JUST AFTER SEPTEMBER 11TH, 2001, the strangest comic in America was batting cleanup at a Friars Club Hugh Hefner roast in New York. After killing with the requisite Hef dick jokes — “He doesn’t need Viagra, he needs cement!” — Gilbert Gottfried made a serious tactical error: He told a 9/11 joke. (“I just wanted to be the first,” he says today with a shrug.) The joke wasn’t great, but the response was immediate: a chorus of boos. Gottfried began to rock Tourettically against the podium. After a tense couple of seconds, he said, “OK, a man — a talent agent — is sitting in his office….” And within moments, every comedian in the room began exchanging nervous glances Gottfried was telling “The Aristocrats.”
Cherished by comics but rarely performed in public, “The Aristocrats” is an extraordinarily filthy joke that’s been around for generations — a secret stand-up handshake exchanged in backrooms, too blue to tell onstage. The joke itself isn’t all that funny but within its basic framework lie extraordinary opportunities for jazzlike improvisation. Now it’s the subject of the hot new documentary The Aristocrats, the first film ever threatened with an NC-17 rating solely for language (released unrated, the film has the tagline “No nudity. No violence. Unspeakable obscenity”). The Aristocrats consists of nothing but more than a hundred comics — including George Carlin, Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg — hilariously riffing on the joke. Oddly enough, the unsung talents make the biggest impact, including a mime, a shockingly filthy Bob Saget — and, above all, Gottfried, whose Hef-roast appearance serves as both the catalyst for the movie and its climax. It marks a potential career rebirth for the fifty-year-old Gottfried, who’s either the most brilliant man in comedy or the most repellent, depending on whom you ask. Aristocrats co-creator Penn Jillette believes the former. He’s “the greatest living comedian, far and away,” he says, calling him the Miles Davis of humor.
“I think most people think Miles Davis is a lot funnier than me,” says Gottfried. His star turn in The Aristocrats marks yet another strange chapter in a bizarre career. A squinting, squawking mass of contradictions, Gottfried is both one of America’s filthiest stand-ups and one of the most successful voice-over artists in children’s entertainment (best-known role: his borscht-belt parrot, Iago, in Disney’s Aladdin flicks). He’s long been considered a “comic’s comic,” and yet for decades he has seemed hellbent on mismanaging or sabotaging his own career.
The sad clown is the hoariest of show-business clichés, but Gottfried — shy in person, with a low-key voice never approaching stage volume — fits the bill as few have before him. A high school dropout, the Brooklyn native began performing at fifteen and steadily rose through the comic ranks, peaking during the Eighties. But as a favorite guest on Howard Stern’s show, he has detailed a depressing existence — wealthy but astoundingly cheap, living in a tiny rented apartment, unable to get a date. And despite his fame, Gottfried admits that he’ll take any job that pays. “He has no game plan at all,” says Jillette. “You couldn’t run a dry cleaner with Gilbert’s business skills.”
“I always took a ‘let’s see what happens’ approach to my career,” Gottfried says. “And I saw what happened. I auditioned for a TV pilot that involved a midget and orangutans. When I got there, I realized I’d worked with the orangutans before.”
The comic was blacklisted for his monologue on Pee-wee Herman and masturbation during the 1991 Emmy Awards (“Masturbation’s a crime, I should be on death row!”). As a young stand-up, he would insist on performing last at clubs, and then mimic every comic who had come before him. “Jerry Seinfeld would refuse to come into the room while I was doing him,” Gottfried says, launching into a pitch-perfect Seinfeld:” ‘He doesn’t sound anything like me! I don’t talk that way!‘” Gottfried infuriated Dennis Miller when the right-wing comedian called in to Stern’s show just after the birth of his son and Gottfried morphed into pedophile mode, pretending (one assumes) to lust after the baby. This is the voice of one of Disney’s most beloved characters of the last two decades.
“I think Gilbert’s a little odder than he comes off on Stern,” says Jillette. “The cheap thing is pathological. All of the strangeness — him living in an apartment filled with unopened boxes, the fear of the world — it all seems true to me. It’s not like he walks around with the self-confidence of a Steve Martin and puts on this persona onstage.”
“The ax will drop after I die,” Gottfried says, “when they come into my apartment and find stacks of newspapers and pictures of Marilyn Monroe on the wall with her eyes scratched out.”