An Awkward Conversation With Comedic Genius Gilbert Gottfried
Courtesy of Ticketmaster
It’s early on the West Coast for a phone interview with Gilbert Gottfried, who is three hours ahead in New York City but sounds like the one who just rolled out of bed. Soft spoken, the veteran standup, actor (voice and otherwise) and popular podcast host sounds nothing like the quick, screechy and guffawing funnyman from several movies, television shows and especially, one of this writer’s colossal obsessions, Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast.
I mention the Weekly was planning to do a cover story tied to a 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival screening of the new documentary about him, Gilbert—only to have that piece shitcanned because Neil Berkeley pulled his film from consideration at the last minute (presumably in favor of the Spotlight Documentary slot during the concurrent Tribeca Film Festival in New York). Gottfried replied by saying Gilbert premiered the week before our talk and then … silence. Long, long, uncomfortable silence.
Let this be a lesson, young journalists: have a few questions jotted down for such moments. I went into the interview expecting the freewheeling foul mouth from celebrity roasts, old Howard Stern appearances and especially the many moments in his podcasts when his co-host Frank Santopadre sets up nearly forgotten movie and TV stars being interviewed with totally respectful topics, only to have Gottfried torpedo them by seeking confirmation of raunchy rumors he heard from back in the day.
With no follow-up question in the chamber, I fumbled with, “Uh … what can audiences expect at your upcoming Brea Improv shows?”
“Um, they can expect to sit there about five minutes and turn to each other and ask, ‘Whose idea was it to see Gilbert Gottfried?’ and then angrily leave,” he answers.
I held out hope that would produce the long, uncontrollable laughter at his own jokes that routinely overtake him during his podcasts, especially when he repeats the tall tales about Milton Berle, Forrest Tucker and a biggest dick contest, and Cesar Romero, a stable of young studs and citrus orange (or tangerine) slices flung at the bare ass of TV’s Joker. Such an outburst would have given me time to get the interview back on track but instead … more silence.
Another stab is taken at what Brea audiences can expect.
“My act? Oh, God. I don’t really know when people decide to start thinking about their act. That’s the worst thing, thinking about my act. Sometimes on stage I’ll think, ‘Wow, that really sucked.’ And sometimes something lucky will happen. I did a show a couple months back when I accidentally knocked into a water bottle on a stool and it fell and landed standing up on the floor. I remember I saw that and I couldn’t go back [to the bit he was doing]. It seemed like a message from God.”
He does report encountering more podcast fans at standup shows. “More and more people are coming up to me afterward telling me that they are fans of the podcast, and more than one has Cesar Romero as the Joker dolls.”
Wired, Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times and The Onion’s A.V. Club have hailed Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, which I tell the host sounds like the aural version of books my mother had volumes of in the 1970s titled Whatever Became Of …? Gottfried knew of the series that caught readers up on the whereabouts (from old age homes to urns) of silent film stars and other faded celebrities.
“It was kind of like growing up with shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island and seeing these actors and actresses you swore were dead,” he said. Gottfried then related something that routinely happens to him and Santopadre, a longtime writer for television and magazines ranging from Mad to Vanity Fair. “Whenever we look at the obit of some old actor, we say to ourselves, ‘Oh, God, we didn’t even call that guy.’”
Gottfried took pride in his podcasts exposing young listeners to faded comics, actors and musicians who prove through their candid conversations, “This guy was good then, he’s good now.” Sometimes, the performer sitting across from Gottfried in the Nutmeg Post studio in NYC appears as if “he’s going to die any second, then you put a mike in front of them and point the camera on them and they light up.”
He and Santopadre, who does the heavy lifting when it comes to guest research, often receive praise from their interviewees. “Oh, a lot of them have gotten in touch afterward to thank us and say they never got that much publicity before,” Gottfried says. “And that’s always nice to hear.”
More silence. It had been going so well, no?
“So what do you think of Trump so far?” Gottfried is asked.
“Oh God, my former boss. I don’t know. I like Trump. He’s kind of like Hitler without the warmth. … People see on TV him firing me [on The Celebrity Apprentice in 2014] and think he’s this whole persona. They don’t see afterward when I went into his office and we cuddled for an hour.”
Perhaps channeling what had happened throughout our interview, I asked if he ever thinks of something he should have asked a podcast guest after the fact.
“That’s my entire life,” Gottfried replies. “Every conversation I have, every situation I am in, a minute later I ask myself, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’”
“Why didn’t I ask this?” is what I asked myself after I hung up and then heard the Amazing Colossal Podcast that went up on May 1, when Gottfried and guest Steven Wright—another veteran actor (voice and otherwise) and comic (who is also known for short stream of consciousness bits)—talked at length about how they do what they do on stage. Wright, in his low monotone, asked Gottfried what I wished I had: “How did you get into doing standup?”
“OK, I was, you now, a kid who watched way too much TV, wasn’t good at sports, wasn’t that popular,” Gottfried answered, “and I started imitating people I saw on TV like actors and comedians and stuff, and joking around …”
“Imitating to your friends,” Wright interjected, “or just for your own self?”
“Yeah, just to my friends and my sisters and stuff, and then one of my sisters told me that one of her friends said there was some club in Manhattan, and you just came in and wrote your name down and when they got to you they said your name and you went up and did a few minutes. And I did that; I traveled from Brooklyn, with my sisters, to Manhattan and I did that and I remember I was mainly like an impressionist like Rich Little or Frank Gorshin.”
His impressions included Bela Lugosi, Jackie Gleason and the elderly Grouch Marx.
“Even back then,” Gottfried says, “it was dated.”
Some thought Gottfried reached his expiration date after the insurance company Aflac fired him as the voice of their TV commercial duck in March 2011 because of a series of tweets he posted about Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. He later apologized and the tweets—which included, “I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, ‘They’ll be another one floating by any minute now’”—were removed.
“When that was going on,” he tells me, “I thought, ‘Oh, it’s over.’ It’s like that old showbiz saying: ‘As long as they’re talking about you …’ It really is keeping your career going when all these people are writing and talking about Gilbert Gottfried’s career being over. When your career really is over, no one mentions your name anymore.”
With his standup, the podcast and Gilbert documentary, Gottfried is being mentioned more now than ever. “It’s peculiar. It’s like sometimes I look at my schedule and say, ‘I’m too busy, I have too many other jobs coming up.’ You have to remind yourself that your big complaint is you’re being employed.”
GILBERT GOTTFRIED AT BREA IMPROV, 120 S. BREA BLVD., BREA, (714) 482-0700; BREA.IMPROV.COM. [MAY 19-21] FRI., 7:30 AND 9:45 P.M.; SAT., 7 AND 9:15 P.M.; SUN., 7 P.M. $22.
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