You know Gilbert Gottfried, you just may not realize how well. He’s the 56-year-old “comedian’s comedian” who’s worked the stand-up circuit for more than 40 years, punctuating his act with a piercing New York accent and beady eyes. He’s the raunchy show-stealer in last year’s buzz-filled rancid-fest, The Aristocrats, which tracks more than 100 comics telling their versions of the same dirty joke. He’s also a regular cameo character in family films such as Problem Child, and he’s developed a penchant for landing high-profile voice-over roles, such as Iago the Parrot in Disney’s Aladdin and the quacking AFLAC duck in the company’s national advertising campaign. Wherever you look, for better or worse, Gilbert Gottfried (or his high-pitched squeal) is there, and Saturday, March 4, it’ll be right here in Missoula at the Wilma Theatre. We talked to him by phone Monday, Feb. 28.
Indy: You’ve been on the road promoting your latest DVD, Dirty Jokes. Is that what we’re going to be seeing in Missoula?
Gottfried: No, and that’s the weird part about it. I remember some writer brought this out when I did an HBO special years ago. I had just done the Emmys as a presenter, and I did this whole bit on Pee Wee Herman getting arrested, masturbating in a theater. I said if masturbation’s a crime I should be on death row. I’d gotten in a lot of trouble for that—they censored it from the West Coast broadcast and issued an apology to all the affiliates and the public. And then I did my HBO special and I worked totally clean. One of the writers who reviewed it for a magazine said that it’s a typical perversity that when I have to work clean, I work dirty, and when I can work dirty, I go clean. So, my act for the most part is very clean.
Indy: So we’re not going to get The Aristocrats joke in Missoula?
Gottfried: Probably not. I mean, unless the mood really strikes me.
Indy: What mood would that be?
Gottfried: Perversity. Or if they pay me to tell it.
Indy: In The Aristocrats, when you tell the joke at Hugh Hefner’s roast just after Sept. 11, you go right after the sensitive content, mentioning planes, burning bodies, the whole nine yards. The directors turn that moment into some sort of poignant, cathartic example of the power of comedy. How does the title “Gilbert Gottfried: Comedic Healer” sit with you?
Gottfried: My feeling is the only reason America’s standing right now is because of me. I mean, people have to now take my jokes a lot more seriously. As a matter of fact, most of the time when I’m onstage, people take my jokes too seriously. I think every time any American wakes up in the morning they should go, “Thank God for Gilbert Gottfried.”
Indy: Being a print publication, I’m at a bit of a disadvantage because so much of your act is your voice and your delivery. How would you describe your voice?
Gottfried: Annoying, Jewish, grating.
Indy: But you don’t sound like that now, talking on the phone.
Gottfried: Yeah, offstage I talk like Perry Como.
Indy: And the squinting eyes? I read that you originally did that out of nervousness.
Gottfried: I don’t think so. I think it’s a trick I picked up from Helen Keller. I don’t know where anything that I do actually comes from.
Indy: But you’ve been doing it for a long time.
Gottfried: Way too long. You know, the first time I got up on stage I was like 15 at some non-paying open mic night in the Village…I did mainly impressions. Some I still do, like Bela Lugosi, Groucho Marx, Richard Burton, Jack Nicholson. As a matter of fact the weirdest one I started doing was Jerry Seinfeld when he was just another comic around the clubs. We all worked with him so much, sometimes I’d do it just to entertain the other comics in the back of the room.
Indy: Now, see, all of this sounds like the clean routine.
Gottfried: That’s the thing, as far as my regular act, I always worked clean for the most part. I’ve always said my career is walking the tightrope between early morning children’s programming and hardcore porn.
Indy: That sounds difficult. I suppose that’s why you’ve been called a comedian’s comedian. What do you think that means?
Gottfried: That means the audience doesn’t think I’m funny.
Indy: It’s like being called a songwriter’s songwriter. They say something like that when a guy can write, but he sounds terrible.
Gottfried: Right. I guess it means a lot of comedians steal from me. A comedian’s comedian. It’s the sort of thing—you know, it’s like what they say, that you’re supposed to ask celebrities if they died tomorrow what they should put on their tombstone.
Indy: All right, so if you died tomorrow what would you put on your tombstone?
Gottfried: He comes out every night and drinks the blood of the living…
Indy: We’re going dirty here aren’t we? Or at least dark.
Gottfried: No, no. If a vampire goes into a whorehouse…if I started with that, then it would be dark and dirty.
Gilbert Gottfried performs at the Wilma Theatre Saturday, March 4, at 7 PM. $25.