NEW YORK — When I first meet Gilbert Gottfried he’s flossing his teeth.
No, I didn’t walk in on him in the bathroom. I was led to a conference room at a PR agency and there he was, seated at a table next to his wife Dara, flossing his teeth. I didn’t say anything, he didn’t say anything. By this point I was well acquainted with the fact that the real Gilbert Gottfried has many quirks.
Gottfried is one of the most brilliant and outrageous comedians of all time, but part of his allure is not knowing if he’s really like that. A new documentary film, “Gilbert,” answers some of these questions.
The voice you know from his routines, television appearances or animation work (where he tends to play avian characters) is, in fact, real, just amplified by a factor of one hundred. He doesn’t keep his eyes closed at all times, but he does tend to squint and slouch over. He’s definitely a miser of olympic proportion, as evidenced by the boxes of free soap and toothpaste he hoards all over his otherwise very nice apartment.
If you aren’t a fan of Gottfried, “Gilbert” is merely a good film; a well-made portrait of a strange man with more than enough funny moments from the road. (A night in an Illinois hotel that double-books Gilbert with collectors of military paraphernalia, including more than its share of Nazi enthusiasts, is the most hilarious thing I’ve seen all year.)
But if you’ve been following his career for decades, as I have, “Gilbert” is a revelation. You can watch his act evolve, and track that with his personal life (mainly meeting and marrying his extremely sane wife, and having two children). There are also many striking scenes involving Gilbert’s recently departed sister, the noted art photographer Arlene Gottfried.
Did he mellow as his family grew? Far from it. His routine changed and he soon reveled in filth, all the funnier because it came from such a strange source. He did, famously, cross the line in one of the first Twitter controversies, when he made tasteless jokes after the Japanese tsunami of 2011.
Those who knew Gilbert understood that these were more “jokes about jokes” than actual jokes, but that doesn’t excuse them, especially for the easily taken-out-of-context world of social media. But it led to further cementing Gottfried as the ultimate “comedian’s comedian.”
Once I stopped dry heaving from watching him floss his teeth, I had an absolutely fantastic time speaking with one of the true geniuses of our era. A written transcription doesn’t always capture the tone of the room, so know that even if some of these exchanges, which have been edited, seem a little dry, they were accompanied by continuous chuckling.
Hi, this piece is for the Times of Israel.
Gilbert Gottfried: [bursts out into hysterical laughter.]
Dara Gottfried: Oh, my parents will be happy.
Have you been to Israel?
DG: I have.
Would Gilbert like it you think?
GG: I hate to travel. I travel for work constantly so a vacation is sitting in the apartment by myself on the couch watching television. That’s the biggest vacation in the world. And I’ve never been to Israel because [starts laughing] I feel the Jews have way too much power in our country, and I fear [cracking up] the Jewish conspiracy.
DG: Oh, Gilbert, you’re going to get in trouble.
GG: I remember — and this was a proud moment for me — it hit the papers that some Nazi white supremacist group was warning everyone about the frightening amount of power that the Jews wield, and they were naming powerful Jews. And my name was on the list!
I’m there with Steven Spielberg and I thought “Wow!” I almost wanted to send them a thank you letter! When do I get mentioned with Spielberg and Michael Eisner and Billy Wilder?
The best part of this documentary is when the guy dressed as a Nazi shows up. He comes to buy your DVD and apologizes for his suit. Immediately you say, “Why, it’s not wrinkled?”
GG: Sometimes angels blow in your ear, you know? Then I put up my hand and say “Heil five.”
That whole part was so weird. The war reenactment in that hotel was a gift from God. And rarely do you say that about the Third Reich!
They were sitting there at the comedy club in full Nazi uniform. This is like a show in Berlin, in a dream world. People at the table after in Iron Crosses and swastikas saying “I love ‘Problem Child’” and taking out their phones to do selfies with me. And I’m watching them be so friendly and adoring and I think “Gee, maybe the Nazis have gotten a bad rap!”
When I was a kid my Dad took me to see you at the Club Bene in South Amboy, do you remember that place? It had a real, old time Mafia vibe.
GG: God, yes. That’s a name I haven’t heard in a thousand years. That was like dinner-theater comedy.
It not like the old days with the comedy clubs and the Mob, you know, Buddy Hackett, people like that, where there were actually known killers around. There were some you suspected had “silent partners,” but I never dealt with it too much. But on my podcast we’ve had a lot of old comics and performers on, and the performers loved working for the Mob. They say the Mob were the nicest and most respectful people to them. Martin and Lewis and all these people, they had out-and-out famous killers, but they were nice to their performers.
So who convinced you to do this documentary thing and when did you say yes?
GG: Well, I was never convinced and I never said yes. Neil Berkeley, the director, he said to me “I’ve always dreamed of doing a Gilbert Gottfried documentary,” so I said “Well, you should set your dreams a lot higher than that!”
But truly I never said “Yeah, I want to do this,” because aren’t you supposed to be dead for 30 years before a documentary comes out? But then it just started. Dara said, “Just show up.”
DG: Neil really wanted to do this for years, but he never told anyone. Then one day he’s walking down 6th Avenue with a friend of mine, and she asked what he wanted to do next. He had just finished “Harmontown,” [a documentary about producer/comedian Dan Harmon] and he said: “I want to make a movie on Gilbert Gottfried.” Total coincidence, she’s my best friend and she said, “You want to meet them? They live two blocks away.”
After a year of Gilbert saying “No, no, no,” I just said, “Come and show up and try for a week and Gilbert will get comfortable.”
GG: Then when he showed up and said, “I’m Neil, I’m the filmmaker,” and I’m there in my bathrobe and I said “Oh,” and I walked back to my bedroom.
Would you have been less likely to do this if you hadn’t been doing your podcast for a while? There’s more of you out there that isn’t “in the character.”
GG: I don’t know. I just always think about the scene in “The Wizard of Oz.” Don’t look at the man behind the curtain. That’s what scares me.
Everything has worked for me so far. You know, at one point there was going to be a publicity stunt for one of the later Marx Brothers movies where Harpo was going to speak. Like “Oh, Harpo said something!” But he didn’t want to do it, he wisely said no.
So tonight’s Halloween, this is a big day for you because I know you are into monster movies. You have big plans?
GG: Well, I’m doing the Stephen Colbert show later today and the kids will be coming along and then we’ll go trick or treating. They’ll be dressing as zombies. I’ll be dressing as a Jew comic.
The film discusses that your act did get dirtier over the years. And meeting your wife was the pivotal point. Are there some nights when you are dirtier than others?
GG: I basically do what I feel. For years I would go out of my way not to say any dirty words. But then I would watch a comic on television, and the punchline would be something like “I wore a cowboy hat,” and then the reaction would be “Huh, that’s not funny?” Then I would realize that the producers of the show saw him in a club, where he said “And I wore a fuckin’ cowboy hat!” and it got a big laugh.
So the producer would say “Oh, it got a big laugh, but we can’t use that word.” I always wanted to know the joke worked on its own.
But, I dunno. Once the floodgates opened for me on the dirty stuff, well [laughs].
DG: But you aren’t a “dirty” comic, just last night you did 50 minutes of clean material.
GG: Sure, sometimes I have people complain I wasn’t dirty enough!
Is part of it dependent on how shocked the audience is? Like, if they are scandalized, you lean into it more?
GG: Yes. Sure. But millions of thoughts go through my head when I am on stage. I used to hear interviews with singers and actors who would be on stage — the singer would be belting out a big number, or the actor will be in an intense, dramatic scene — and they say that they are on stage thinking about their laundry. So it’s funny.
Some of your bits you’ve been doing for years, they are tried and true. But if some night it doesn’t work, do you feel the need to tweak it the next night?
GG: It’s peculiar. With some bits, one night the room will be shaking. That’s how well it’s doing. It looks like the walls are going to cave in. Then you do the second show and it does nothing.
One of the funniest things I ever saw you do, was a long, long wind-up with wordplay and the punchline was the Yiddish expression, “Only a bissel.”
GG: [thinking] Uh…..oh, yes yes!
Because it seems like the punchline is going to destroy, but then only if you are Jewish do you get it. And then you immediately swerve into deconstructing the joke.
GG: Right. “That joke kills in Wyoming! Please give us more obscure Jewish references.”
So, mocking yourself, meta-humor, deconstructing comedy. Was this, like, a mission statement?
GG: It was just the way my mind operates.
A lot of people call you “the comic’s comic,” is that a compliment?
GG: It means the audience doesn’t find me funny, but others do.
Are there other comedians you wish were more embraced by the public?
GG: It’s funny, the longer you do comedy, it’s like anything. If you run a restaurant and you go somewhere else to eat, you’ll spend the whole time sitting there going “See? I would have done this differently.”
When I watch comics, it’s bad, I’ll sit there going “Oh, yeah. That’s clever, I guess.” You become a terrible audience.
You do a lot of impersonations. Is there one you like more than others?
GG: I do this character, John McGiver, one of these people that if anyone knows him they are in their 90s. I like imitating obscure character actors.
Well, I love your Groucho Marx. But not the Groucho Marx everyone does, the very specific Groucho Marx appearing on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971.
GG: I used to be able to imitate the young Groucho from “Duck Soup,” but I don’t know how I did it anymore. But I became so fascinated watching Groucho on his return to TV when he was a frail old man with a weak voice, so I started imitating that.
But if someone had never seen those clips they are thinking “what the hell kind of Groucho imitation is this?”
GG: Yeah, that’s much funnier, to do a joke that people don’t get. That’s to amuse myself. There are those moments where I’ve bombed in front of an audience and I get off stage and the other comics are cracking up. I love that.
They figure — better you than them.
The movie does get into your controversial tweets that got you fired from the Aflac gig.
GG: Oh yeah.
Are your tweeting days done?
GG: No, no, I never learn my lesson, that’s one thing you can say about me.
DG: He tweets awesome puns every day.
GG: I send out the dumbest jokes. Like, ones a little kid will say. And then I apologize immediately.
But after that incident, which certainly disrupted your revenue stream –
GG: Oh yes.
Do you temper yourself more?
GG: People ask “Do you think twice?” and the truth is I think twice, then do it anyway.
It was such a weird time. It was reported everywhere, like they had captured the biggest mobster or serial killer. People were parked outside my apartment building, I’d walk out the door and they’d run out with cameras.
They reported “Gilbert Gottfried’s remarks” and “Gilbert Gottfried’s comments,” and they weren’t remarks or comments. They were jokes. But if they said jokes you’d say “Why are there news stories about jokes?”
One of my favorite things George Carlin said was, “It’s the duty of every comedian to find where the line is drawn and then deliberately cross over it.”
I love that the film discusses your sister’s story. And she was ensconced in the world of photography and fine arts. What are the similarities between those two worlds?
GG: The similarities are that they are both socially inept. And mental and emotional problems probably got them into the field.
So when this movie comes out, will you hang out in the lobby maybe?
DG: We’ll be at the IFC Center opening night.
GG: Yes, and I am going to bring a large bag with me to steal candy from the candy counter. Some Peanut Chews. Although in Israel Peanut Chews are called Peanut Jews.
“Gilbert” is out in theaters starting November 3.