What's eating Gilbert Gottfried?

Despite releasing his first comedy recording, the squawk-talker is still depressed

"The only reason America is standing now is because I told that joke at the Hugh Hefner roast!"

"The only reason America is standing now is because I told that joke at the Hugh Hefner roast!"

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried was known mostly for his ranting and squinting until September 29, 2001, when, in the wake of the WTC attacks, he mounted the dais for the Friar's Club roast of Hugh Hefner. "I started out by saying, 'I have to fly to L.A. tonight, but I can't get a direct flight: They have to make a stop at the Empire State Building,'" he recalls. "Then I felt the audience jump back." At that point, Gottfried decided to launch into a ten-minute version of the world's dirtiest joke, known in comedy circles as the Aristocrats. The audience went wild, and that moment became the centerpiece for Penn Gillette and Paul Provenza's docu-comedy of the same name. Now, just to show that that fusillade of filth was no accident, Gottfried, 50, has released Dirty Jokes, his first-ever CD/DVD. The comic insisted on coming personally to TONY's offices, where we found him to be nothing like his act. "I'm more like Perry Como in real life," he allows, although his demeanor is so placid, it makes Como seem like a hyperventilating kvetch.

Time Out New York: You're known as a comedian's comedian. What does that mean?
Gilbert Gottfried: That the audience doesn't find me funny. But someone has to, so it's, like, either the other comedians or the band. It all began when I first started out in the clubs. They'd put me on at three in the morning, when the audience would be completely drunk, so I'd do anything that popped into my head. The comics all used to come to see what I'd  do next.

TONY: You started doing open mikes when you were 15. How do you get into clubs at that age?
GG: If I'd have thought about it then, I would've sued them for letting me in, and just made a living that way. But yeah—I would get in. When I started, I did mainly impressions...

TONY: Of who?
GG: Oh jeez, James Mason and Peter Lorre. Back when Jerry Seinfeld was just another comedian hanging around the clubs, I'd imitate him to amuse myself and the other comics. The club owners would say, "What are you doing that for? Nobody knows him." And Seinfeld would be at the bar going, [Perfectlyimitates Jerry Seinfeld] "That sounds nothing like me!"

TONY: You're so different from your onstage persona. Do you put yourself into some kind of trance before going onstage?
GG: There's no thought to what I do. [Laughs] I just came from ESPN this morning, and I sat in the green room feeling depressed, until it was time to go on. Then, it just happens.

TONY: Do you often feel depressed before you go on?
GG: Oh, before, during, after...

TONY: Maybe that's why you waited so long to make a comedy album.
GG: Yeah. And the thing is, it's not even my usual act. At every single club I've ever worked, the opening act—some local guy—would have, like, this wad of bills, you know, from selling their CDs. But I'm always backwards on everything, years late.

TONY: You're not usually known as a dirty comic.
GG: I've gotten in trouble for doing dirty stuff. When I was on the Emmys right after Pee-wee Herman was arrested for masturbation, I said, "If masturbation's a crime, I'd be on death row." The audience liked it, but they totally cut it for the West Coast. The producers were making apologies, saying they'd never have me back again. The media reported it as "And the audience sat there in shock." Well, no, the audience was laughing. And the funny thing is, more people saw it because every news show covered it.

TONY: But otherwise, you don't work blue...
GG: Not at all. As a matter of fact, after that happened I did an HBO special, and one reviewer noted that when I was on network television I was really dirty, but on HBO, with no holds barred, I worked totally clean.

TONY: So why do an album of traditional dirty jokes?
GG: I guess the timing was right, after The Aristocrats.

TONY: The critics called your performance in The Aristocrats a healing moment after September 11. Do you think you healed America?
GG: [Laughs] The only reason America is standing now is because I told that joke at the Hugh Hefner roast! The whole world would have been overrun by crazed Muslims, if not for that joke.

TONY: Did they consider canceling the roast, because it was so soon after September 11?
GG: I think they'd already rented the room and didn't want to lose their money. [Laughs.] But yeah, they considered canceling. It was this weird period when people were saying, "Nobody can laugh again." The Emmys were coming up, and they were considering canceling them, too. But then they said, "We'll do the show, but people are dressing down. There aren't going to be any big Cher moments with feathers." So people who lost their loved ones in the World Trade Center could feel better knowing Pam Anderson would only be wearing a turtleneck.

TONY: Any movie projects coming up? Police Academy 25?
GG: Not even that big. No. I'm just hoping to be in business long enough to become a washed-up alcoholic so that when they bring back Murder, She Wrote I can do a guest appearance.

Dirty Jokes CD/DVD is out now (Image Entertainment; $15). Gottfried plays Carolines December 22--24. See Comedy listings.