Q&A with Gilbert Gottfried: Comedian will perform in Tacoma

Staff writerJanuary 23, 2014 

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried will appear Jan. 23-25 at Tacoma Comedy Club.

ARLENE GOTTFRIED

There's no mistaking the gravelly voice of Gilbert Gottfried. In one-on-one conversation, it's not as animated as his stage persona's – unless you get him going.

Gottfried’s created a long list of memorable characters in several Hollywood movies, including "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane," "Problem Child 1 and 2" and "House Party 3." A long stand-up career, voice work, and numerous TV appearances, including one season as a cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” have made his voice and frenetic delivery a part of the comedic landscape.

Gottfried will be performing Thursday through Saturday at the Tacoma Comedy Club.

The comic’s career has careened from Iago, the parrot in the Disney cartoon movie "Aladdin," to the profanity-filled stand-up movie, “The Aristocrats.”

Gottfried admits he often speaks without considering the consequences. That’s gotten him into trouble a few times, most noticeably when he lost his job as the voice of the Aflac duck. The insurance company fired Gottfried when he made jokes after the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

The News Tribune talked to Gottfried at his New York City home via phone.

Q: You started performing at age 15?

A: It was one night at this club, The Bitter End, in the Village. It was non-paying. They called it Hootenanny Night and it was mainly folk singers. There I was – a 15-year-old and they let me go on stage.

Q: What drove you to do that?

A: Nothing drove me. I took the subway.

Q: (Laughter)

A: Sometimes the joke – no matter how bad – if it’s delivered to you on a platter like that – you just have to take it.

Q: I like it. But then I’m easy.

A: So I’ll probably get a venereal disease just talking to you.

Q: How long did it take you to develop the style we know today?

A: It’s a weird thing. Any person in the world talks a certain way or holds their coffee cup a certain way. It’d be like if you said to them, ‘So, when did you decide to eat your toast that way?’ That’s kind of the way I feel with my delivery. I’ve just been doing this so long. There was never a conscious decision: ‘I’ll talk this way or that way.’ It just kind of came up.

Q: The 1980 season of ‘Saturday Night Live” that you were in was reportedly beset with backstage problems. If things had gone smoother, do you think you would have lasted more than one season?

A: It was a bad time to be on that show. The original cast and producer (Lorne Michaels) were leaving and it was announced it would continue with a new cast. So, when we came on and it was announced there would be a new cast and crew, it was like if at the height of Beatlemania you said, ‘We’re going to continue the Beatles but instead of John, Paul, George and Ringo, we’ll have four other guys.’ You don’t want to be the replacement. You want to be the replacement of the replacement. Now, the ‘Saturday Night Live’ cast seems to change in between commercial breaks.

Q: How important is improv in your comedy and acting?

A: It depends on the night. Some nights I’ll improvise more than others. When something hits me, I go with it. Sometimes when I’m on the ‘Howard Stern Show’ and get into a rant of some kind, that always ends up being more rewarding to me.

Q: Because you’re creating on the spot?

A: Yes. Much like I’ve heard with these (stage) actors that go on every night and do a highly dramatically charged performance or singers who are singing their guts out and then you find out they are thinking about what they want to have for lunch later on and how come they can’t find their red sock. I find that with some bits I do. When I’m doing them, I’m thinking ‘Gee, what is the face on the dime?’

Q: You are a fan of classic movies. I understand you do a one-word impression of Humphrey Bogart.

A: I don’t know that it would work in print. But I say 'schtamps.' It’s Humphrey Bogart at the post office.

Q: You played the parrot in the cartoon movie “Aladdin.” You also tell some really raunchy jokes. How do you reconcile two really different comedy styles?

A: My career walks the tightrope between early morning children’s programming and hardcore porn. I’ve been in ‘Aladdin’ and daytime cartoon shows and kids show and also in ‘The Aristocrats.’ Q: Is there any connection?

A: At one of the screenings for (dirty joke-filled) ‘The Aristocrats,’ one woman got up angrily and said, ‘This is not the (Disney cartoon) “The Aristocats.”’ This was after an hour of sitting there and I thought, ‘At what point did she start getting a little suspicious that this was not a complete Disney production?’

Q: Some amateur comics don’t understand the difference between true guffaws and nervous laughter from uncomfortable audiences. How do you wring humor from a joke without being too disgusting?

A: I never really give it complete thought. I get really disgusting at times and have bad taste. But I’ll listen to other comics at times and go, ‘Oooo. I don’t want to hear that. That’s just a little bit disgusting.’ That’s another tightrope.

Q: Your video reading of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is the only way I’d read or listen to that book. It’s gotten 4.2 million views on YouTube. Has anyone approached you to do the full length version?

A: If they had any brains they would. You realize it’s the way it should be read. You realize how ridiculous the book truly is when you hear me read it. Most people, when they hear me read the book, are very turned on by it.

Q: Where do you go that other comics don’t go?

A: I certainly don’t watch what I say. I don’t censor myself. Maybe I’d hold on to more jobs if I did. It’s too late now. I kind of feel like with my career they hand me a contract: ‘You start on this date and we fire you on this date. If you could just initial it. ...’

Q: But we’ve all heard the formula: Tragedy plus time equals comedy.

A: To me, when they say that, I feel: why wait? My biggest crime is being impatient. I got in loads of trouble with the tsunami jokes I did. And then a year later, you’d see it pop up on TV shows and comedians and TV weathermen using the tsunami as a source of material. And to me that’s more offensive – if you wait and think that’s okay. ‘Well, I waited a year and now screw those people who died.’

Q: Is it like that Oakland TV station that got punk’d over the names of the pilots in last year’s San Francisco plane crash? They weren’t trying to be funny. They were just tricked. After the outrage was over, Stephen Colbert came up with his own set of ‘funny’ Korean names.

A: That’s the way the media works. I’ve experienced that personally a bunch of times. I’ll say something that people will be shocked by or angered by and then repeat it. ‘It’s okay because we’re reporting on this.’ You’ll see TV stations: ‘Shocking child pornography ... coming up next! But we’re acting very angered by it so it’s okay.’

Q: You appeared on ‘Law & Order: SVU’ as a computer geek. That’s quite a departure for you.

A: I was just in two episodes. On the first episode, like I always do, I started ignoring the script. I sat down at the computer while the cameras are rolling and I’m doing lots of improvising and schtick and the crew’s laughing and then the director yells ‘cut’ and he comes over and he goes, ‘Can you pull it back just a bit? Because this episode is about finding the body of a dead little boy.’

Q: Did they know who they had hired?

A: For the second episode, there was this pretty actress there, not a regular cast member. I said to her, ‘Are you a dead body this week?’ She says to me with a big smile on her face, ‘No, I’m raped. But I live.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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