Gilbert Gottfried, Remembered by Those Who Knew Him

Gilbert Gottfried Photo: Steve Eichner/Getty Images

For his friends and fellow comedians, the word that most often comes up when talking about Gilbert Gottfried is unique. Onstage, he was one of a kind, with an abrasive sense of humor that’s impossible for them to truly parse. Not that they’d want to — Gilbert, they say, never liked analyzing what made a joke work or not work. To him, if something was funny, it was just funny. And he loved being funny.

Other things Gottfried loved, according to those who knew him, were his wife and two children, saving every last penny and hotel-shampoo bottle, and turning the topic of conversation to the size of an old-Hollywood star’s penis. He was a gentle, quiet man who became a force of nature onstage, reveling in beating a joke to death, only to resurrect it, and leaving an audience in pain because they were laughing so hard. “He believed in that old Tim Conway philosophy,” says Patton Oswalt. “One time, it’s funny. Three times, it’s not funny. Nineteen times, it’s hilarious.”

What Gottfried didn’t believe was that there were any lines you couldn’t cross. The quickest way to get him to riff on a topic that was considered off-limits was to tell him he couldn’t joke about it. Sometimes that cost him dearly, as with all the money he lost when he was fired as Aflac’s spokesduck in 2011 after tweeting zingers about the Japan tsunami, but usually it somehow came across as endearing. His heart, always searching for the next laugh, was in the right place, his longtime pals say.

In the wake of Gottfried’s death at age 67, we talked with some of his friends and admirers in comedy, who spoke reverently, lovingly, and often raunchily about what made this short, sweet man from Brooklyn so special to the world.

Susie Essman

In 1984, I had been in the business for about two minutes. Richard Belzer asked me to open for him at the original Caroline’s, and that was a headline room. Then they asked me to come back and open for Gilbert. I had no idea who Gilbert was, and everybody told me, “He’s a genius, but he’s insane.” We became really great friends.

I had never seen anything like him. I mean, who ever saw anything like Gilbert? To this day, no one has made me laugh as much as Gilbert. Offstage, we would just laugh together for hours. I always wondered if Gilbert thought that I was funny or if he just enjoyed me laughing at him. Gilbert loved to laugh, and luckily he had the great gift of being able to make people laugh, because that was his genius.

Gilbert had this sweetness to him. He was a big puppy. He was just floppy and helpless, and yet he was sly like a fox because he knew how to get everyone to take care of him. I remember in 1992, we both were shooting our One Night Stand specials for HBO in Florida. I had no money in those days, but I bought an outfit and expensive shoes. It’s like a whole big thing: What am I gonna wear? Gilbert shows up in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and he didn’t bring anything to wear for his special. So of course they went out and bought him a suit and tailored it perfectly, and production paid for it. I remember saying to him, “You knew exactly what you were doing!” He would not have been able to go to a store by himself and buy a suit. He was a manchild.

Comedians, we love to talk about Gilbert’s cheapness. We all have Gilbert-cheap stories. My friend Larry Amoros told me one about when Gilbert used to live on the Lower East Side with his mother. Larry walks by one day, and there’s this great big Goodwill box where you’re supposed to leave your donations. Gilbert’s got his head in the Goodwill box, and he’s pulling clothes out. Larry walks over and says, “Gilly, what are you doing?” and Gilbert looks up and says, “Shopping.”

Nothing was sacred to him. Nothing. Even his children — he would tell jokes about them. Gilbert knew what he was doing onstage. He knew where the funny was in any given situation, and he knew how good he was. He believed that as a comedian, we’re all so fucking crazy insecure, and we’ve all been rejected so much, and we’ve all had nights where we just die onstage, that somewhere in us, deep down, we know how good we are. Otherwise you can’t put yourself through that and get up and do it all the time.

He was a comic’s comic. He had what I would call repetition compulsion, where he would get hold of a bit and if it wasn’t working, he would just repeat it over and over again nonstop. He’d just pound away at you until the audience laughed, and the other comedians would be in the back hysterically laughing. He was relentless, like a dog with a bone, once he got an idea and wanted it to work. At Catch a Rising Star, if there were stragglers at two in the morning and you wanted to leave, you’d put Gilbert up and he’d clear the room. He would do all these esoteric things you couldn’t imagine, like old Abbott and Costello stuff, just insane, and he was the funniest ever because he knew he was doing it just for us. He had a very fertile mind.

I just loved him so much. Seeing him as a husband and a father was one of the most touching things I’ve ever experienced. He loved his kids, and he loved Dara tremendously. They made his life beautiful. Even though he died much too young, I’m so happy that he was able to have that experience for that long. He really had a sweetness to him — a very gentle, kind, sensitive side that he didn’t like to show to many people.

He was such a deeply original voice that will never be repeated. No one else is going to come along that’s going to fill in for Gilbert. That voice is gone. He was completely original. It’s just such a huge loss when somebody that unique dies. The bottom line of Gilbert is that he had a very, very successful life, in spite of all his strangeness. He made millions of people laugh, he made people happy, and he was a great father and a great husband. And if I would have been told that in 1984 when I first met him, I would have been surprised.

Anthony Jeselnik

As a kid, I watched all different kinds of comedy, and whenever he came on, it was just, Hold on to your seat, because he didn’t really have an act as far as I knew. It was just screaming these old jokes. I’d never seen anyone talk that way. I was just impressed that he was so likable onstage and that voice was so powerful that he could get away with doing street jokes. He was very old-school but would do all these new-school things that would take the form of stand-up comedy and break out of it.

Then on the roasts, I really got to see him take it to another level. If you’ve ever seen the roast of Roseanne Barr, there’s a clip where he’s up there yelling and it cuts to me, and I am physically trying to survive it. I am just laughing so hard that it’s impossible to catch my breath. And no one made me laugh on those roasts. You’re thinking about yourself, you’re thinking about what they’re gonna say about you, and with Gilbert, you just held on for dear life. He was the best.

Every time I talked to him in person, it was like talking to your grandpa — just very unassuming, didn’t say a lot, was very nice, very sweet. But then he would get onstage and a switch would flip, and it was just the funniest goddamn thing. He was my absolute favorite, and you couldn’t tell someone why. It wasn’t like, “Oh, let me repeat this joke to you.” It was just the way he screamed it out with such confidence that just completely blew me away.

Gilbert and I both work in offensive stuff, and Gilbert was easier to take because you know these are dad jokes — horrible dad jokes, but street jokes. It wasn’t coming from a mean place. He was never like, “Oh, aren’t I edgy?” With the voice, he almost made it sound like he had to tell these jokes, like he was the medium that these jokes lived on through until today. Now that he’s gone, I don’t know who picks up that baton and uses those jokes and has any modicum of success. He was just so great at it that if Gilbert Gottfried made your wife cry, you were honored by it.

Everyone loved him. And comics love to hate each other. Especially with success, you love to hate the older people, but everyone loved Gilbert. He was just such a sweet guy and so funny that no one ever talked trash on him. If you told a story about Gilbert, even if you were talking about how cheap he was or how hard he bombed on this show, you always told it laughing, like, “Isn’t it funny that this happened to Gilbert?” I don’t know of another comic who has been able to get away with that or lived that kind of career where everyone, everyone just loved it.

Richard Kind

After I had just graduated college, in the late ’70s, I saw Gilbert at the Improv, and he was onstage just in defiance of the audience. He was doing things that people found unfunny, and they were the funniest things in the world. It was around midnight, and he was one of the last ones on, and people stood up in boredom, in protest, in disgust, and left the theater. Nobody was laughing, including the people I was with, and I was just guffawing. I couldn’t believe it, and the more the people left the more he went after them. It was just a memorable set and a memorable night.

He’s nothing like his caustic persona; quite the opposite. I can’t say that he’s a gentleman, but he’s a gentle man. A gentleman goes out of their way: “Here, can I get this for you? Can I bring you anything?” But he would sit and be gentle. He was a lovely man who cared deeply about other people. He was a lovely father and loved Dara, counted on Dara in so many ways, and she loved him unconditionally.

I think only he and Andy Kaufman had not a disregard for the audience, but a disregard for the laugh: I’m going to continue doing this, and I will disregard your reaction and keep going. Audience be damned, this is what I’m doing. He would do imitations of actors from the ’30s and ’40s and you didn’t know who they were, and he got a kick out of it. That fascinated me and scared me a little. That was part of his charm.

Probably his most famous appearances were in the face of tragedy. He was defiant to our feelings and said, “Let us go on. Let us laugh” — not at what happened, but because it’s the only way to protect ourselves. He would never say, “The only way to get around it is to laugh at it.” He would never say that because that shows a thinking, philosophical, caring morality. All he wants to do is get the laugh. There’s a difference. Get the laugh — that’s what’s important. That will pull us through.

I loved doing his podcast. His friendship with his co-host, Frank Santopadre, is really a charming relationship because they were the id and the ego. Frank is the academic who will parse a joke, and Gilbert was the wild child spouting the hilarity of Milton Berle’s cock or the thought of women defecating on stars like Jerry Lewis and Danny Thomas. That would make him laugh so hard, like a little child. So often, you’d want to say “Shut up, Gilbert. Let Frank continue with this great line of questioning,” and then you’d want to say, “Shut up, Frank. Let Gilbert go!”

He was very free with his laughter. There was a generosity about it. He enjoyed the humor of others. I don’t know that he loved making people laugh as much as he loved being funny. He thought he was funny and he shared it. I liked making him laugh. That he’s gone … I’m taking it hard, because the world should take it hard. He was the little kid who was a little bit of trouble and got put in the corner, but we laughed because we knew he wasn’t going to be that much trouble. He was beloved.

Laraine Newman

I can’t remember the first time I saw Gilbert, but I remember seeing him do a show called Set List, which was a completely improvised stand-up set with prompts on a screen that the comic had to create a bit from on the spot. I was nervous for him. Just because he’s a great stand-up didn’t necessarily mean he was a good improviser. Well, he absolutely killed. Then there’s my favorite joke of his: He’s having lunch with Charles Manson and Manson says, “Is it hot in here or am I crazy?”

I first met him on the set of Problem Child 2. I was struck by how soft-spoken he was. Naturally, I didn’t expect him to sound like his stand-up persona, just something in between. He was quite serious, too, but once we discovered we were both “horror kids,” we hit it off like a house on fire. We both did Bela Lugosi impressions and conducted conversations as Lugosi. I didn’t have any scenes in the movie with him, but those conversations in the makeup trailer were wonderful and hilarious and, now, more precious than ever. I’m so fucking sad about this.

Patton Oswalt

The truly edgy people are the people who don’t think that they’re edgy, who actually are like, “I don’t know why everyone’s not into this.” That’s what makes you truly unique and dangerous. It’s not “Ooh, look at the lines I’m crossing.” It’s “I don’t see a line. I think this is all great.” That’s why Gilbert was so startling. I don’t think he was defiantly going, “I’m going to do 9/11 jokes at the Hugh Hefner roast.” I think he just thought of those jokes naturally. Which, by the way, is what every comedian does whenever there’s a horrible tragedy — the first thing to go through our heads is, What are all the most inappropriate jokes? Whereas most of us are just happy to have those go by in our heads, he wants to say them out loud, but he’s not doing it out of any sense of defiance. He thinks that that’s all part of the fun, which made him more dangerous.

In all of the loudness, in all of the abrasiveness, there is a gentleness, and it totally matches up with how he was offstage. I know the basic cliché is “In real life, he was a very shy, gentle person,” but that kind of matched up with the loud, abrasive guy onstage, because that’s a form of shyness — to put up that level of a wall with the vocal volume and eyes closed and characterization, there’s still a gentleness and a playfulness to what he’s doing. He’s truly having fun.

It’s not that his humor was unique. It was his approach to the form that was unique. It was the fact that he wasn’t being needy and desperate and wanting to be loved at any cost. It was I’m enjoying myself first. And you either come along or you don’t. There’s something so freeing about that. That really puts the audience and the performer in such a pleasant position to actually have more fun.

A lot of my favorite things were just Gilbert telling old jokes onstage. The way he would tell them was so perfect. My favorite is, of course, “A guy finds a genie in a lamp, and the genie goes, ‘I’ll grant you one wish.’ The guy brings out this folded piece of paper, this old map, and says, ‘This is the Middle East. It’s nothing but bloodshed and hatred. If you could please bring peace to this area, it would mean so much to me.’ The genie is like, ‘Even with all my powers, I can’t do this. Ask me for anything else.’ The guy goes, ‘Well, you know, I’ve been married for 40 years. My wife has never given me a blowjob. Can you get her to give me a blowjob?’ And the genie goes, ‘Let me look at that map again.’” It’s a tribute to how amazing Gilbert is that I can’t encapsulate him in one bit. It was more the experience of him, where his best work was something not working and then him just drilling it into the fucking ground so it became amazing.

I always think it’s a disservice to a comedian like Gilbert or Norm or Bob Saget or Louie Anderson or anyone who passes away to go, “Well, there’ll never be another one like him.” They inspired people and they helped people. Obviously they’re dead and it sucks, but they are influences in the way that they pushed the art form forward. You can see a lot of Gilbert in the absurdity of stuff that Dana Gould does, and Tim and Eric, and Anthony Jeselnik. You see their inspiration, and that’s how they’re immortal.

Robert Wuhl

The first time I ever went onstage at the Comic Strip in New York, I was an auditioner and Gilbert was already a regular. Then, at the Improv, we would go on every night together. This was 1977. Gilbert was incredibly double-jointed, so much so that he would walk onstage without saying a word, take his left arm and put it over his head, and then wrap it completely around his body where he could actually almost put it in his right pocket. Then he would take his right arm, wrap it totally across his head, and put it almost in his left pocket, and he’d be flapping his hands. The audience would be hysterical. I remember being there with Robin Williams the first time he saw it. Gilbert had not said a word yet, and then he’d walk up to the mic and say, “Two Jews walk into a bar,” and the place would go crazy.

The act, by the way, was not always entirely in the Gilbert, as we now know it, “voice.” He would speak in a regular voice and then go into that voice for certain things. The first time I remember him doing that voice was when he would do a bit about his mother or every elderly woman at the beach. He’d be splashing stuff going, “This is nice, this is good, yes.” He was great with props, too. He would have two little round trays, and he’d put them over his head like Mickey Mouse and then he’d put them over his breasts like Dolly Parton. Robin, who was a star by this time, after Mork & Mindy, would go onstage with Gilbert at about two in the morning, and the two of them would just improvise and riff for about 20 minutes to a half an hour. And Gilbert would crack Robin up.

He loved dirty jokes, as I do, and he was a great joke teller. Like most great comics, there was an element of fearlessness. I remember one time he told the joke about how he got to meet Jackie Kennedy, and he said, “What am I gonna say to her?” So he walked up to her and said, “Do you remember where you were on … ? You know, when … ?” He never analyzed jokes. It was just, “This is funny.” That was it.

And then there’s the other side of Gilbert — I don’t know what his background was that he was that frugal, but he was notorious for taking every Sweet’N Low and every shower soap. There’s an old joke that if he had to pay to take a shit, he’d vomit. Maybe it’s because we came from a generation where our parents were from the Depression. Gilbert took it to an extreme.

He was also very gentle offstage, not unlike Robin. Robin, contrary to popular belief, was not “on” all the time. He could turn it on in a flash, and Gilbert was like that too. I don’t remember anyone who disliked him. He was a great laugher. A lot of comics aren’t, but he was. He was not a negative person in any way, shape, or form. He was a great spirit. He was so unique. That’s the word for Gilbert: unique.

Alan Zweibel

There are certain people, you watch them and you go, Oh God, I could have thought of that. Shit, why didn’t I do that? And there are certain people who are just on a different plane than everybody else and you go, If I lived to be 1,000, there’s no way I could think of that. He would say, “Okay, if Jackie Gleason was cast as Atticus Finch in …” and then he would impersonate Ralph Kramden delivering the closing argument in To Kill a Mockingbird. That was Gilbert. And I’d just sit back and enjoy the hell out of it.

I loved making him laugh, and I loved the way he made me laugh. What I witnessed in real life is how big his heart was, how vulnerable he was. He was very funny but more soft-spoken than the guy you saw onstage or heard on Howard Stern. He walked around and he looked almost apologetic, then you placed his body onstage and all of a sudden thought, Whoa, where did this come from?

He was a good father, a terrific husband. You saw that in the documentary Gilbert. It was the comic as a traveling salesman, pulling his suitcase behind him and getting on a bus, like Willy Loman. And it was legendary how cheap he was. He used to take every single thing off of the cart in a hotel that the housekeepers would leave in the hallway. Under his bed, he kept boxes and boxes and boxes of little shampoos, Listerines, soaps. But his heart was really generous.

I enjoyed every minute of knowing him, and that’s the God’s honest truth. I was on his podcast four or five times and looked forward to it every single time. I loved the way his mind would wander. You would be talking about your wife and kids and, for some reason, he’d go, “Well, that reminds me about Milton Berle’s dick.” He would make that leap and you’d go, “How did that remind you of Milton Berle’s dick?” It was like a third person on the show.

He had a sixth sense of what was funny. It was visceral. It wasn’t cerebral, but it was smart. And he was fearless. He didn’t care who the audience was. It could be old men and women, and if he felt like saying some disgusting joke, he did. Whereas the same lines out of somebody else’s mouth might have been taken as offensive or over the line, we knew he was being over the line and we knew that he knew, so we were all in on the joke. We expected it and we accepted it. I’d look across the table at his wife, Dara, and she would shrug like, What are you going to do? He’s adorable.

There’s not another Gilbert who’s warming up in the bullpen to take his place. He was such an original that I don’t know how you replace that voice, that look, that demeanor. He was a small guy. But when he was onstage, he was like anything he wanted to be but couldn’t be. He was a giant. You just sat back and said, “Look at what this guy just did.” There was something about him … It wasn’t formulaic. He was his own formula.

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Gilbert Gottfried, Remembered by Those Who Knew Him