ARCHIVES: Comedian Gilbert Gottfried returns to Poconos, sneaks into show business
“Whenever I go to a club or casino to perform at, I’m one of those people like in those movies where the lead character is suffering from amnesia and he’ll go someplace and he’ll pick up an ashtray and all of a sudden he’ll go, ‘Oh, there’s something about this ashtray.’ So there are clubs that I swear I’ve never been to and cities that I swear I’ve never been to, and then I get there and I go to the club and I see I’ve signed the wall, so I figure, ‘Oh, OK, that proves I was here,’” the comedian told NEPA Scene in a phone interview.
Local audiences remember his past performances well, however, as he’s back by popular demand this Saturday, Jan. 18 at 8 p.m. Known for his dirty jokes, numerous television appearances, and voice acting, Gottfried got his start in comedy at a young age, imitating people he watched on TV. His sister told him that a friend mentioned an open mic night at a Manhattan club and, despite being underage, he was able to get in and give it a shot.
“One day I’ll have to go back to that club and have them closed down for allowing a 15-year-old to be in a place that serves alcohol,” he joked. “But I kept doing it and then I guess I don’t know if I did well or if I was too stupid to know I did badly.”
Stupidity, he believes, has played a big role in his career since.
“I always say I think I was too stupid to do anything else, and the other part is what I always found attractive about show business is that if you work in a grocery store and you don’t know how to tie your shoes, you’re an idiot. But if you’re Johnny Depp and you don’t know how to tie your shoes, you’re like an eccentric artist and it’s part of his great mystique,” he explained.
“I forged ahead and I guess I had my totally unrealistic attitude back then that helped me out because now sometimes I’ll think in terms of logic and someone will tell me, ‘Oh, I’m a struggling comic,’ and I’ll think, ‘What are you, nuts? The odds are against you. What makes you think you’ll make it?’ But somehow back then it didn’t go through my head.”
The 58-year-old Brooklyn native made a name for himself with his iconic voice and delivery, though he emphasized that its development was unintentional.
“To me, it’s kind of like anybody in the street, if you were to say to them, ‘Hey, you have a certain way you walk and a certain way you pronounce things. Where did that come from?’ No one would know. That’s the way I feel. I never made a conscious effort to say, ‘Well, I’m going to talk like this and I’m going to do this type of material,’” he pointed out.
“Someone gets like three jokes together and they’ve filmed themselves and put it on the Internet before they’ve had a chance to really find out what’s funny and what’s not funny,” he said.
“I don’t quite understand any of it. It’s a weird thing. I feel like just when I had a vague understanding of what show business was, all of a sudden it seems to have totally changed. And now, too, everyone now is a critic. It’s kind of like when Frank Sinatra would be performing, there weren’t a million people with the Internet going, ‘Hey, Sinatra, you suck!’
“It definitely changes the relationship [with the audience]. Years ago, people who were famous were gods that you couldn’t touch. Now that’s totally changed, so like anything, sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes I don’t.”
Fans are much more used to interacting with their favorite celebrities now than they ever were before, though it’s something Gottfried will never get used to himself.
“When I meet people, it’s usually a bad thing, I find, because it’s not that they’re doing anything wrong, but I feel like if it’s uncomfortable for any situation for any reason at all, then I can’t watch that person ever again. It’s just like when people come up to me on the street and they want to talk and we don’t know each other, so they’ll ask questions and then they’ll sometimes repeat themselves and sometimes say something completely nonsensical, and I find I’ll do that if I meet a big star that I don’t know,” he related.
“I was on ‘The Tonight Show’ and someone says, ‘Hey, Gilbert,’ and I turn around and it’s Harrison Ford, which is as big a star as you could possibly imagine. He told me he was a fan and he particularly enjoyed me in ‘The Aristocrats,’ and it was all so flattering. And me, rather than just going, ‘Oh, thank you very much. I’m a big fan of yours too,’ and shake his hand and be on my way, I figured I’m going to be funny – always a mistake, because when I’m trying to be funny in situations outside of clubs and whatnot, sometimes I feel like I’m a guy doing a bad Gilbert Gottfried imitation. So I shook Harrison Ford’s hand and I said, ‘Oh, thank you. And your name is…?’ And he said, ‘Harrison Ford,’ and I’m not sure if he knew I was joking or thought I was being an idiot. In either case, I was being an idiot, but now whenever a Harrison Ford movie comes on TV, I can’t watch it.”
When he’s on stage, however, the “comedian’s comedian” gets laughs in ways few other funnymen can, making crass and oftentimes offensive jokes that have been known to stir up controversy. He feels that “people pick and choose what they get offended by,” but he acknowledged that he does the very same thing.
“I had done a joke about September 11th a few days after it happened and the audience was booing and hissing and yelling stuff out, and then I go into ‘The Aristocrats,’ which is [about] incest and bestiality, and they’re cheering. They’re like standing up and applauding and howling, so people pick and choose,” he said.
“For me, I remember when all the news stories were coming out about Mel Gibson. They said he was drunk driving and then this female police officer came up to him, and first he made an anti-Semitic remark, and then he made a bunch of really sexist remarks, and then it came out that he punched his wife while she was holding their kid, and then he made some racist comments and he threatened to kill his wife and throw her in the rose garden. And after I had heard all those things, the only thing that registered was, ‘Hey, wait a second, what did he say about the Jews?’”
From “The Aristocrats” and “Saturday Night Live” to Iago the parrot in Disney’s “Aladdin” and the Aflac duck, Gottfried’s career has walked “the tightrope in between early morning children’s programming and hardcore porn,” even taking a slightly more dramatic turn on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” though he can’t stay serious for very long, recalling his first day of shooting for the long-running cop series.
“I started ignoring the script and improvising and joking and playing around with it and making the camera men and crew guys laugh, and then the director yelled, ‘Cut!’ and he comes over to me and he says, ‘Could you tone it down just a little bit because this scene is about a dead little boy?’” he said.
“Maybe next time I’ll actually read the script first, because I’m one of those actors who my method of acting is, ‘Will the other person please shut up so I can say my line?’”
His outrageous personality, coupled with his bold sense of humor, has made him a recognizable pop culture staple in the public eye, but secretly, Gottfried still feels like that 15-year-old kid who slipped into a Manhattan club to tell a few jokes.
“My goal is to just go as long as I can without being found out because sometimes I feel like when I’m in show business, it’s like I’ve snuck into a party and I’m always under the fear someone’s going to walk over to me and go, ‘Uh, excuse me. May I see your invitation please?’
“I’m just seeing how long I can stay at the party without them finding out I wasn’t invited.”
Location: Mount Airy Casino Resort (312 Woodland Rd., Mt. Pocono)
Date: Saturday, Jan. 18
Time: 8 p.m.