Whether he likes it or not, Gilbert Gottfried is one of the few performers who truly exemplifies the term “comic’s comic.” He has one special and is remembered primarily for voice-overs such as Iago in Aladdin, but in comedy circles, he’s a legend. He appears in documentaries (The Aristocrats) and has documentaries made about him (Gilbert), but he’s never enjoyed the mainstream success found by some of his peers like Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. While his act carries the rhythm and razzle-dazzle of comics long gone, Gottfried’s tenacity, fearlessness, and dedication to busting taboos make him an unlikely hybrid: A Borscht Belt holdover who regularly sees (and revels in) audience walkouts.
It makes sense, then, that the joke Gilbert is best known for isn’t one that he wrote — if you could say anyone “wrote” it in the first place — the Aristocrats. That’s because of both the way he tells it, which is grosser and more wide-reaching than other comics’ renditions, and when he told it — at the Hugh Hefner roast, after telling a 9/11 joke soon after the attacks and losing the audience “bigger than anybody has ever lost an audience.” In this episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them, Gilbert discusses all things Aristocrats, from hearing it for the first time to the Hefner roast to bringing it out these days. Download the episode from Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Before it was a thing that you did onstage much later, when you were just doing it for friends, did you have a signature version of the Aristocrats?
The trick is not to repeat yourself too much. So if you say, “And then they bring out a monkey, and it fucks you in the ass.” You got to at least change it to a kangaroo. Or a robot. Doesn’t have to be living.
Had you performed it onstage really before the Hugh Hefner roast?
I don’t think so. I wasn’t planning on telling it that night.
Famously, the Hugh Hefner roast took place a few days after September 11th. You were the closer and the first comic to address the attacks. Why did you?
I don’t know. Maybe I’m self-destructive, maybe I’m just plain stupid. But if someone tells me don’t do something, then I want to do it. I’ve always said tragedy and comedy are roommates. Wherever tragedy’s around, comedy’s a few feet behind them sticking his tongue out and making obscene gestures. When you go to a funeral, the guy at the podium will say embarrassing stories about the guy in the box, and people will laugh. People lean over to the person sitting next to them with a smirk on their face, and the other person will hold their hands over their face like, Oh, I shouldn’t be laughing at this.
The joke that sucked the air out of the room, had you written it beforehand?
Yes. I said, “I have to leave early tonight. I have to catch a flight to L.A. I couldn’t get a direct flight. We have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.” And forget it. I lost an audience bigger than anybody has ever lost an audience. People were booing and hissing. One guy yelled out, “Too soon,” which I thought meant I didn’t take a long enough pause between the setup and the punch line.
Had anyone said “too soon” before that? Maybe that’s where it started.
That’s the first time I heard it, and I was quite proud of that. And then I feel like, Well, okay, what makes it soon enough? I could make an argument that I’m more sensitive than people who wait and think it’s okay. You can make a joke about the Titanic, no one’s going to attack you for that. Because you’re a sensitive person, you waited all those years? You’re saying, Fuck everybody who died on the Titanic, that’s years ago. Even their grandkids are dead, and fuck their grandkids. I’m a sensitive person. With me, you could make the argument that when I saw it and it’s too soon, everyone goes, “Oh, my God, how could he do that? It’s such a horrible thing.” It’s acknowledging it’s a horrible thing.
How much do you remember about losing the room that day?
Oh my God, I was floating through outer space. Getting back to the Titanic, I felt like Leonardo DiCaprio when he loses grip of that door at the end, and he’s going into the bottom of the frozen ocean. When I was up there, it was like, Well, I’m at the bottom level of hell, and this show seems pretty much over. And then that popped into my head, because I figured, Why not go to an even lower level of hell?
How quickly did the audience turn around?
Immediately. The comics were laughing, and the audience was going wild. Just the biggest laughs I ever heard.
You got a lot of positive response from this. Did anyone who saw it ever come up to you?
I was backstage at The Tonight Show and somebody called out my name. I turned around and it was Harrison Ford. He complimented me on my telling of the Aristocrats joke and how much it made him laugh. This is one of those stories that I cringe at every time I think of it. It’s like anytime I’ve tried to ask a girl out, I remember every fucking word I said, and go, “Oh, why did you say that?” That’s my whole life. So instead of the right thing to do, which would’ve been, “Oh, thank you. I love Blade Runner.” That would’ve been fine, and he would’ve been flattered, and I could’ve walked away like a human being. But I think, Oh, I gotta be funny now. I said, “Oh, thank you, and your name is … ?” I don’t know if he caught that it was a joke, but either way, he walked away going, “Boy, Gilbert Gottfried’s an asshole.”
Do you have any other memorable stories about times you did the Aristocrat?
There was a club in Rochester that by law had to have a deaf interpreter onstage. I don’t do the Aristocrats that much, but I thought, Holy shit, to be able to do the Aristocrats and be that gross, that disgusting, and that perverted, and have this woman act it out? Holy Christ, I have to. I immediately walked over to the deaf interpreter and said, “This family walks… ” By then, the audience went out of their minds, because they knew what was going to happen. I’m watching the woman as I’m saying, “And the son blows his father, and then the dog is fucking the mother.” She acted out all of it, and I’ve got to say, I admired her greatly.
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