Judd Apatow calls it “hilarious, oddly moving.” Entertainment Weekly says it’s “remarkable, fascinating, totally unexpected.” Even Anthony Jeselnik skipped the jokes for a rare minute to say, “This film is a hilarious, humanizing, and shockingly intimate portrait of a comedian we all previously thought unknowable.” The film they’re referencing is Gilbert, a new documentary about legendary comedian Gilbert Gottfried. If you are wondering if Gilbert deserves his own documentary, don’t worry, so does he. “My thought is that if you’re having a documentary you should be dead for 20 years first or you built a thousand hospitals and schools in some starving third world country.” But the film, directed by Neil Berkeley (Harmontown, Beauty Is Embarrassing) works, largely because it truly shows a side of comic who for most of his career has kept his private life out of the public eye. I talked to Gilbert about his reluctance to be a film subject, the surprise success of his Amazing Colossal Podcast, and the healing power of lowbrow humor.
Congratulations, Gilbert. The documentary is currently at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Which is incredible because they generally hate most stuff. The reviews have put me in shock. When the filmmaker Neil Berkeley came to me and said he was going to do a documentary on me I thought it was a horrible idea. When he showed me the finished cut I thought, “Oh, God, I can’t watch this,” and yet I see nothing but great reviews on it.
So you were able to sit through the whole thing?
Yeah, I’ve seen it maybe four times already. Each time I tend to cringe. It’s a little too personal.
Do you feel that way when you watch films you’ve been in or your standup performances?
I’m totally fine watching myself if I’m popping up in a sitcom or movie as Nick the Plumber. That’s fine, but to see me as me…after all these years of seeing myself and hearing myself it felt like the first time you see yourself in a home movie or hear your voice recorded. You go, “No, no, that doesn’t look like me. That’s not the way I sound.”
This film covers a lot of personal moments in your life from you falling in love with your wife, to having children, to losing family members. Other than just cringing at yourself, what is going on with you emotionally when you’re watching?
Oh, a lot. There was nothing held back, which makes some parts more painful than others, but also a more honest and better documentary because of it. It deals with my relationship with my father, losing family members, all of that. It makes it even worse when you go, “Okay, I know where this is going and I know what happens here.”
I was reading an interview with Neil where he said that he was approached by Dara (Gilbert’s wife) and that you didn’t really know the documentary was going to happen. It seems like he just showed up and started filming hoping to get some stuff and then seven months later he had this finished product.
Yeah. My thought is that if you’re having a documentary you should be dead for 20 years first or you built a thousand hospitals and schools in some starving third world country. He said, “I’ve always dreamt of doing a Gilbert Gottfried documentary,” and I said to him, “You should set your dreams a lot higher.” He started following me around. He would show up at the house and film me walking around, ironing my shirts. Then he started following me to clubs. It was a case of where I was against it, but I’m too much of a wimp to say no.
Were there any moments where it was getting so personal that you wanted to stop?
No. That’s a funny thing. I figured if we’re going to do this we had to do it all the way. You just have to bite your lip and go through with it. There’s this great back and forth thing going on where you will see me do the most disgusting, poor taste bits and it’s intercut with me with my kids. It shows a full person.
That reminds me of the scene where you’re at the fundraiser for children’s cancer research. The families are all going up onstage, telling their deeply moving personal stories, and then you go up to do a set that includes a joke about a little boy pointing out his mom’s cunt.
[laughing] Yeah, I do intellectual comedy. It’s stuff you really have to sit down and think about. But that showed something. If you do a bad taste joke on TV or on Twitter, people on the internet go, “Let’s form a lynch mob.” But in actuality, tragedy and comedy are roommates. Wherever tragedy is, comedy is looking over its shoulder and sticking its tongue out. In the case of Saint Jude’s Hospital, they desperately wanted a release. I was scared to go on because I thought it was suicide, but they desperately wanted something to laugh about and have a good time with or else they’ll just go crazy.
“Desperately wanting a release” speaks well to the scene at the roast where shortly after 9/11 you did a joke about the attacks. Now 9/11 jokes have pretty much lost their shock value, but at the time it was viewed as too soon. Your natural reaction after that joke flopped was to immediately go into one of the most obscene jokes you could possibly think of. It worked because you got the audience back on your side.
It was an amazing moment. I lost them as bad as you could lose any crowd ever. Then I go into The Aristocrats. To me it proved terrorist attack = bad taste, incest and bestiality = good taste.
Do you think there is an art to poor taste comedy? We cited two examples where lowbrow humor was exactly what was needed in the moment.
It’s tough because sometimes I hear myself talking when I’m being interviewed, and I hate to sometimes philosophize too much about comedy and be serious about comedy because ultimately, putting your hand in your armpit and lifting your arm up and down and making fart noises is comedy. So when you talk about yourself like, “Oh, I’m an artist. I make these fart noises and I’m helping society…”
Well, do you feel like you’ve given something to society?
I hope so. Every now and then someone will come over to me and thank me saying that they have a brother, sister, father, mother, or child who they remember fondly as fans of mine. That’s one of those moments where you go, “Oh, God, I’ve indirectly done something really good.” In the documentary Life Animated an autistic child learns to communicate with his father by watching Disney films. The father started imitating my voice while wearing a puppet of my character Iago the parrot. It shows that I can do great things as long as I’m not directly involved. It’s when I’m directly involved that everything goes wrong.
You dropped out of high school to pursue comedy. Did you ever go back and finish school or college?
No, I never went back, but what I would love is…every now and then they give these honorary college diplomas. Bill Cosby had a bunch of those. I think all of them may have been taken back. I would love to go, “My math and reading are still terrible, but look, I graduated from Harvard!”
Your podcast has been a big hit. How long have you been doing it?
Oh, God, I think over two years. It’s one of those things I still don’t fully understand. The minute I thought I had show business kind of figured out it all changed – stuff like the internet, podcasts, people producing and selling their own stuff. At one point everyone was doing a blog, so for a short time I started putting out a blog. I would read my own blogs and go, “These are awful. A two-year-old girl’s blog is just as good, if not better, than what I’m doing here.” I was expecting that with the podcast because what I’m interested in is old show business. A lot of these people that I get are in their nineties and people aren’t old enough to remember them. Why would they want to hear them? And it turns out I keep getting tweets from people after I had some old performer on that say, “I had no idea who that was, but I really liked listening to them.” In a good way it’s kind of become like Fantasy Island or The Love Boat where there are these people that either you didn’t know when they were around or you did know, but you swore were dead. I originally wanted to call the podcast The Before It’s Too Late Show.