With Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve upon us, you’re no doubt feeling festive and lovely and wishing to spread goodwill to all men. Then again, you might be feeling misanthropic, half-crazed and downright Grinch-y, in which case, we recommend going to see the delightfully offensive Gilbert Gottfried this weekend.
What kind of stuff are you talking about on this tour?
Oh God. I wish you didn’t ask me that. Whenever I say my stuff out loud, I think, “Oh God, none of this is funny.”
Good to know! How did your movie trivia-obsessed podcast, Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, come about?
I always had this freakish fascination with Hollywood, old movies and old TV shows. I remember when I was in first grade, the teacher said, “I’m gonna say two letters, and you name whatever famous person has these initials.” Then she’d say, like, “GW,” and someone would yell “George Washington,” or “BH” and someone would yell “Bob Hope.” And then she said “OS” and me, a little kid, I yelled out “Onslow Stevens.” He was this old character actor, his own grandkids didn’t know who he was, and I knew!
You’ve had some amazing guests on the show; Roger Corman, Paul Schaeffer, Billy West…was there a standout guest for you?
Oh, there’s so many. It’s fun because sometime it’ll be more quiet and informative and other times it’s just crazy, like ones with Bob Saget and Weird Al Yankovic. What I like about it is that I’ll get a lot of tweets where people go, “I had no idea who the hell you were talking to, but I really enjoyed it, and I didn’t know the names they were mentioning, so I looked them all up.” So it’s kind of like a fun homework assignment.
Maybe don’t use that as your sales pitch.
Oh yeah! [laughs]
You’ve been doing comedy for 40 years at this point. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about being funny?
Wow. Just to be funny! [laughs] Every minute I’m in this business, I think I’ve kind of gotten away with it another minute. Like it’s this party that I snuck into, and I’m scared that any minute, someone’s gonna come over to me and go, “Uh ok, we looked at the guest list and your name’s not here.”
You’re a very sought after roast comic—is that something you particularly enjoy?
Oh yes. It’s a totally acceptable way of tearing another human being apart. I kind of feel like if it was legal to be handed a baseball bat and be told you could beat this other person to a pulp, a lot of people would sign up. I know I would!
At the roast for Joan Rivers, your thank you to Kathy Griffin just involved you repeatedly calling her Swamp Thing. It killed, but it seemed like the kind of thing that could have fallen so flat in the hands of another comic—is there an indicator for you as to whether a joke is going to land?
See, that’s the thing, the tightrope act of it. You don’t know anything, as a comedian, until you’re actually on the stage with it. You have no way of predicting an audience.
Did you have mixed feelings about that one before you did it?
No—I mean, I wonder about stuff, but I’m always happy to insult another human being.
Oh wow, that’s one of those ones where my mind goes totally blank. I do remember one time I was at the roast of David Hasselhoff, and the producer came backstage to me and said, “Pam Anderson just agreed to come on the roast at the last second, she really didn’t want to do a roast, so just go a little easy on her.” That’s the worst thing you could have said to me! The minute I heard that, I was just doing jokes about Pam Anderson’s vagina [laughs]. The funny thing is, at the end of the roast, where everybody hugs, Pam Anderson hugged me and whispered, “I hate you.” So I felt I succeeded.
You have one of the most distinctive voices in comedy. Where did it come from?
I never actually sat down and said, “I’m gonna talk this way.” To me it’s kind of like if you see anybody walking down the street or sipping their cup of coffee and you ask them, how did you develop that walk? How did you develop that way of holding a coffee cup? There’s no thought to it, just over years, that’s what you are.
Did it get louder over time?
Oh yeah. In real life I sound like Bing Crosby!
Do people get confused when they see you in public, but then hear your real voice?
Yeah, it’s a funny thing because people will act strange if I don’t act the way they want me to act in person. But even though I think they’re crazy for thinking that way, I’m basically the same as those people. It’s like, I’ve never met Julia Roberts, but if I met her and she didn’t open her mouth really wide and start cackling and waving her hair around, I would think, “Why is she acting so different now?”
I saw you perform at George Carlin’s memorial show this year, which we declared to be one of the best comedy shows of 2014. You had quite a set.
Oh yes! I basically did the whole set talking about how I’m glad George Carlin is dead and I hope he suffered a lot toward the end. I was curious at the time how much of that set was planned? I got the impression that you were winging it, based on the crowd reaction to the first couple of jokes.
That one, I’m happy to say, nothing was planned. It was one of those great moments where whatever went into my head I just started saying. The great part about it is that I’ve gotten tweets from people who heard it, saying it was offensive and wrong, but George’s daughter Kelly and his brother Patrick both came up to me afterward and said that was exactly what George would have wanted. One of my favorite quotes of George Carlin was, “It’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and then deliberately step over it.”
You’ve seen your fair share of controversy in your career. Is there such a thing as “too far” for you?
I mean, obviously not, by the amount of jobs I’ve lost over the years. But I always thought, where is there an office and a guy sitting behind the desk who marks off on a calendar when it’s the appropriate time to say a bad-taste joke? A year after the tsunami happened, I started seeing it pop up on TV shows, and even funny weathermen saying, like, “We had a regular tsunami today!” I thought, oh, so after a year, a joke is a joke and no longer a crime against humanity. I feel like the way I do it, by out-and-out doing a bad taste joke when it happens, people are laughing because they’re shocked and they know how awful taste it is. When you wait and do a joke about the Titanic, then what you’re saying is, “I’ve waited, most of those people and their grandkids are dead, and I don’t care about them; their death doesn’t matter, because I waited.” That’s being “good taste.”
Is there anything that actually offends you?
Um, oh gee, I dunno. Talking to you? [laughs]
So just weak, poorly planned interviews?
Get more of Gilbert on gilbertgottfried.com
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Gottfried’s self-deprecating, caustic stand-up is as subversive as it was during his ’80s heyday. Take, for instance, his now-infamous post-9/11 revival of the Aristocrats joke at Hugh Hefner’s roast, or the tweets regarding Japan for which he was canned as the voice of the Aflac duck.