, Cosby and this other guy wind up in jail. Foreshadowing! [Laughs.] And I’m just some crazy person in jail with them.
Meet Wally Sparks (1997)—“Mr. Harry Karp”
Back By Midnight (2004)—“Security Guard”
AVC: You worked with Rodney Dangerfield in two of his films, but presumably you’d run into him prior to that through your respective stand-up careers.
GG: Yeah, I’d run into him a lot. He used to come into the clubs a lot and try out new stuff. He was constantly working on new stuff. But, yeah, he used me for two of his films, and unfortunately neither one of them was Gone With The Wind. [Laughs.]
One was Meet Wally Sparks, which I’m in for… Oh, I don’t know, about 12 seconds. Then the one that I’m in for a little bit longer was his monster hit Back By Midnight, which never made it to theaters. [Laughs.] I can’t even vouch for the fact that it ever made it to home video. I’ve never even seen it. I don’t even know if anyone can find a copy!
Are You Afraid Of The Dark? (1995)—“Roy”
AVC: You did a one-off episode of Are You Afraid Of The Dark? But it’s since gone on to become particularly memorable because your co-star in the episode was Ryan Gosling.
GG: Yes! Meaning that that episode had two of the sexiest men in the world. [Laughs.] Yeah, Ryan Gosling was… what, about 3? He was just a kid. I just remember that it was like a kids’ Twilight Zone, and it’s another one of those shows were I didn’t think anybody was really paying attention, but I still keep getting people coming up to me and saying that they were big fans of that show and remember that episode.
AVC: It’s kind of amazing how multi-generational your career is.
GG: It is very weird, yeah. And I’m still hoping that Ryan Gosling will send over some of his sloppy seconds to me. [Laughs.]
Superboy (1990)—“Nick Knack”
Superman: The Animated Series (1997-1998)—“Mr. Mxyzptlk”
AVC: You voiced Mr. Mxyzptlk for Superman: The Animated Series.
GG: Yeah, that was, what, two or three episodes? Oh, actually, I did two episodes of the animated series, where Tim Daly was playing Superman, and that was a fun cartoon to do, but then I did two episodes of the TV series Superboy, where I was Nick Knack, the master of toys. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were those entertaining gigs for you? Are you a superhero fan?
GG: Well, I mean, I remember I would watch the old Superman series, with George Reeves, but I don’t remember ever being a major superhero fan. But those were fun to do.
Insane Clown Posse Theater (2013)—himself
GG: Oh, my God, yeah. [Laughs.] Well, that was insane, as it says right in the name. And then awhile later I was invited to do the festival or whatever of the Juggalos.
AVC: I believe it’s less a festival than a gathering.
GG: Right. The Gathering Of The Juggalos. I was involved in that. Now, what I remember about that was that my agents were saying, “Well, you know, take the money and just hope for the best.” [Laughs.] So I flew out there and I was at a hotel, and they picked me up to drive me to the event. They’re driving a long time, and then all of a sudden we just wound up driving up a dirt road, and I remember thinking, “Oh, they’re just going to take me somewhere and kill me.” Then when I saw the event, what it looked like, and everyone’s there in these weird, scary clown outfits and stuff, and all other kinds of weird people, like a rock festival taking place in hell…
AVC: You were still convinced they were going to kill you?
GG: Yeah. I thought, “Well, this is it. This is where I die.” [Laughs.] I’d heard so many horror stories about it that the idea that I did as well as I did… I mean, I don’t know that I’d put it on my reel. It wasn’t so much that I did well that I survived it and didn’t die. I once heard something where someone’s advice when they were in the Army and going into battle was, “Just don’t die.” And I didn’t. They seemed to enjoy it, actually.
I remember that where they had me staying, it was a trailer with no bathrooms, so I’d have to go outside and pee against the side of the trailer. [Laughs.] And I also remember that whenever I would say a name, they would say… Well, it was basically a “fuck them” thing. If I said something about whatever, let’s say Frank Sinatra, they’d say, “Fuck Frank Sinatra!” They’d all start chanting that. So I started putting names there where I’d just go, “Hey, anybody here watch The Merv Griffin Show?” And they all started chanting, thousands of them, “Fuck Merv Griffin!” And then I said, “He used to have on Zsa Zsa Gabor a lot.” And again, thousands of these people start chanting, “Fuck Zsa Zsa Gabor!”
AVC: You sure you don’t at least want that on your reel?
GG: Okay, yes, maybe that part. [Laughs.]
AVC: Cyberchase just dropped some new episodes within the last few months. That’s been an amazingly long gig for you.
GG: That’s one of those shows that doesn’t die. It’s a fun show to do, but it’s so weird, because people will come up to me in hotels and say that their kids watch it, their math has gotten better, and they enjoy the problem-solving on the show. It’s so funny, because I was the absolute worst student in the world. [Laughs.] And because it’s on PBS, it’s one of those shows where whenever they crash their piggy bank and find out they have enough coins to make a new one, they make a new one. So sometimes years will pass, but then they’ll call me up and say, “Guess what? We can make a new one!” And I say, “Okay!”
The Aristocrats (2005)—himself
AVC: Sadly, we don’t have the budget to afford the performance fee for you to tell it for us, but your performance of “The Aristocrats” in the documentary about the joke has become legendary.
GG: Yeah, that one, Penn Jillette asked me to do it… and I did it for no money, which makes it Penn Jillette’s greatest magic trick. [Laughs.] But when they asked me to do it, I thought, “This is going to be for Penn and Paul Provenza to watch in their living rooms.” I didn’t think anything was going to happen with it. But not only did the movie actually come out, it went beyond anything I could’ve predicted.
It actually played in movie theaters all over the place, and I got so much attention from that, with people singling me out. That was one of those pleasant surprises. One critic wrote, “Of the hundred or more comedians in the film, no one is more disgusting than Gilbert Gottfried.” [Laughs.] I take that as a badge of honor!