Q&A: Gilbert Gottfried on Crossing the Line in Comedy

'Some nights I really enjoy doing stand-up, and other times I feel like Willy Loman'

Gilbert Gottfried
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Gilbert Gottfried
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Gilbert Gottfried has had a strange career. The squinty-eyed comedian had the misfortune of being cast on Saturday Night Live in 1980, right after Lorne Michaels left and the show nosedived. He lasted 12 episodes, and most everybody forgets he was ever a cast member. From there, he alternated between tiny roles in mainstream movies like Problem Child and Beverly Hills Cop II and voiceover work in Aladdin and countless other cartoons. He also never stopped performing his stand-up act, which was as filthy and shocking as his cartoons were family-friendly. 

Early last year, he lost his gig as the voice of the Aflac duck when he made jokes on Twitter about the tsunami right after it devastated Japan. We spoke to Gottfried about where he's willing to draw the line, why he feels like he's become the Willy Loman of comedy and his refusal to appear on reality shows. 

You have a pretty racy act. Do you ever worry about someone taping a tiny bit of it and posting it on the Internet out of context?
That's a major one.
I remember starting out in comedy and going to these clubs every night. There would be a murmuring in the back room and I would hear, "There's a guy in the back of the room with a pen and paper!" That was major. That meant somebody was stealing the material. It's so funny to look back on it, because now you can record and film an entire show that would be movie theater-ready with something that fits in the palm of you hand.

Do you get scared some 20-second snippet of your act might show up on TMZ and cause a huge stink?
Yeah, well, I've certainly been through that more than once.

Does fear of that ever make you hold back? I mean, a comedy club used to be a totally safe space. Now it's been invaded with cellphone cameras.
Just think of the stuff that's blown up, like that whole Michael Richards thing. Years ago that would have been a wacky thing that happened at the clubs. Nobody got hurt. Maybe the comics would have laughed about it for a couple of days afterwards and then it would have been completely forgotten about. Now it stays there. And I always love the way the media deals with stuff like that. I just did the Roseanne roast. Some comics made jokes about the shooting in the movie theater. Comedy Central cut it out of the broadcast. Then the media, because they have the footage, goes, "Hey this is shocking, horrible stuff that you should not be seeing or listening to, so we are going to print it or broadcast it on our shows."

People will often feign shock and outrage over a joke, but when they're with their friends they'll make crazy, inappropriate jokes and laugh at most anything.
Well, years ago it was the old cliché of being around the water cooler. Anytime there was a tragedy that occurred, every single person was either around the water cooler or at school or in a bar exchanging these bad-taste jokes. And it was perfectly OK, because they were jokes, and that was it. 

I enjoy the kind of hypocrisy where it is like, "If you make jokes about these topics, you're a bad person" – and if I don't make jokes, and maybe even go so far as wearing a little ribbon on my lapel, that makes me a good person. 

Right. As if that ribbon actually means or does anything.
One thing I can take credit for, along with the rest of show business, is when the red ribbons were out, we cured AIDS. Any advancements that came towards fighting AIDS were not done by scientists or doctors – it was people with little ribbons on their lapels. 

Is there any sort of line with you? I mean, you wouldn't crack, I don't know, JonBenét Ramsey jokes right after she died or something?
Well, you might not do the jokes because you realize how much trouble you'd get into. I remember one guy tweeted, "Aflac fires Gilbert Gottfried after discovering he's a comedian." 

Don't you think that whole thing helped your career, because it got your name in the press so much, even if was about you joking about the tsunami?
Oh, definitely. The funny thing about it was my book was coming out around that time, and everybody was convinced I purposely did it to get press for the book. I was like, "I wish I was that smart about it."

Is the only reason to hold back on a joke because you might get in trouble? Do you ever hold back because a topic just feels inappropriate?
No. The other thing that always got me is when they say, "Tragedy plus time equals comedy," or when they'll yell, "Too soon!" I always felt like, "OK, please show me where the office is where there's a guy behind a desk who has it marked off in a calendar when something goes from bad taste to OK." 

It's been, like, a year and a half since the actual tsunami, and now tsunami has become a funny word in culture. You hear it pop up in comedies and everything, when someone says, "Oh, that's a real tsunami."  So I always feel like give it a year and a joke is a joke, and no longer a crime against humanity. 

How much do you change your act from night to night?
Not that much. I don't know if I change my act from century to century. Sometimes I'm onstage doing imitations and references to people who have been dead for 50 years. 

I always love it when you make jokes about F Troop or The Munsters or something. Not a lot of comedians go back like that. Last time I saw your act you did a whole string of jokes about how skinny Ally McBeal is – and that was your most current reference of the night.
People say to me, "Why don't you change the reference from Fred Gwynne to Justin Bieber?" It just doesn't have the same impact. 

What's your career goal at this point? Would you want your own television show?
More and more, the only thing out there is Celebrity Car Crash.

Do you get a lot of offers to go on reality shows?
Yeah. I do get offers. It's just . . . I watch them, and I don't get it. It's their own form of reality. It's set-up situations. Set-up reaction shots. When somebody in a reality show says something, they could flip to a reaction shot from five days ago, and the person could have been thinking about their laundry.

Are you still tempted to do one because it's so much exposure?
Well, see, there's another problem. There definitely is exposure in reality shows, but the exposure will basically get you more reality shows.

Do you think your career has benefited from the fact that you never had a super hot moment, meaning you can't ever seem washed-up when that moment ends?
Yeah. I forget the exact expression, but it's something like "the brightest flames burn out the quickest." Some people get really big, and the next step is people wanting to tear you to shreds. If you're a lead actor, people are just waiting to say "you're too old" or "you're too unhip." If you're a supporting actor, you can just work forever.

Let's say you were offered a sitcom, though . . .
I'd probably do it.

Do you still enjoy stand-up, or is it just something that pays the bills at this point?
Depends on the night. Some nights I really enjoy it, and other times I find myself arriving in a new town going to a comedy club, and I feel like Willy Loman.

Do you feel like you're living out Death of a Salesman often, or is that the exception?
I don't know. It goes back and forth. 

Are you happier when you actually get onstage, or does that actually make it worse?
Well, when I finally go up onstage, I go, "Oh, I guess I can kind of do this now. I don't know how long I can do it for up here, but I guess I can kind of do it." Like when I'm walking up to the stage, I'm thinking, "There's no way, I'm too tired, no way I can do this, I'm too depressed."

Do you see yourself doing this when you're 75?
I hate to think that, but . . . [Laughs] I don't know if I saw myself doing this even now.

But think of Don Rickles still killing it out there at 86.
Don Rickles is amazing. Joan Rivers, too. I mean, I guess if you can still stand out there and do it – why not?

Do you hate other comedians? Do you just see them as competition?
You know, it's off and on. [Laughs] Sometimes I see them as competition, sometimes I don't. I once heard a joke – "How many comedians does it take to screw in a light bulb? 100. One to change the light bulb and 99 to go, 'How did he get a light bulb? He sucks!'"

Do you like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert?
I don't watch them. I should say a nice thing about Colbert, because he once used me in a voiceover on his show, but yeah, I don't watch them that much. I'm one of those people that picks up the remote control and just keep hitting constantly, even if I like the show I'm watching. 

What's the last movie you saw in a theater that really made you laugh hard?
Um, with my taste I'd have to say [the 1964 Don Knotts childrens' movie] The Incredible Mr. Limpet. That's how current and up-to-date I am.