Of Parrots and Men: Q&A with Comedian Gilbert Gottfried
Who goes to a Gilbert Gottfried show in 2017?
Well, according to the controversial comic himself, people who don’t know any better! Former SNL cast member, Microwave Hot Bites salesman, comedian, reality show star, actor, parrot, duck, husband, dad and podcaster, the quick-witted funnyman has been all of the above. Now, however, in his 60s, Gottfried would find himself stepping into a new roll that filled him with more dread than delight: documentary film subject. He'll be the first to tell you that finding those nuggets of happiness isn't easy even when they should be easy to grasp.
He returns to Ottawa’s Yuk Yuks next week (September 14-17) for a series of performances sure to contain his perfect (and hilarious) blending of improvisation, dirty jokes and impressions. After all, as Ottawa Life learned in a recent conversation, the comedian may have the Canadian Capital to thank for the more unplanned and wild nature of his act.
Also: What's the first joke he ever told? What are his thoughts on his former boss and now President of the United States? How has he found balancing children’s programming with raunchy comedy? How did he feel discovering the subject of Oscar nominated film Life Animated learned to speak because of his unique voice? What about when the camera was turned towards his own personal life? Do people really just need to lighten up?
You’ve said you were not a class clown grown up. You did love making people laugh, though. Everybody has a different perception of what’s funny. What was yours early on?
Gilbert Gottfried: I remember my first joke that I said in front of an audience. It was in kindergarten or something. I was in the class and the teacher was talking to us and one of the kids wasn’t paying attention. The teacher was holding a newspaper and she placed it over his head and I said: “So, those are the headlines.” That got kind of a laugh and my material hasn’t grown since then.
You actually started your actual career pretty young. 15, I think I read?
I did start joking around and trying to make my friends laugh and everything, yeah. I was getting interested in show business as something I wanted to do. A friend of my sister’s told her about some club –I don’t remember the name of it anymore – but you could go there and write your name down in the book and when they got to your name that night they would just announce you and you’d go up. I went up there and was mainly doing imitations.
Was there some kind of catalyst that made you want to pursue comedy more seriously that young?
I always say I had stupidity on my side. It was stupid to think in a career where there’s so much competition and so many people don’t make it that I could. It was stupid to just keep working all those years for no money, no promise of anything, so I was lucky. I had that. Now when people say to me that they want to go into show business it gives me a chill.
It’s interesting to look back now and see those comics, like yourself, who did come out of the 70s. What do you feel were some of the most important things you picked up at the outset that still apply to your career today?
Oh God! I don’t know. Really, it’s all kind of instinctive now. I just realize now how long it takes before you even first know what kind of jokes you do or what kind of personality you have. How long that takes. How many times you have to bomb.
I was watching a few clips on Youtube from some of your 80s work. Outside of developing a craving for Microwave Hot Bites…
(laughs) Oh jeez, yeah!
…it did seem that your persona and now unmistakable voice was different. How did you develop and shape that into what fans are now more familiar with?
The funny thing about it is I never actually sat down and thought about it. It's just something that changed and formed over the years all the times I’d been on stage. To me it’s like going up to somebody on the street and asking: “Hey, how did you develop that walk you do?” It’s just something you do.
It was certainly an interesting evolution. Now, back to the 80s. You’ve talked in the past about about blocking out that stint on Saturday Night Live…
Oh yeah! (laughs)
… but are there any other gigs from that part of your career where you just shake your head and ask yourself if you really did that?
After (SNL) my other next big break was Thicke of the Night. That was Alan Thicke’s show. He was having this talk show with sketches in between. He was being advertised as the man who would knock Johnny Carson off the air. If you notice Carson isn’t on the air anymore so it worked. Actually, it failed miserably. Thicke had said he wouldn’t let his wife see that show.
Thankfully there was Growing Pains in his future.
Yeah, that’s what really made him. His first big hit.
I read a Rolling Stone article awhile back that called you the Miles Davis of stand-up. I gather that’s a reference to your improvisational abilities. Watching you perform, it has seemed like free-flowing jazz at times. How much do you actually bring into your act that is planned and does most just get tossed out anyway depending on what hits you on stage?
It depends. I mean, on a good night I like to just do stuff that comes into my head. Other times there are bits that I have been doing so long that I am thinking of my own laundry when I am doing them.
Like many, I first knew you as a cartoon parrot. Then I started listening to Howard Stern when he came on in Canada before he was tossed off the air. If you were on I knew I’d either be late for class or calling in sick to work because something insane was going to happen. Why do you think things click so well between you and Howard?
I don’t know. I remember years ago when he wasn’t that known at the time, you know, the first time I went on. He was playing in New York but it wasn’t that gigantic. I went on the show and I had fun. After that it was easier getting into the building, back and forth. They’d just let me up. So sometimes if I was up early I’d just walk over there and go on in the middle of the show.
You were kind of like Howard’s Kramer.
You’ve compared those separate sides of success to walking a line between children’s programming and hardcore pornography. I’d say Bob Saget, Eddie Murphy and even George Carlin have walked that line too in one form or another. From your perspective, how do you shift directions from one extreme to the other when it comes to these different audiences?
Boy, that’s always a tricky one. I usually just forge ahead and hope for the best. I mean there’s a lot going on in your head when you’re on stage. Sometimes I’ll get an audience that’s tougher to get going. In my head I’m asking myself if I should go faster or if I should go slower but that never really works. Hopefully something will happen and I’ll win them over.
You’re one of those comics where you can actual see those wheels turning while you are on stage reading that audience. You shift gears like a race car! On the children’s side of that line, though, I want to touch quickly on the film Life Animated. What was your reaction to discovering your work as Iago in Aladdin was helping an autistic boy learn to talk?
That was an amazing thing to me. I didn’t know these people. There was an article in the New York Times about a man who had this autistic son and the son was sinking deeper and deeper into his autistic state. You couldn’t speak to him. He wouldn’t respond to people. He would watch Disney animated films all day. One day the father came into the room and he saw that his son had a puppet of my character Iago the parrot. So, he put it on his own hand and he started speaking in my voice, imitating me. His son responded like it was an old friend of his and they started talking.
After we read that article we got in touch with him. He brought me over to surprise his son. He was doing a Disney Club at his school. That was an amazing thing. I’ve also heard stories where people tell me they’ve had loved one’s who died but they had a fond memory of how they’d listen to me to cheer them up. That kind of thing is amazing to hear.
I find it interesting it was somebody with such a unique voice that was used to teach a kid how to speak. It’d be like, say, Bobcat Goldthwait teaching an English course!
And now Oscar nominated!
I got onto the Oscars for about two seconds when they showed a really quick clip from the movie. I thought: “Well, there I am on the Oscars.”
Better there than the death montage.
(laughs) You know, that’s always my favorite part of those award shows.
It was interesting hearing the father in that film do an impersonation of you. I’ve tried myself over the years but it’s kinda’ taxing on the vocal chords. I can’t imagine how you’ve kept it going while still being able to speak all these years. To all those Gilbert Gottfried impersonators out there, what’s the trick to comedic vocal longevity?
I don’t know that. If I did I could give lessons. A lot of singers over the years have no voice left whatsoever.
As you’ve been at this now for awhile what kind of a crowd do you see coming to see a Gilbert Gottfried show in 2017?
People who don’t know any better.
Have you found the industry has changed since you started out?
Absolutely. I feel like the second I thought I had a vague idea about how show business works it hall changed. You know, I started to understand TV, movies and stage work but now it’s all this stuff on the internet. You realize that there are these people who have careers or semi-careers there. There’ll be people who will squeeze a blackhead and film it on camera, put it on the internet, and they become major stars because of that.
I see you’ve seen my YouTube channel.
What you are saying, though, reminds of those old Looney Tunes shorts that were originally meant to only be seen in the cinema. Not collected or scrutinized later. Now, like your Microwave Hot Bites commercials, you can actually go back and see all this material that you’ve done that people have held on to. Is it strange for you to go back and watch your younger self in this way online?
Yeah, that’s very odd. Just last night Beverley Hills Cop 2 came on and I watched my scene there. I remember I loved it when it came up but it’s so weird looking at myself. Now I’m going: is that really me. It seems like a stranger at times. That’s another thing that I realize. I am so glad that all of this internet stuff wasn’t around when I first started out all those years ago, like when I was first developing a personality or real material. I would hate for that to have been on the internet.
Yeah, the Net has given everybody this spotlight and they are taking it whether they are funny or not.
It’s a weird thing. I remember there used to be a separation between people who were famous and people who weren’t. Years ago people would watch Charlie Chaplin like he was this mystical person. They’d make them Gods, these old movie and TV stars. You couldn’t back then send a Tweet to Humphrey Bogart and tell him Casablanca sucked.
Having performed so many gigs over your career do you ever show up a club that you think is a new venue to find you’ve already been there before?
All the time! It’s like a lot of times on TV for a laugh they’ll show a politician or a singer on stage saying something like “I love you Ohio” and they are not in Ohio. I always cringe because I know the feeling. There are entire states that I think I’ve never been to but then I show up at the club and see I’ve signed their wall.
How have you found Ottawa as a place to play to?
I do Canada a lot. Wait, this is Canada, right? Where’s the other Ottawa? There’s one in America. I think I played there too. Well, in Canada, though, I always remember a job I had years ago. I flew out there and it was at this little dinky place in Ottawa. It was in the middle of a snow storm and cold spell that even Canadian thought was a snow storm and cold spell. You know, Canadians generally walk around in shorts in sub-zero weather. I had to do three 20 minute sets a night. There was no opening act or MC. That was one of the strangest jobs I ever had. I remember going up there and I was bombing every night. Then, on the last night, I had given up trying to be funny and just started saying whatever came into my head. Suddenly I was doing great. Instead of being up there for 20 minutes I was there for an hour and a half. Then I got off and went back on again because there was no MC. The second show I did an hour. The third show I did 15 minutes. That time when I got off the owner said I had did a little short that time.
Seeing veteran comics own a crowd it is hard thinking of them as bombing. I think of Seinfeld’s film Comedian where he redid his entire set. I guess there’s never that form of safety net in comedy.
It’s a weird feeling, too. You go up on stage, you get this large reaction, and then after that there are some audiences you just have to prove yourself to each time. The craziest ones are the ones you have to prove it to them with every single line.
Is there anything you feel that is tried and true where you can get them anytime?
It’s different all the time. Sometimes there are those bits that you have and you feel you can go to them and the room will be shaking with laughter. Then, sometimes, they just stop working. Sometimes a bit can stop working and never come back.
For me, I think I could just watch a whole show of you impersonating Dracula. Take my money! Despite all the public appearances, roasts, films, radio and now podcasts you’ve tried to maintain a more private life outside of your career. Was it strange, then, when you were approached to do a documentary (Gilbert: a Gilbert Gottfried story) on your own life and why did you agree to it?
It was very weird. This guy Neil Berkeley he came up to me and wanted to do a documentary on my life. I said to him can’t you set your dreams a little higher? He said this is something he’s always wanted to do. I didn’t want to do it from the start. During any of the days he showed up at my house or followed me around I hated him being there. For some reason I’m one of those people who can’t put my foot down and say “Get away from me!” Strangely enough, it’s gotten really good reviews. I mean, I find it hard to watch. My idea of hell would be to be forced to watch a big screen of my life.
Your eyes propped open like A Clockwork Orange! Yeah, I imagine it’d be hard for you to sit through. Did you find you learned anything about yourself watching your life played out the way it was in the film?
I don’t know if I really learned anything other than… Well, let me say this. I’m comfortable watching myself as Joe the Plumber in some movie but as myself I was going: “Oh my God, do I really walk like that?” Everything just rubbed me the wrong way.
In a strange comparison, I imagine your fans would have felt the same way. I mean, people have this strange preconception in meeting Gilbert Gottfried in person. Even me. Like we expect to be introduced to this this insane, off-beat man. Then the film shows that that’s not really who you are in reality.
Yeah, that’s something that scared me too. They even have a clip from it. I always think about that scene in Wizard of Oz. Don’t look at that man behind the curtain. A lot of times people could be totally disappointed by looking behind the curtain. That definitely worried me.
It reminds of, say, going back to Chaplin how he didn’t want the Tramp character to speak or Howard Stern showing his real self in the film Private Parts.
It’s very risky. Although nowadays there are these reality shows where sometimes you can’t help but reveal some of your own personality after awhile. And that’s another thing as far as things changing over the years. I never wanted to do reality shows. I still don’t get excited about them. I’d still rather pop up in a fiction. But for years I was saying no to reality but then you realize that this is the business now. So I did Celebrity Cook Off and Celebrity Wife Swap and the Apprentice where I worked with the President. Then you realize how many people watch those shows.
Yeah, I’ll go to the bigger extreme with something like the Honey Boo-Boo show where it’s so exploitative. It’s akin to the final scene of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre except now it’s a weekly series.
Yeah, it’s very scary those shows.
In Gilbert you are pretty candid on the effects of your career over the long haul. You said how you wished you could enjoy things more. What are some of those things you feel you missed out on enjoying more fully?
There are so many things. Sometimes I’ll look at my career and the things I’m doing and think I should be happy but I never really am fully happy. I remember I got booked to do one show where I was the MC in a Miss Nude World pageant. It was just these girls dancing naked and I am introducing them. Any other guy would have thought he’d died and gone to heaven but I was there miserable. So many things like that.
There seems to be a theme in comedy where the people who make you laugh the most are sometimes the most depressed or torn up inside. Do you think there’s a reality to that?
I guess so. I’m not sure if there’s more of a reality to that. I’m sure there are a lot of happy people in show business. Sometimes you’ll hear people say, you know, just for the interview, that they have no regrets. I think, God, I have nothing but regrets in my life.
At least you’re honest. Speaking of honesty, you’re son has that moment in the film where he says he doesn’t think you’re funny. Outside of that critique, how have your wife and kids reacted to your often controversial career?
The funny thing is I can never with a straight face reprimand them when they say a dirty word. I feel like too much of an idiot. I just start cracking up.
Those words are what bring the food home!
Right! I remember my son at a very young age wanted to see one of my shows and my wife said no because Daddy says a lot of bad words. He replied that that’s what makes it funny.
Was there ever the thought that you’d settle down some in your subject matter now that you’re a family man?
No. I never really liked when certain performers would have kids and make it part of their show and it’d become cute. I find myself just as disgusting as ever.
Yeah, that worked in with the opposite effect for Cosby.
Oh yeah! (laughs)
Well, it wouldn’t be a chat with you without mentioning some controversy be it the September 11 joke or the tsunami that drowned your gig as the Aflac duck. Is there really a “too soon” as it relates to comedy or do people just need to lighten up?
I think people need to lighten up. I think another thing that’s changed with the internet, it’s like there used to be big actors, singers, there used to be a handful of columnist you respected, reporters who you listened to, commentators, and now everybody is that. Everyone feels that their opinion is valuable there. Too soon? I find that a crazy idea. I mean, who decides in what office, on what space-age computer do they click in and find when it is the exact time to make a joke. To me, making jokes too soon is in ways being more sensitive than waiting. You can do jokes about the Titanic now and nobody is going to attack you for it. To me, if you are doing jokes like that you are being more insensitive. It’s like what you are saying now is that you are doing this joke now because those people are dead and their kids are dead and enough time has passed that we don’t care about them.
It’s funny you mention that because we have a restaurant here who’s logo is Attila the Hun. You know, the raper and pillager of many. It makes you think, hey, will there be a time when we have something like Hitler Burgers?
Yes. It’s funny. I was in another documentary that was called The Last Laugh. It’s examining if jokes could be made about the holocaust. I remember seeing a news thing, a funny reporter was there, and he was taking about the first car. He said the first person killed in a car accident, going on to mention his name which now means nothing. It was all done very light hearted. I thought, well, when it happened it wasn’t so funny. It’s still a bad thing that it happened. Now, though, we feel like we’ve waited. We can laugh at it now. However, if somebody says it more currently we have to get outraged.
I’m with you, jokes in the moment can be more beneficial. The comedy helps you sometimes in dealing with it. I mentioned the Comedy Roast. Is there anybody you think has it coming that hasn’t been roasted yet?
Oh, so many people. I never really know until they are there sometimes. There have been Roasts that I’ve done and I wonder if it could work but they’ve killed.
I don’t think the Bill Cosby one is coming any time soon.
(laughs) That one would have too much stuff to clip out.
Trump was probably too easy a go to there, huh? What are your thoughts now on your former TV boss and now president of the United States?
It’s very strange. That was another show I didn’t want to do but I did it. I realize there is a lot of hard work in a show like Celebrity Apprentice. I didn’t go into show business to work for a living. So, when I was let go from that I was so relieved to be out of there. I realized, too, how many people watch. As far as working with Trump, I didn’t work with him all that much. He’d show up, announce our next assignment, who was fired. I ran into him a handful of times off the show. As a person, what little I know of him, he actually came across ok. I get the feeling when he became President that nobody was more surprised by that than him.
It’s like you can apply what you just said to that. I didn’t become president so I could work for a living!
Definitely! He’s probably going through that now. He’s probably thinking that before I would show up to put my name on top of a building, I’d get a couple of million for that, hang out with a couple of Miss America contestants. What the hell am I doing here?
Or how he’s probably never been told no all his life and now he’s being told that much more frequently.
I think there’s something to being elected into office. It’s easy to make promises. If you make them the right way people make it sound like it’s so easy. You march in there and you change everything but it’s a lot more difficult than that.
Having been a frequent Penn Jillette's podcast (Penn's Sunday School), what made you decide it was time to start up your own?
I do a Podcast (Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast), it’s successful, I guess. A lot of people listen. But I am still not sure what a podcast is. I understand a radio show, a tv show, but podcasts are what’s happening right now. My wife came up with the idea. Everybody else was doing them. Then we thought about it, that the stuff I’m interested in is old Hollywood. That’d be a good subject matter. I thought nobody would care. I’d bring in guests that were in the 90s and haven’t been around for years. And now I find myself getting emails or Tweets from people who say they didn’t know who I was talking to but now they are finding themselves looking it up. It’s like a fun homework assignment.
A friend of mine mentions Cesar Romero and oranges. I have since Googled what you were talking about. I will never watch the original Batman series the same way again.
(laughs) Yeah, I like to keep my audiences educated.
You have a natural repartee with your guests on the show. What have you most enjoyed about chatting with other comics on the podcast?
It’s interesting. With other comedians, I usually immediately have repartee, like I just feel like I’m having a conversation. I’m having fun. With other guest it just depends. They get on, they’re fun. There are some where I really feel I have to work harder to think of questions and keep them involved. Where other guests, after it’s over, you feel it was just a fun conversation. To me it’s like when I am on stage or doing the podcast, it’s like the different between a good or bad date. You could be out on a date and you feel like you’ve been there for five hours and you look at your watch and have only been there for three minutes. A good date is you would be there for five hours and it only feels like three minutes.
Parrot, duck, comic, voice actor, husband, dad…looking back, what do you most want to be remembered for?
An annoying Jew in the business.
(laughs) Thank you.