Saturday Night’s Children: Gilbert Gottfried (1980-1981)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

Before he developed into his trademark squinty, squawky stand-up persona, Gilbert Gottfried was a fairly normal-voiced young comic who puttered through his first TV gig as a Saturday Night Live cast member in 1980. Like so many other briefly-lived players, Gottfried struggled on the show but went on to much bigger success by voicing Disney characters and insurance-selling ducks and telling some of the most offensive, untimely, and controversial jokes about issues long before they were considered safe, giving him the dubious honor of being king of the “too soon” joke.

A Brooklyn native, Gottfried started stand-up at age 15 by performing at an open mic at The Bitter End in Manhattan in 1970. He soon became a New York stand-up circuit regular and honed impressions of late film favorites like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Humphrey Bogart, and Groucho Marx at Catch a Rising Star and The Improv alongside budding comedians like Andy Kaufman and Jerry Seinfeld. By the time he turned 25, he was hired by SNL’s new producer Jean Doumanian, along with an all-new cast for the show’s sixth season following the departure of Lorne Michaels and the original cast and writers.

During Gottfried’s brief SNL run, he performed only two impressions (Roman Polanski and former US Representative David A. Stockman) and one recurring character, “What It’s All About” talk show cohost Leo Waxman, with cast mate Denny Dillon as his wife Pinky. According to the SNL writers, Gottfried didn’t share his best impressions and ideas because he was saving them for his own stand-up act — which, not long after SNL, would evolve into the gratingly unmistakable character that brought him countless roast gigs as well as cartoon bird voiceover work. Whether it was Gottfried’s unwillingness to meld his sensibilities with SNL or just the tumultuousness of the Doumanian era, his run fell flat and he never meshed with the writers (which was solidified when he was cast in a funeral sketch as a dead corpse). He told Marc Maron:

Gottfried: I was there right after the original cast left, and so back then it was like “How dare they continue Saturday Night Live without the original cast of people?” Back then it would be like if in the middle of Beatlemania you just said “Oh the Beatles are not John, Paul, George, and Ringo – it’s Harry, Artie, Phil” – you know, it was an outrage. So before we even got on the air, they were already writing these articles: “Who the hell are these people?”Maron: And you were unknown at that time?Gottfried: Yeah. And that was the best part too is how stupid these writers actually are, because they were writing about us saying “We don’t know who these people are!” And they totally forgot that no one knew who Belushi or Aykroyd were, it’s not like they were big film stars. So when we got on the air, I mean we did suck, but it’s funny…you know I always say now to say “the bad season of Saturday Night Live” is like saying “the issue of Playboy where the girl shows her tits.” [laughs] But back then it was like everybody was gunning the show.

When Ebersol took over as producer near the end of the season, he fired Gottfried, Charles Rocket, and Ann Risley and replaced them with Tim Kazurinsky, Tony Rosato, and Catherine O’Hara (who quit for SCTV). Gottfried continued performing stand-up and briefly hosted the USA network’s stand-up showcase Up All Night in 1986. He also began snagging supporting film roles in Beverly Hills Cop II, Problem Child 1, 2 & 3, and Look Who’s Talking Too, but it wasn’t until the 1992 Disney movie Aladdin, in which Gottfried voiced the villainous sidekick/parrot Iago, that he gained mainstream level fame for his loud voice persona. The Aladdin film spawned numerous sequels, a television series, and video games as well as consistent voiceover work on shows like The Ren & Stimpy Show, Beavis and Butt-Head, Duckman, The Fairly OddParents, Home Movies, Crank Yankers, and Family Guy, not to mention a commercial role as the Aflac duck from 2000-2011. He was also a regular on Hollywood Squares from 1998-2004.

Gottfried has been a mainstay in the New York Friars Club Roasts since 2001, known best for being the first to turn national tragedies into punchlines, beginning with his infamous 9/11 joke at the 2001 Roast of Hugh Hefner, which aired only three weeks after the attacks (“I have to leave early tonight, I have to fly out to LA. I couldn’t get a direct flight, I have to make a stop at the Empire State Building”). The joke was met with boos and cries of “Too soon!” from the audience, but Gottfried won them back by launching into one of the most graphic takes on the classic Aristocrats joke. He described the scene to Richard Belzer earlier this year:

The laughs just exploded out, and everybody was just screaming and crying and – Rob Schneider was there, he fell off his chair – and they were applauding and going nuts, and it was like that moment of, “Hey, it’s okay. You can come out, climb out from under your beds. Everything’s fine. You’re gonna live after this.”

Since then, Gilbert has never shied away from delivering roast jokes about terrorist attacks, Holocaust survivors, child molestation, Hurricane Katrina, the 2011 tsunami in Japan (which got him fired by Aflac), and fellow comedian Greg Giraldo’s death (“I read that Greg Giraldo’s family pulled the plug. That’s what I did every time I saw Greg on TV”). Despite the blowback of his jokes, Gottfried has stood by his words and even came to the defense of Daniel Tosh’s rape joke this past summer: “I have always felt comedy and tragedy are roommates,” he said. “If you look up comedy and tragedy, you will find a very old picture of two masks. One mask is tragedy. It looks like it’s crying. The other mask is comedy. It looks like it’s laughing. Nowadays, we would say, ‘How tasteless and insensitive. A comedy mask is laughing at a tragedy mask.’” He concludes with this as the modern comedian’s motto: “Guns don’t kill people. Jokes kill people.” And if you can do it in the most annoying voice possible, the body count shall rise.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

Saturday Night’s Children: Gilbert Gottfried […]