Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
Gilbert Gottfried doesn’t necessarily seem like someone who would make a smooth segue into podcasting. He seems less interested in conversation than in broadcasting his own voice as loudly as possible. Then again, Marc Maron also seems primarily, if not exclusively, interested in monologuing and he has established himself as one of the best interviewers in all of pop culture, if not the best.
Sometimes, a comedian’s relentless interest in themselves can lead to an intense and welcome interest in the experiences of other comedy professionals. Their fascination with their own career extends to a fascination with the lives of funny people in general. And sometimes a comedian is so entertaining that it doesn’t really matter if they show interest in the person they’re ostensibly interviewing, or in anything other than the things going on in their own overactive mind and fertile imagination.
That’s the case with Gilbert Gottfried, one of comedy’s true characters. Gottfried’s journeyman career hearkens back to the early 1980s and one of the grimmest periods of Saturday Night Live, the dreaded, short-lived reign of “Ayatollah” Jean Doumanian. The 1980-81 season of Saturday Night Live did many things wrong, and pretty much only one thing right (that would be getting a prodigiously talented teenager named Eddie Murphy into the mix). Its mistakes included casting a talent as distinctive as Gottfried, then not letting him be himself.
Gottfried and Yankovic’s careers both began in the early 1980s (although, if you want to get technical about it, Yankovic’s proper first release was a single on Capitol Records released around Christmastime, 1979, which means the still-young pop music icon has been a recording artist for five decades now) and they’ve been pop culture fixtures for forever.
They’re both consummate show-business survivors who are sharper and more resilient than their wacky personas would suggest. They’re men who turned themselves into human cartoons early on, then savvily managed to leverage those personas into sustainable careers. They’re preeminent students of comedy, men with a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of comedy history.
Sure enough, it takes less than a minute for host Gottfried to bring up that he and his co-host Frank Santopadre grew up listening to people like Allen Sherman and Stan Freberg, names that mean little to most but everything to cultists like Yankovic and Gottfried. When Yankovic appeared on the podcast in 2014, he was riding high off having the first number one-charting album of his career, but it doesn’t take long for the focus to shift to the annals of comedy history.
It’s fitting that this meeting of two unique comedy minds took place at the Friar’s Club in New York, a (just barely) surviving monument to comedy’s Catskills past. It doesn’t take long for Gottfried to go on the gleeful offensive, like when he says of the widespread, if incorrect assumption that Yankovic is Jewish, “People assume you’re ugly and annoying, you must be a Jew!”
A symphony of laughter follows, with Gottfried’s air-raid siren-loud cackle joining Yankovic’s more understated, musical chuckle. Yankovic and Gottfried have much in common, but where Gottfried delights in shock (he is, after all, equally famous for voicing a calculating cartoon parrot and telling some of the most tasteless jokes in contemporary comedy), Yankovic is squeaky clean. So there’s an interesting tension between a shock merchant who can go long on an extended riff on oral sex with Oprah Winfrey and a very careful comedy icon who does his damnedest to keep things PG-13 at worst.
It takes a while for the interview to actually begin, and it’s telling that the first proper question isn’t about Yankovic but rather Allan Sherman, whose astonishing rise and equally astonishing fall Yankovic recounts. It’s a comedy geek bonanza from that point on, as the topic flits happily from Sherman to tragic John F. Kennedy impressionist Vaughn Meader (whose career famously died when the President he became rich and famous imitating did) to the low level of respect afforded to song parodists who aren’t Yankovic. The perpetually self-deprecating Yankovic quips that he’s just a rung above Carrot Top on the respectability scale, and Gottfried joins in to argue that Yankovic is actually “a few notches below Gallagher,” to which Santopadre yes-ands, “but above Gallagher 2.”
The rambling, meandering and wonderfully digressive conversation occasionally touches upon Yankovic’s career and the bubbling soup of influences that made him the man he is today (Mad Magazine chief among them) but there are also fascinating snapshots into Yankovic’s upbringing. We learn that when Yankovic was a boy, his overly-protective mother watched him through binoculars during P.E class to make sure the other boys weren’t too rough with him. Thankfully, Yankovic’s parents lived across the school, or they’d need a telescope rather than binoculars to keep an eye on their boy.
Santopadre keeps the conversation on track, while Gottfried frequently devolves into hilarious tangents, some of which have punchlines and points, some of which just peter out, like a story involving Paul Lynde spouting anti-semitic bitterness in a drunken rage that’s less funny than just sad. The podcast benefits from a clear division of labor: Santopadre is the earnest straight man maintaining order and Gottfried is a lewd and lascivious agent of chaos.
Yankovic’s dual status as a genuine pop star with Grammys and Gold and Platinum Records to his name and a wry parodist and observer of other pop stars gives him a fascinating perspective on the foibles of the rich and famous, like Prince insisting on a strict no-eye-contact policy when attending awards shows.
The names of Dr. Demento Show fixtures with magical/silly names like “Doodles” Weaver, Tiny Tim, Benny Bell, and Bobby “Boris” Pickett are bandied about lovingly, providing insight into the weird novelty-song ghetto that nurtured Yankovic as a young geek and that he clearly still adores, even after he broke defiantly into the mainstream and became an unlikely household name.
Gottfried makes an inspired running gag of his inability to focus and conduct even the most primitive of interviews, regularly circling back to the beginning and opening exchanges with, “Now, you’re a song parodist?” as if being introduced to Yankovic and his music for the first time.
As an interview, consequently, this is not overly distinguished. Terry Gross does not need to feel threatened by Gottfried’s skills as an interrogator of the human condition. But as a loose, rollicking and often very funny tete-a-tete among true show-business originals, Mr. Clean and Mr. Filthy, it is a foul-mouthed, gloriously inappropriate delight.
Photo via Gilbert Gottfried.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.