In 1987, when Beverly Hills Cop II came out, featuring Gilbert Gottfried in a manic cameo as a sleazy attorney, a Paramount executive called him and said, “I wanna be the first one to congratulate you on stardom.” But a huge commercial breakout never really arrived. Says Gottfried, who is now 64, “I’ve had more than one dopey agent say to me, ‘You know, you should consider playing some of the smaller parts in movies.’ And I said, ‘That’s all I do!’” Which is not to say that Gottfried doesn’t have a devoted following, one that’s especially fervent in the comedy community. (Anthony Jeselnik once dubbed Gottfried “the ultimate comedian’s comedian.”)
Gottfried, who has been doing stand-up since he was 15, doesn’t so much lean into verboten humor topics as grab the wheel and plow right into them. “Like I always say, I think twice but do it anyway,” he says. His material is not only willfully offensive but also quaintly old-fashioned. While Gottfried’s early stand-up was so avant-garde to be room clearing, he’s since come to embody a role as a bit of a beloved comedy antique, a walking, squawking bridge to the Jewish Borscht Belt comics who came up decades before him. (His current act features his elderly Groucho Marx impression and one of The Andy Griffith Show’s Floyd the barber, as if there were still a collective memory of anyone by that name.)
Gottfried supports himself and his surprisingly normal wife and two kids with a regular schedule of stand-up gigs (where he mans his own merch table), voice work for animation, $150 Cameo messages, and a catholic embrace of paying reality-show gigs, like when he joined former porn star Traci Lords on Celebrity Paranormal Project. Says Gottfried: “She had to chant over and over again to the ghost of a serial killer, ‘Please come in me, please come in me, please come in me.’ And I thought, It sounds like she’s rehearsed this line.”
Comedy Central roasted Alec Baldwin in September. You haven’t been on one of these roasts in like nearly a decade, right? The 2011 Trump roast was one of the last ones you did. Why?
That’s one thing I say about the business. You never really kick your shoes off, put your feet up on the table, and say, “Well, I’m here now.” Cause that’s how quickly stuff just stops.
So Comedy Central stopped inviting you?
Yeah, it just kind of stopped. I mean, the last couple of roasts I saw them advertise, it looked like they more going more for, like, friends-of-the-celebrity kind of thing, these hip young actors with their hip actor friends roasting them.
You’re a roasting legend. It is shocking to me that there wouldn’t be an open invitation.
It’s one of those things. It’s funny because I’m one of those people who carry grudges for people who have died 50 years ago, people I knew when I was in the third grade I still have grudges against. But I don’t feel terrible about not being on the roasts. I haven’t been on the Howard Stern show for I don’t know how long either. Oddly enough, with Stern, I’ll see these tweets where someone will go “Eff him,” and blah blah blah. The funny thing is — and it’s miraculous — I don’t really harbor any resentment.
You did a ton of appearances on Letterman when he was on NBC, but then he didn’t bring you on to his CBS show. I don’t understand how you can be a regular with one of these people and not develop a relationship to the point where they continue to book you.
It’s weird. I became kind of a regular, like every couple of weeks, on Arsenio, and I always did well. Then one day, that was it. With Leno, I used to be a regular there until they did that crazy switch where they gave Conan his spot and gave him a prime-time show. But when Jay Leno went back to [The Tonight Show] I think I’d just fallen out of the cycle. I heard a story about Johnny Carson. He used to always have Charlie Callas on. He was a favorite there. Then one day, one of the producers who was setting up the show for the following week, they said, “Well, we’ve got this one, this one, and why don’t we bring Charlie Callas back in? Carson said very matter of fact, “No, I think we’ve seen enough of him already,” and then Charlie Callas was never on the show again.
It’s a little weird now remembering how back in 2010 people were incredibly offended on behalf of Conan when he lost The Tonight Show.
Oh my God. It was so weird. There was that time period of years where the worst war in the country was the war of David, Conan, and Jay. You had to decide what multimillionaire to feel bad for.
Which multimillionaire did you feel bad for?
Well, Conan was made to look like this victim.
I felt for Conan, but when a performer says, “If you don’t fire the guy who’s getting good ratings at 11:30, I’m leaving,” as Conan did, it’s hard to consider him a true victim.
I worked with Jay Leno a lot, and Jay Leno became, like, the Satan of the whole thing, like, “Ooh. It’s Jay Leno. He’s evil.” I thought, What did Jay Leno ever say or do that was so terrible? With Conan, whose show I’ve been on and enjoyed doing, they fired him and gave him $45 million severance. He would be starting a new show in less than a year. I thought, Oh, so he’s got to try to live on $45 million for the rest of the year?
I Googled you recently, and it auto-suggested “Gilbert Gottfried Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” a show you’ve never done. Alec Baldwin has now done it twice, but Seinfeld’s yet to have you on.
Jay Leno invited me to be on Jay Leno’s Garage.
That’s good. But it’s not quite the same. You and Jerry both started at the Improv in the ’70s, along with Larry David. I gather that Jerry never liked the impression you did of him.
I used to go up onstage and just fuck around, and I would do stuff where the audience would scratch their heads. I’ve heard that they used to put me on to clear the audience out at the end of the night. But I’d imitate other comics, which would make the other comics and the wait staff laugh. I used to imitate Jerry a lot. Remember, back then, Seinfeld was just another comic hanging around the clubs, just waiting around to go on at three in the morning. He had never been on TV. And so sometimes I’d go on and like start doing jokes in Seinfeld’s voice. The other comics and the people who worked there would be cracking up, the audience would be scratching their heads, and Seinfeld would be out pacing angrily back and forth going [Gottfried, in an uncanny Seinfeld] “I don’t sound anything like that!”
Did it piss him off?
I like to think it did.
So I guess we know why you haven’t been on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
I mean, I can’t imagine he has time to hate people like I do. I think when Jerry Seinfeld is angry at someone, he gets over it by wiping his ass with a fistful of hundred-dollar bills.
You also used to do your Jerry impression on the Howard Stern show. I just listened to this old bit where you were making fun of Jerry and Jay Leno’s seeming addiction to performing.
Seinfeld and Leno, if they have a five-minute coffee break, they’ll fly to Cincinnati and do a show.
And this was not something that you could identify with?
Years ago, I was addicted to being onstage, and I’d go to these clubs, wait there, come home at four in the morning. That was how I lived. There were snowstorms, transit strikes, but I’d find a way to get to the clubs. I had to go and perform. It was like being on heroin.
You don’t feel that way anymore?
As I always say, right before I’m about to go onstage, I get this fantasy that the manager of the club is going to go, “Oh, we had a fire and the show’s canceled, but here’s your check and we’ve already put you on the next plane home.”
Is that because of terror?
Yeah, yeah. That to me has gotten worse over the years. The dread of going on, whereas years ago you could’ve said to me, “This theater is ten times the size of Madison Square Garden and has got 5,000 times more people in it, and it’s going to be broadcast live all around the universe,” and I’d go, “Oh, okay.” I used to go on TV shows like Arsenio and Conan O’Brien to do a panel with zero prepared. Just whatever came into my mind, I used to spit out and I would kill. I guess in the beginning, I had stupidity on my side.
What’s that fear feel like?
What I find is before I go onstage, it’s like being at a swimming pool and you dip your toe in the water and it’s freezing cold. And you’re going, “I can’t go in that water. It’s freezing cold.” Then you go in the water and all of a sudden it’s not so bad — you’re in it.
In what’s become a famous moment, at the Hugh Hefner roast a couple weeks after 9/11, you joked that it was difficult getting a direct flight back to New York because all the flights “had to make a stop at the Empire State Building.” The joke bombed. What was that like?
Oh boy, oh boy. I just wanted a joke to address the elephant in the room. They were booing, hissing, chairs screeching back.
You would think a roast where the humor is always inappropriate would be a receptive audience.
So was it a surprise to you?
That was a surprise, and then one guy yelled out the classic, “Too soon,” which I thought meant I didn’t take a long enough pause between the setup and the punch line, like I should’ve done one, two, three, and then, “Empire State Building.” But if you told me I was up there for 200 years after I told that joke, I would believe you. I thought, Whoa. This is what they talk about, deafening silence. You could hear people getting really angry, shocked, and gasping. Then, I go into “The Aristocrats” because I figured, “Why not go into a lower level of hell? I’ve already lost them beyond belief. Fuck it.” That they laughed at, and a writer wrote that it was “cathartic” that I did that, like I had performed a mass tracheotomy on them. It showed that people need to laugh at times like that.
I’ve become a fan of your podcast, Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast. I’m amazed at all the terrible things I’ve learned from your show about the late Paul Lynde, who I remember from The Hollywood Squares.
I never met Paul Lynde, but I had heard stories from people. Paul Lynde was of that era, like with Charles Nelson Reilly and people like that, where there was no such a thing as gay. They were just eccentric. And Liberace, the women were crazy about him. Now you look at it, you go, “How the hell could anybody be thinking he’s anything else?” But back then you could cast them with a wife and kids and they were just nutty. But Paul Lynde, aside from being this bitter gay guy and a drunk, was the biggest anti-Semite. I love doing imitations of Paul Lynde making anti-Semitic remarks.
When you had Bruce Vilanch on, who worked with him, he said that Paul Lynde was miserable that he hadn’t become as big a star as Woody Allen.
Yeah, I think he always thought he’d be a major, major star.
My question is a chicken-and-egg one. Do you think his career might not have gone as far as it could have because he was famous for hating Jews and he lost work? Or do you think he found it convenient to blame Jews for his career stalling?
I think he probably hated them to begin with, but then when he was working with them, now he had something to blame his lack of success on. I think what alcohol does is you let go of your inhibitions and you start opening up, so all the stuff you normally hide you’ll start talking about. They say that with fame, too: Someone doesn’t become an asshole because of fame. They were an asshole to begin with, but they hid it until they got famous.
I have to say, the rabid anti-Semitism really seems to endear Paul Lynde to you.
Yeah, it’s that fascination I have with the dark side of showbiz people, the perverted Cesar Romero and Danny Thomas stories. Cesar Romero, who is most famous for playing the Joker on the old Batman series, and in movies he was the Latin lover, even though in real life he was gay.
I didn’t know Cesar Romero was gay.
When you see him play the Joker, it all makes sense. It’s like, “Ohhh.” According to legend, Cesar Romero was into gathering a bunch of young boy-toys and he would pull down his pants and underwear and they would be instructed with all their might to fling orange wedges at his ass.
So there was no insertion involved?
It’s just hitting. The impact. It begs the question of how that happens. One morning do you wake up and go, “Hey, you know what would feel good? Orange wedges hitting my ass.” You always hear variations. Some say he stood ankle deep in warm water. Ones who know about it will argue, “No, I heard it was tangerines.” It was some kind of citrus fruit. And it proves why Cesar Romero never caught a cold in his life.
Do we believe this?
They say in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes bigger than the truth, print the legend. And that one I love too much. I don’t care if someone comes to me with legal proof that he didn’t have orange wedges thrown at his ass, I say it’s true.
I understand part of the reason you became obsessed with celebrity is from watching too much TV as a kid growing up in Brooklyn. You liked watching Hollywood Squares, a show on which years later you’d eventually appear.
I enjoyed watching the show, but I thought, Oh God! This is the bottom rung of show business. And then when I appeared on it, I thought, You know, this is fun. And it’s just like when they used to have Fantasy Island and The Love Boat, I would look and go, “Oh my God. This is a horror show of these washed-up old celebs.” But now I think it must have been fun doing that show. I think of my podcast being like Love Boat, where we’ll bring on these celebrities, some who haven’t worked for years, and all of a sudden they’re there, they’re much older, and you go, “Oh! They’re just as charming and funny as they ever were.”
Gavin MacLeod I thought was great.
He was! And we’ve had on Bernie Kopell twice. He was Doc from The Love Boat.
How was he?
The first part of the Bernie Kopell interview, I thought, This is kind of dragging, nothing’s really happening here. Then he loosened up and I’d crack dirty jokes and he’d answer back. And it was just guys talking. And I thought, This is so much fun, and he really loosened up and was funny. Then he called the next day quite frightened because he realized he was the spokesman for some company. And he said he’s scared that stuff he said they might find offensive.
So what’d you tell him?
Well, I sure as fuck know what that is like. And we didn’t run that episode. The last thing I want to do is go, Oh, I fucked up someone else’s career.
Right, you were one of the first people who lost a job for tweeting, when the insurance company Aflac fired you as the voice of its duck after you made some Japanese tsunami jokes on Twitter. Do you know if anybody affected by the tragedy was hurt by your jokes? Or is that question even relevant?
I used to do a whole bit about it, saying that when the tsunami was going on, all of the Japanese were running to their laptops, logging on to my Twitter account. When gigantic waves were coming at them, they were saying, “How do you spell Gottfried?” I always feel if you’re making fun of a certain group, the people who are not in that group will get offended first. They’ll go, Oh see, I want to show I’m a good person, and I’m standing up for that group. I don’t remember any big Japanese organizations [protesting the tsunami jokes]. Some guy came up to me and said he does business in Japan and he said in bars and business meetings they were cracking jokes about the tsunami there. That’s what people do. The funny thing is, way before the internet, after any major tragedy, there would be about ten jokes that came out that people would know immediately.
Yeah. I remember the Christa McAuliffe–space-shuttle ones.
Millions. Yeah. Did you hear Christa McAuliffe had two blue eyes? One blew this way, one blew that way?
You seem not to be the kind of person who allows yourself to be vulnerable in public, but in Gilbert, the 2017 documentary about you, your wife said that she remembered you totally devastated and crying during that period. Did you think your life was crumbling?
Oh, absolutely. I believed the headlines. My career was over. And there were reporters and photographers in front of my house for like, months. It was crazy.
How did you get cast for the Aflac ads, anyway?
They were auditioning people. I went in, I read for it.
Was there ever a line beyond “Aflac?”
There were never any other words. They’d throw in other sounds, like frustrating, or mumbling, or getting surprised.
Those must have been really surreal recording sessions.
Oh, yeah. The amount of work that went into it. Everybody thinks I went in there once for five minutes and they just kept reusing it, but we did it each time.
What’s really amazing to me, having seen your act a few times now, is, do you think the Aflac people had any idea what you talk about onstage? I mean, your act is so much more offensive than the tweets.
Yeah. My favorite tweet that someone wrote said, “Aflac fires Gilbert Gottfried after discovering he’s a comedian.” That was really it.
How did they fire you?
When it happened, I was coming back from a gig in Philadelphia. Then, I didn’t realize anything. I didn’t know there was this controversy until my agent called. Then I look on the internet and it’s reported all over these different news sites, “Aflac Fires Gilbert Gottfried.” I found out from the internet.
Aflac never actually called you?
No. I always said, “Aflac fired me, got loads of free publicity, and then hired a low-budget replacement, thus bringing closure to a horrible tragedy.”
Were you insulted by that?
That they want to distance themselves from me by hiring a guy who imitates my voice? Oh, absolutely. Sure.
One thing I thought was telling is that BuzzFeed turned your tsunami jokes into a feature called “The Ten Worst Gilbert Gottfried Tsunami Jokes.” The article’s headline said, “Gilbert Gottfried made a series of tsunami-related jokes on Twitter this past weekend. He is a huge asshole,” but then it made a whole slideshow feature of your jokes.
That’s another thing I love about the media. Like, these news shows will go, “Offensive garbage that no one should be made to hear, coming up next.” Like Janet Jackson showing her breast at the Super Bowl. I didn’t see that when it happened, but I saw it on a million offended news shows.
Considering the kind of material you did, it’s kind of amazing that you ever got corporate gigs. I remember when that kid Ryan White died of AIDS, you were on Howard Stern doing a bit about what Andrew “Dice” Clay would say at his funeral. Didn’t Stern lose advertisers over that?
When I did that, I lost an account. I had started to do voice-overs for Kraft Miracle Whip. They got very offended. After it happened, on the Howard Stern show, he brought up a Kraft’s Miracle Whip. We all tasted it. We’re talking about how overly sweet it was, and it sounded like a bad dessert topping, and if you really want mayonnaise, any smart person would go to Hellmann’s. That was fun. But I don’t know how many news shows I did around those times, and radio shows, where they’d come up to me and say, “Oh, those jokes you put up, I was cracking up, I was sending it to my friends. We were all laughing. It was hysterical.” Then they’d get on the air and get very serious and very angry when they’re interviewing me.
Do you think that all outrage is manufactured, that what the media does is just performative?
I always felt like they should give out acting awards on news shows. I always loved when, on news shows, they’re very sad when they’re doing a sad story, and they become happy right afterward.
It’s surprising, considering your material, Disney gave you the role of Iago the parrot in Aladdin in 1992. You wrote in your book that an executive was hesitant to give you the job because he thought that if they sent you out on publicity, you’d scare children.
I heard that secondhand when they were considering whether to use me. Another person, when they were considering me, said, “I don’t know. Gilbert Gottfried seems a little one-dimensional.” I thought, So maybe they should call Meryl Streep to be the parrot. You know, I don’t have the range to be a cartoon character. The only thing I’ve got to say as far as Disney, with all the trouble that I’ve gotten in over the years, they still hire me as the parrot.
There’s still work for the parrot?
Yeah. It was my all-time favorite job. Every now and then, they’d come out with a new whatever, computer game or internet thing. They called me for something, an Aladdin game, I think. I came into the recording studio and they said, “We just need Iago to laugh at this point. That’s all we need.” And I said, “Okay.” They said, “All right … Now.” And I went, “Ah-haa …,” and they said, “Okay, that’s perfect. Thanks.” So I think going in, having a cup of coffee, and then putting my jacket on to leave and doing the recording took about a minute.
In your 2011 book, Rubber Balls and Liquor, there was only one moment where I stopped and was like, Yikes, I don’t know if he could get away with this joke anymore. There’s a rape joke, the one about the woman going into a bar. You remember it?
Yes, yeah. A woman goes to a bar. She said, “I just split up with my husband. I feel depressed. I don’t really drink. Is there any kind of drink I could have?” The bartender says, “Well, the martini’s a pretty mild drink.” She drinks the martini. She’s not a drinker, so she gets really woozy. Then he gives her another one. By now she’s really drunk. She passes out. All the guys at the bar throw her on top of a pool table, pull her clothes off, and gangbang her. Then the next day she shows up at the bar again. The bartender says, “Well, would you like a martini?” She goes, “No, I tried that once. It made my cunt hurt.”
In the book, you write she was gang-raped. It just stopped me in my tracks, seeing the word in a joke.
I remember George Carlin said, “If you don’t think rape is funny, imagine Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd.” It’s funny. I was on some show, I think it was 20/20, about the whole tsunami thing. This woman was very indignantly and angrily questioning me like they caught some crazed killer or a dictator because, Oh, we’ve got someone who told jokes. She’s attacking me the whole time. I told some joke that has to do with a prison rape. She covers her mouth and starts laughing. She turns her head. They didn’t leave that in the interview. I was thinking, Oh, so it’s okay for her to laugh at rape. I thought, Oh, so this moral woman, with her righteous superiority, is laughing at a rape joke. If you said a woman got raped in an alleyway, nobody would make a joke like that, no one would laugh at it. But it’s like by law, you cannot make a comedy that takes place in a prison without at least 75 percent of it being about, “Hey, don’t drop the soap.”
I’m sure you remember when Daniel Tosh got a lot of heat because he had said to a heckler who didn’t like one of his rape jokes, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?”
Can you tell me how you personally think rape jokes can work and how they can fail?
I wouldn’t know the exact way, but, I mean, because something’s bad taste doesn’t mean it’s not funny. And so a rape joke, just like dead-baby jokes, or any kind of bad-taste joke, it’s like, if it’s funny, people will laugh and they’ll cover their face up and say to the person who told them the joke, “Oh, stop that, you’re awful.” And that makes it okay; that’s why there’s no need to apologize for a bad-taste joke because the apology is in the joke.
What do you mean the apology is in the joke? Explain that to me?
Well, it’s because the way people react to bad-taste jokes, everyone is aware. Everyone is a willing participant. I love when people say to me, “When you do some of these jokes, aren’t you aware of the tragedy and loss of lives and that situation?” And I think, Yeah, I am aware of it, and that’s what makes the joke.
Do you think that there’s a way that you could have made tsunami jokes that would have made everybody happy and wouldn’t have caused you any trouble?
Well, one day I’ll write a book with that title: How to Make Tsunami Jokes and Make People Happy. Of course, it didn’t help matters that about 90 percent of Aflac’s business was in Japan.
Oh, I didn’t realize that.
I think if the tsunami took place in a different country, they might have had a bigger sense of humor about it.
Do you have any thoughts about Shane Gillis losing his spot at SNL over offensive jokes that surfaced?
I’m just kind of happy when somebody else is being declared the villain. It’s sort of like when you see a bunch of kids in the schoolyard beating up the kid with thick glasses and braces. And you go, Oh, thank God they’re beating him up, they’ll leave me alone.
I have to imagine that you listened to what he said, right?
Surprisingly, no, I should have.
Oh gosh, I really wanted to talk to you about it. Has there ever been a point where you have heard something and said, “Okay, well now we know there is a line and it can’t be crossed.”
My feeling has always been that you should be able to say or do anything you want as long as it doesn’t hurt the Jews.
I feel like you’re joking, but do you truly believe that?
I don’t know. Nowadays, if you were to listen to something someone said that was called offensive, and you said, “Well, let’s wait until the facts come in,” you’re considered one of the enemies.
There’s this documentary that you and Sarah Silverman appear in, The Last Laugh, which concerns Holocaust jokes. There’s footage of this concentration-camp survivor watching Sarah Silverman’s bits on the Holocaust. She didn’t find them funny. That’s a pretty tough audience, but should that be the bar for whether jokes are appropriate?
I remember one time Joan Rivers was on her fashion show she used to host, Fashion Police. They talked about Heidi Klum showing up in a really sexy outfit. And Joan Rivers said, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” I cracked up. I knew it was, like, horribly bad taste, but it was funny. And I thought, What are people getting offended by? Then I thought about it, and I thought, Well, I laughed when Joan Rivers said it; what if Heidi Klum had made that joke? Would I be laughing then?
So context matters?
Yeah. It would have definitely been more awkward because then there would be like this non-Jew, and a German on top of it, making a joke about the Holocaust. It’s kind of like the same way you can talk about your family members; you could say, “Oh, Mom’s an idiot, Dad’s a drunk,” and it’s fine. If someone outside your family says something like that, then you’d be really offended by that.
But what if Heidi Klum had made that joke? Or had made some sort of anti-Semitic remark? Would you have been in favor of her suffering any repercussions? Maybe losing a gig?
Yeah, I think if she did, she should be forced to have sex with me. The worst punishment any woman can suffer.
Were you bar mitzvahed?
But you do consider yourself — well, your parents were Jewish, correct?
No, they were both Irish. And I was a birth defect.
If you were offered a role, would you work with Mel Gibson?
I’d work with Osama bin Laden. I’m like anyone else. I choose what to get offended by. I remember Mel Gibson called the policewoman “sugar tits.” And said the Jews caused all the wars. Then he started to say he wanted blacks to rape his wife, but he didn’t use the word blacks.
A “pack” of N-words, remember that?
What always makes me laugh is there are certain ways they try to clean things up where you can say the N-word, the C-word, and the F-word. When you say that to a person, they say it aloud in their mind. Everyone knows the words. How are people being protected by those terms? But then Mel said he would slap her over the head with a shovel and bury her in the rose garden, and everything like that. After I had heard all of that, all I could think is, Wait, hold on a second, what did he say about the Jews?
One of the funniest bits that you have in your act involves little people, whom you refer to as “midgets” in the show, but I’m pretty sure we’re not supposed to say that word anymore.
Yeah, you’re not allowed to say that.
Would you be able to do that bit if, say, Peter Dinklage were in the audience or some other little person?
Well, I guess if Dinklage were considering me for a series he was doing, maybe I’d leave out the midget jokes. Once, I did my show at some club. After the show, these two electric wheelchairs come out. They’re these two brothers, both really stunted growth, and they’re strapped into the wheelchairs, and they can just barely move one hand to move the lever. I thought, Holy shit, I’m in trouble here. Both of them, first of all they wanted to have their picture taken with me. Then they said to me that both of them have muscular dystrophy, and they loved that I was doing jokes about muscular dystrophy and about midgets. I remember another time there were these two people in wheelchairs. I started making fun of them from the stage, which I usually don’t do, but this was some kind of TV show where they wanted me to talk to the audience. The owner of the club came up to me, and he said he wanted to thank me for doing that, because he said they really liked it. He said it made them feel like they were part of the crowd. They want to feel like, Hey, everyone got picked on, and we got picked on. We’re the same as everyone else.
If I remember, your muscular dystrophy jokes were about how the MD kids in Jerry Lewis’s Labor Day telethon were more attractive than the ones featured by the local affiliates.
I talk about how Jerry Lewis had the main muscular dystrophy show in Las Vegas. He got all the big stars. He got the cute muscular dystrophy kids. Then they would switch over to the local affiliates. That would be usually some local weatherman or something. The stars would be some woman who sings in a hotel lounge or whatever. One time they switched to the local affiliate. It was being hosted by Tony Orlando, and he and some kid with muscular dystrophy sang a duet of “Ghostbusters.” But the kids that Jerry would get, you would watch and go, “Gee, I wish my kids had muscular dystrophy.” They were just adorable, the ones he got.
A lot of comics now develop material, perform it on the road for a year, tape a special, and then retire the material. You’re famous for having a more Borscht Belt style of having an act and then sticking with it for years. One of your signature bits is still about Michael Douglas’s speculation that he got throat cancer from cunnilingus and all the diseases you’d be willing to contract if it meant you could lick Catherine Zeta-Jones’s vagina.
“Pussy.” I find the word vagina very offensive.
Do you ever retire material?
Some bits I eventually did retire. When Julia Roberts, years ago, married Lyle Lovett, I had this bit where I said, “To think that for all these years I could have had Julia Roberts. I never asked her out, I figured what chance do I have? She’s waiting for some incredibly good-looking guy to come along. I should have asked her out. What’s the worst thing she could have said to me? ‘I’m sorry, but you have a normal-shaped head. Could you do me a favor and lie with your head inside the elevator door and let it slam against it throughout the day and then give me a call?’” I loved doing that bit. That was the only celebrity divorce I cried about. The bit made no sense anymore.
Do you think, of the filthy jokes you’ve told, there are any that need to be retired?
Well, with those kinds of jokes, I think they were wrong a thousand years ago and they’re still wrong and that’s part of what makes them dirty jokes.
I saw you twice recently, and I told you how brilliant your performance was. The only thing that really, truly shocked me was your paper-plate-and-masking-tape bit when you do an impression of Al Jolson singing “Mammy.”
I’m curious, has anybody said to you, “Jesus, Gilbert, that bit’s a little too close to blackface for it to be permissible in 2019.”
You know, shockingly, no. Which is amazing, but it’s one of those things I’ve been doing it so many times without people noticing or getting offended and I think, Wow. If someone’s not offended, I’m not going to remind them to be.
On your recent appearance on Vulture’s Good One podcast, you said that you really like going over the line, offending audiences. When was the last time this actually happened?
Oh, God knows, but I think the audience likes it too. You don’t want to go on a roller coaster that advertises that this roller coaster goes very slowly and doesn’t make any sudden turns of drops.
So you like the feeling of danger?
Yeah, you want to feel like you’re going to go on a ride and there’s a chance it will kill you. Or when you watch a horror movie, you want to scream and then like laugh afterward because your head hasn’t been chopped off.
So when we have Michael Richards go onstage and shout the N-word, I think his defense was that he was just being purposely edgy and trying to offend his audience. But it wasn’t funny, and he obviously suffered major consequences. Do you have to be able to make the argument that in order to be edgy, you also have to be funny? If you were taking risks onstage, do they have to be good, well-executed risks?
See, when you say good risks, it means a well-thought-out, carefully constructed risk, and then it’s not quite a risk.
What do you make of Louis C.K.’s predicament?
I was particularly offended by Louis C.K. because he never invited me to watch him jerk off. I thought, You think you’re friends with a guy …
He seems to have made a concerted effort not to apologize for anything detailed in that New York Times exposé. Do you think the people who are offended would forgive him were he to apologize more completely?
No, it’s never enough. And with Louis, then you’d go, Who is he actually? Is he a guy who feels bad about stuff, says, “Oh, I’m so sad. I feel so guilty,” or is he a guy that will say anything? That’s always confusing with apologies.
Do you think that having gone through what you went through with Aflac put you in a position where you can’t help but sympathize with Louis?
Oh, yeah, I do.
Did you think what he did was wrong? You must have read the New York Times thing.
Believe it or not, I’ve never read the New York Times bit.
Oh, you haven’t?
You’re talking to a very uneducated person.
You were on the last season of the Celebrity Apprentice for two episodes before getting fired. Any Trump stories you can share?
I had very little dealings with him. I can honestly say he was always nice to me. One of the shows I remember, they were all complimenting me, and he even complimented me on some job I had done the night before. I said, “Thank you, Mein Führer.”
Are you a supporter?
I try to avoid politics.
So many comedians seem to be motivated by hatred of him. You don’t seem to be.
Nah, not really. He’s an interesting case because I think part of what got him in office was this feeling of “God. We’re so sick of having to watch what we say and do and Trump will say and do anything.” I think people like that. The liberals became the most strict and most oppressive because they were so worried about offending.
In your book, you describe that your sexual awakening came through masturbating a lot to television. Was it a joke when you said that seeing Bette Davis, on a talk show, post-stroke, with her face half-paralyzed, in a mini-skirt, was enough to get you going?
Yes, but I still remember sitting in front of the TV at one in the morning and I think I was going to watch either The Invisible Man or the Charles Laughton version of Phantom of the Opera and the news was on, and at SeaWorld this girl in a bikini was riding a killer whale and something freaks the whale out and it starts going crazy and leaping and throwing her off, basically like what I guess a killer whale does when it’s a killer whale. The people who work there pull her out of the water, and her bikini bottom was down. They actually showed it, and you saw her ass. I couldn’t have dashed to my bed quick enough.
Was she injured?
For all I know, she could’ve been missing a leg and have blood gushing out of it and exposed bone, and I didn’t care. I saw a girl’s ass there. I don’t even know if I even touched my dick and it was over before it began.
Your father owned a hardware store in Coney Island.
Yeah, we lived above the hardware store. The whole time him owning it, I can remember three customers coming in.
I imagine someone who owns a hardware store is pretty handy. No offense, but you don’t strike me as someone who’s good with a hammer.
He could rip down this wall and replaster, put in new boards and then plaster it up and paint it, and fix a ceiling, tar a rooftop of a house. He could do all that. I can’t. I can barely change a lightbulb.
Do you feel like he wished that he had a handier son?
I think that was part of his frustration with me. He’d get angry with me a lot when I was a kid. He’d yell and lose his temper, and I thought back then it was scary. It became so clear to me after I had kids why. Both of my sisters went to college, and I dropped out of high school. I looked like I was going to be the failure of the family. I looked like I was going to be homeless. I can only imagine what they thought when I was said I was interested in show business.
In 1980, you were cast on the sixth season of SNL, the famous one season Jean Doumanian produced just after Lorne Michaels left and the original cast followed him. Did you imagine that it might not be an auspicious time to be part of the show?
I remember when my agent called and said they want you for the show, I wasn’t jumping in the air. I would tell people uncomfortably. I’d say, “I don’t know, I think they kinda want me to be on Saturday Night.” Then when they let me go from the show, also, I wasn’t devastated.
Back then, Woody Allen and Jean Doumanian were very close. Did you meet him?
Never. But Jean had loads of tape on everybody because millions of people were auditioning. Some writer [told me] that Woody was sitting by himself in a dark screening room, staring at each one, not making a face, like he was a statue. Then, my clip came on, and all of a sudden for the first time, Woody Allen reacted and he said, “Is he a Navajo Indian?”
You once wrote that if hell were real, for you it would be having to watch a highlight reel of you trying to talk to women.
I was never a ladies’ man.
But this has to be partly shtick, no?
No. I don’t know how many clubs I’d been at where the opening act who this was like maybe the second time he was onstage, would be getting laid like crazy because he was opening for Gilbert Gottfried and I’d be back in the hotel room whacking it.
Why were you so bad?
I was terrible about closing a deal, or even talking. I hear conversations in my mind that I’d say to girls and it would be like, Oh, God, this is awful.
Your wife, Dara, whom you married in 2007, is lovely. If you were so hopeless with women, how did you meet her?
You got me. She used to be in the music business, and somebody invited me to a Grammy party at Tavern on the Green. And of course I hear about free food, I head over there, and so I somehow got into a conversation with her on the food line. There’s no rhyme or reason to anything in my life.
I’ve met your wife and kids and been to your apartment in Chelsea. It’s honestly very difficult to reconcile your life now to what I understand of it before you were married. Your friend Penn Jillette once told a reporter of your “pathological” cheapness. Did you really, as he said, live in an apartment full of unopened boxes?
I remember one time somebody coming into my apartment, and this is after I’d been there for years, and they said, “When are you actually planning on moving in?” Nothing was organized. All of the furniture was left over from when my parents were alive. Boxes would be my filing system of my clothes and important papers.
As for the cheapness, do you still have a huge collection of thousands of hotel shampoos in a container under your bed?
Yeah. Some are under the bed. Some my wife put in a cabinet in a bathroom for more easy access.
So you actually use them?
Yeah. I mean, some I’ll leave to my great-grandkids.
I’m curious: Do you fill larger bottles with the small bottles?
No. Maybe I should, but if I did that I would then have to put water in the smaller bottles to rinse out what’s in there and use that as shampoo too.
Are you being serious?
Yeah. I would definitely do that. People have been basically sending condolence messages because more and more hotels are putting the [shampoo in large dispensers] where you press the button on the wall.
Was this cheapness something that your mother or your father passed onto you?
Yeah. We didn’t have money growing up. I remember there were just certain brands that we’d never have in the house, big-name brands. [We only had] off-brands. I always knew that these toys that they advertised on TV would never be in the house. I remember one time in school the teacher was asking, “Do you know what disappointment is?” The kids said that on their birthday or Christmas, they were waiting for a certain toy from TV and they didn’t get it. I thought, “How would anyone ever get a toy like that in their house?”
But your apartment and its décor seem very expensive. Did you have trouble parting with the money to pay for these things?
Oh, yeah, I still do. It’s still scary to me.
How do you deal with it?
Not easily. I just sort of go along with it. I saw on some tabloid they found some actor who used to be on a kid’s show. I think it was Small Wonder. They said they found the actor who played her brother living under a bridge. And sometimes I think about that. I think, Am I going to wind up living under a bridge one day? I still get those thoughts. Particularly when I’m lying in bed at night.
2010: “David Hasselhoff walks into a bar … every morning and then he stays there until it closes.” Charlie Callas was a comedian and performer. His last appearance on The Tonight Show was on September 21, 1982, nearly a decade before Carson’s retirement. In an April 2004 New York Times interview, O’Brien, who had been promised by NBC executives that he would inherit The Tonight Show when Leno retired, gave an interview reacting to the news that Leno’s contract had been renewed until the end of the decade. “It’s hard for me emotionally to say: How can Leno deserve to be there when I deserve to be there? I don’t feel that in my bones,’” O’Brien told TV writer Bill Carter. “‘My agents can say that — and they do. But I have no control over them. They’re Rottweilers that I bought. Their job is to attack. My job is to say: Dear me. But I don’t expect things that are unrealistic.’” The New York Observer’s Frank DiGiacomo wrote, of Gottfried’s “The Aristocrats,” “He riffed and riffed until people in the audience were coughing and sputtering and sucking in great big gulps of air. Tears ran throughout the Hilton ballroom, as if Mr. Gottfried had performed a collective tracheotomy on the audience, delivering oxygen and laughter past the grief and ash that had blocked their passageways.” The podcast, which was launched in 2014 and is co-hosted by comedy writer Frank Santopadre, is described in show notes as “a fond, funny, fly-on-the-wall look at showbiz then and now (but mostly then)” and has featured interviews with Dick Van Dyke, Bruce Dern, Beverly D’Angelo, and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Paul Lynde gained fame for playing uptight father Harry MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie, both in the 1960 Broadway musical and the 1963 film adaptation. Before being cast as the Joker in the 1966 television series Batman, Romero played a string of Latin-lover roles in films from the 1930s through 1950s. He worked into his 80s, notably playing Jane Wyman’s husband on the nighttime soap opera Falcon Crest. In a 1984 interview, he explained why he’d never married: “How could I, when I had so many responsibilities? Could I tell a girl, ‘Let’s get married, and you can come and live with my father, my mother, two sisters, a niece and a nephew’? I have no regrets, no regrets.” Gottfried was a panelist on The Hollywood Squares from 1998 to 2004. Marlon Brando called producer Whoopi Goldberg to complain about Gottfried regularly making him the butt of fat jokes, like “What mammal has the largest eyes? Marlon Brando at a buffet.” MacLeod is primarily known for his television roles, as Joseph “Happy” Haines on McHale’s Navy, Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Captain Merrill Stubing on The Love Boat. On March 14, 2011, Aflac announced that it had fired Gottfried less than an hour after discovering his tweets about the earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 15,000 Japanese. Aflac replaced Gottfried with 36-year-old Daniel McKeague, then a sales manager for Minneapolis radio station KQRS, who beat out 12,500 aspirants for the role. After passing an extensive background check, McKeague was awarded a “low six figures” annual contract. Two of Gottfried’s tweets from March 12 and 13, 2011: “My Japanese doctor advised me to stay healthy I need 50 million gallons of water a day.” “Japan is really advanced. They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.” From a 2008 show in Scottsdale, Arizona: “I just generally feel uncomfortable around midgets. I’m always scared one day I’ll have to take a flight like 70 hours long and the stewardess will go, ‘Oh, here’s your seat, right next to that midget.’ The one that’s sitting on the phone book to look out the window. Then you gotta sit there and make midget conversation with him.” In his 14th and final season hosting an NBC show, Donald Trump fired Gottfried in the second episode of The Celebrity Apprentice, the contestant dismissed following Cosby Show’s Rudy, Keisha Knight Pulliam, and singer Kevin Jonas. Gottfried was fired for telling inappropriate sexual jokes during a presentation to executives of the frozen-food line, Luvo. Doumanian was one of five guests at Allen’s 1966 wedding to Louise Lasser, and Doumanian claims that Allen once saved her life using the Heimlich maneuver. Doumanian produced eight of Allen’s films. Allen sued Doumanian in 2001, claiming she and her partner cheated him out of $12 million in film receipts, a case settled out of court in 2002. Before marrying Gottfried, Miami native Dara Kravitz worked in promotions for various record companies. She served as executive producer on her husband’s 2005 special, Gilbert Gottfried: Dirty Jokes, and appeared in 2013 on Celebrity Wife Swap, in which the couple switched partners with Gottfried’s friend Alan Thicke and his wife, Tanya.