Q&A: Gilbert Gottfried on political correctness, horror movies, Snoop Dogg, voice acting, fatherhood, and more
Longtime comedian/actor will perform stand-up at the Radisson in Scranton tonight
Gilbert Gottfried is as famous for his voice as he is for what he says, and both are boisterous and funny as hell.
In our interview with the Brooklyn-born comedian and actor, however, he’s also honest, insightful, and fascinating as both a world-famous performer and everyday guy, a father who loves collecting horror movie memorabilia and obsessing over trivia while totally forgetting all of the amazing places he has been throughout his storied career.
NEPA Scene called him at his New York apartment to chat about how he went from open mic nights to hit movies and television shows, his opinions on political correctness in the Digital Age, voicing cartoon characters in films with Robin Williams to Sylvester Stallone without meeting them, hosting his own podcast and interviewing those who have influenced his life, recently starring alongside everyone from Snoop Dogg and Charlie Sheen and never being offered any drugs, and the one show he wants to see return to TV just so he can appear on it before he dies.
He’ll be performing stand-up with local comedians Kevin Lepka, Alan Dudeck, Delmer Von W, Sergio Marzitelli, John Walton, and Half & Half at the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel in downtown Scranton tonight, March 6, and while he may not remember it in the morning, it will be difficult for anyone else, including us, to forget interacting with the one and only Gilbert.
NEPA SCENE: We host open mic events every week, and at first, we expected all these musicians to come out, but it has mostly been comedians looking for a place to hone their material. How important were open mics to you in the early days of your career?
GILBERT GOTTFRIED: The first time I got up on a stage, I was like 15. For years, I was doing it all the time. If you didn’t get on one, you rushed to one across town to see if you could get on at that one. I remember it, too. It’s like after a while, I was kind of addicted to it. I had to go there. I would go there and there’d be like major snowstorms and stuff and I’d be marching through it. Then even after I was on TV shows that had failed or whatever, I’d be back to the clubs doing it every night again.
NS: Did that immediate reaction from audiences help you figure out what works and what doesn’t?
GG: Oh yeah. It’s so funny when I’ll have people come up to me and they’ll say, “I’m a young comic. Can you give me some advice?” and the only advice I ever have, which sounds so dumb, is basically the truth, and that’s go there, get on stage as much as you can, and then you just see what works and what doesn’t work.
NS: How did you develop or find your voice and persona as a comedian? Was that a lot of trial and error?
GG: Yeah. The funny part about it is whenever people ask me that, I always think that there was never any rhyme or reason to any of it. I never consciously gave any of it any real thought, and then over the years, I would go, “Oh, OK, I seem to be delivering stuff this way and doing this type of material,” but it’s like I never actually sat down and gave it a conscious thought.
GG: Like I always said, I think I was just too stupid to do anything else. What always got me about performers is the double personality. There’s one part of you that says, “I’m so great; everybody’s going to be paying money to come see me,” and the other part of you that’s saying, “Oh, please love me!” It becomes a weird split personality thing. What I always liked about performing the most was I always noticed that if in real life, if you don’t know how to tie your shoes, you’re an idiot, but if you’re like Johnny Depp and they say you don’t know how to tie your shoes, then everyone says, “Oh my God, what a creative artist. He’s so eccentric!”
NS: It’s all in the presentation, really!
GG: Oh yeah!
NS: What is your favorite kind of joke to craft or to tell? Do you like telling stories and building them up or telling a quick joke and going straight to the punchline?
GG: It kind of goes both ways. I kind of like both of them. There’re some parts of me where I’ll have long, drawn-out bits, and other parts where it’s just like a really quick punchline one.
NS: You hear a lot of differing opinions on this, so we’d love to hear your take. Some people believe that you can get away with saying so much more in public and the media now than you ever could years ago, and others think that everything is too politically correct nowadays and you have to watch every little thing you say for fear of offending every little group. What has been your experience, and has that experience changed over time?
GG: Well, I found out that Twitter is a very expensive hobby to have. It is a craziness with the Internet. Anything anyone says or does, it could just be at a club and someone’s recording, it could be out in the street, and everything winds up on the Internet. It’s like it’s expected that everyone has to answer to everything and everyone has to apologize. I wrote an article, it’s on playboy.com, called “The Apology Epidemic,” and it is. I feel like every joke now should come with a set of instructions that say, “If you like the joke, laugh. If you don’t like it, don’t laugh.”
NS: With so much content being digital now, has that made your job easier or more difficult as a comedian?
GG: One thing that’s gotten harder is that it used to be that you could go into the clubs and try out stuff and you could bomb and that was perfectly OK; that’s was all part of it. Now, you go on, you bomb or your stuff is just not ready, and it gets recorded and it’s all over the place. Another reason I’m happy that it wasn’t around when I first started is I see how people sometimes record themselves, like in their living rooms or at an open mic night, and they put it up there and I always think, “Oh my God, I would hate for stuff that I did years ago to be up on the Internet. I think back on some of the stuff I was doing and I go, “Oh my God!”
NS: You’ve been on TV for many years in so many different roles. Do you prefer that type of work over stand-up, or will stand-up always be the most important thing to you?
GG: Like I always say, whoever’s waving a check in my face at any given time… As long as they’re writing out a check, whatever I’m getting it for is the love of my life.
NS: We’re big fans of the current “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cartoon on the site. How has that experience been compared to other voice acting gigs you’ve done?
GG: That was fun. I’ve been doing loads of voiceovers over the years. I play Kraang Subprime on the show. Hopefully he’ll keep popping up. They’re also doing some new “Cyberchase” cartoons where I’m Digit. I just started work on some movie where I’m one of the characters, a movie called “Animal Crackers.” I think Sylvester Stallone is one of the other voices, so for the first time in movie history, the announcer can yell out, “Stallone! Gottfried!”
NS: You can check that one off the bucket list!
GG: Yeah! Two names that shouldn’t be together in a movie! … They just called me, I went to the place and recorded, and I guess I’ll have some more sessions coming up.
NS: They just need to add Arnold Schwarzenegger. Maybe they could put you in “The Expendables!”
GG: Where I could fight Jean-Claude Van Damme or something.
NS: What is “Animal Crackers” about?
GG: I have no idea what it is! They call me, I don’t look at the script; I look at my lines when I get there. It’s quite like a lot of movies and TV shows are done. After it’s all finished and I watch it, I go, “Oh, that’s why I was saying that line!” So I don’t exactly work like DeNiro or Meryl Streep.
NS: Are you even in the same room with the actors you’re talking to?
GG: No. That’s the funny thing with animation. Like I remember hearing all these stories of people going, “Oh God, when Gilbert Gottfried and Robin Williams were together recording ‘Aladdin,’ that was a madhouse,” and I thought, “I never ran into Robin Williams once during the making of ‘Aladdin!’”
NS: Did you at least get to talk to him later, after the fact?
GG: Yeah. I had seen him and met him several times over the years at clubs, so I knew him from there, but never once during any of the recordings. It’s very rare that you’ll be in a room with someone else.
NS: From a performer’s standpoint, it probably takes a lot of creativity to imagine what’s going on and react to it.
GG: Oh yeah. You have someone there, you say the line, and then you’ll have someone on the phone going, “Oh well, actually, you’re running while you’re saying this,” so then you’ll act out of breath. And then somehow they’re able to put it together.
GG: Oh yeah! I’ve done the autograph signings, and I even one time co-wrote a Superboy comic book. I’m into sci-fi. I was always into horror films, mainly. It’s funny. Right now in my apartment, right in front of me is a poster of this painting of Frankenstein that I got years ago from a monster magazine that I mailed away for, and I’ve got some life masks on my wall of Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. It’s kind of pathetic in a way!
NS: We’ve got comics and action figures all over the office here, so we can’t talk! Didn’t you have Karloff and Lugosi’s kids on one of your podasts?
GG: Oh yeah, if you can call them kids – they’re both in their 80s! But yeah, I interviewed Bela Lugosi, Jr. and Sara Karloff, and that was interesting to talk to them. The funny thing is, whenever I talk to the children of famous people, I realize I know more about those famous people than they did!
NS: You’re trying to get all the inside tidbits and they’re like, “What are you talking about?”
GG: Oh yeah! I was correcting them! What was great is afterwards, Sara Karloff asked me if I could send an autographed picture to her granddaughter who’s a fan of mine, and it really was a weird moment because I thought, “When I was a kid watching ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Mummy’ on TV, on a little beat-up black-and-white TV, the idea that one day Boris Karloff’s great-granddaughter would be a fan, that I’d be writing her an autograph.” It’s kind of surreal!
NS: Do you watch a lot of modern horror, or do you strictly stick with the classics?
GG: I’ll watch some modern horror, but I’m always into those old black-and-white, the old Universals, and stuff like that – “Wolfman” and “Dracula.”
NS: They’re trying to remake those now, but they never seem to have the same effect.
GG: Yeah, it never quite works. People transform nowadays by computer. I miss the old days where each layer of makeup was a separate shot. Those were fun to watch.
NS: With all the cartoons and TV shows that you do, do your kids love that? Are they following in your footsteps at all? Do they want to do what you’re doing?
GG: I don’t know. One of my favorite things is that when my son was in preschool, so he’s about 4 or something, the teacher was complaining that he doesn’t pay attention in class and he’s always trying to be funny, and I thought, “What am I supposed to say? Please don’t take after me?” The teacher said, “Where’d you learn how to be funny?” He said, “From my daddy,” and she said, “Oh, is your daddy funny?” and my son said, “He’s funny at home, not at work.”
NS: Apparently your humor is an acquired taste.
NS: You just did a Super Bowl commercial with Snoop Dogg. Tell me about that shoot. There’s got to be a funny story there.
GG: They called me, and it was a Super Bowl ad, so those are always exciting. I didn’t even know it was going to be Snoop Dogg in it, but I will say every time you passed by his hotel room in the hallway, you would get a contact high.
NS: He didn’t offer you any?
GG: No, no, surprisingly, and I’ll never forgive him for that. I also did an episode of “Anger Management” a couple of months ago and Charlie Sheen didn’t offer me any hookers or blow, so that really pissed me off.
NS: What’s the point of getting into showbiz if you’re not going to receive all the benefits?
GG: It’s just polite!
NS: You’ve been hosting “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast” for a while now. Do you enjoy being on the other side of the interviews?
GG: It’s a weird experience because I was always comfortable being the one interviewed, so that way I could sit there and in my head be going, “Oh, this interviewer is an idiot,” and now I realize that I’m the idiot.
NS: It’s harder than it looks sometimes.
GG: Oh yeah. It’s good to see it at both sides of the mic, experience it. But yeah, it’s been fun. There’s a lot of people that I talk to that I’ve been interested in knowing about, but I wasn’t going to just call them up and say, “Hi, I watched some of your movies. Do you want to talk?” Now with a podcast, you have a reason to call them.
NS: Who has been your favorite guest, or has there been an episode that you thought turned out particularly well?
GG: There are a bunch. It’s funny. Each one’s a different experience. Some of them are kind of crazy and I really have a lot of fun with them, and others you’re actually finding out stuff. I, of course, had a lot of fun with Bob Saget and Weird Al Yankovic. Those were a lot of laughs. Danny Aiello was a lot of fun. I did one recently with Dave Attell – that one was fun, and then there are ones that I’m just finding out stuff. There’s so many that I’ve enjoyed.
NS: And you host that out of your own apartment?
GG: It varies. Sometimes it’ll be my apartment, sometimes I’ll go to their apartment, sometimes we’ll meet somewhere like the Friars Club or places like that and interview them there.
NS: That’s got to change the dynamic of the interview, if they’re just walking into your house.
GG: Yeah. Sometimes it’s very strange when they walk in the house, to have Dick Cavett walking in my house.
GG: I immediately forget most of the stuff. It’s one of those things, like if someone says, “Oh, you were in Mt. Pocono,” I go, “OK, I guess I was!” It’s so funny. I’ll fly somewhere to a different state and I’ll swear I’ve never been there before, and then I get to the club and I see I’ve signed their wall. So somebody has to tell me where I’ve been and what I’ve done!
NS: How are audiences in Northeastern Pennsylvania? I’ve seen some shows around here, both big and small, where it seems like people in the audience are trying to involve themselves in the show. Do you have that issue around here?
GG: It’s a funny thing with hecklers. A lot of people talk about, “Oh, how do you handle hecklers?” and it’s really next to impossible because hecklers, quite often, are drunk and they’ll say something and if you call them an idiot and the audience starts laughing, they’ll hear the laughter and think, “Oh, I just got a big laugh,” and it encourages them to keep talking during your show.
NS: For this show coming up in Scranton, there will be some local comedians opening. Does that have an effect on how you approach your set or the room at all?
GG: 99 percent of the time, it’s someone I’m not familiar with, so it doesn’t really bother me. In fact, there, too, how I forget or I don’t pay attention, I’ll have an opening act who says to me, “Oh, I opened for you three weeks ago,” and I’ll go, “Oh, OK.”
NS: As a comedian, you’ve carved out a really unique niche as a performer. Are you settled into a certain level of success or do you always have to strive for the next thing or search for the next job?
GG: I feel like, in this business, you can never actually just kick your shoes off and sit back. It’s like you always have to be aware and always have to be concerned. You see these major stars that, overnight, no one’s hiring them. You always have to be on your toes.
NS: What can local fans expect from this upcoming show in Scranton?
GG: I think they can expect to sit there for five minutes and then turn to each other and go, “Who’s idea was it to see Gilbert Gottfried?”
NS: Is that a typical reaction at your shows?
NS: Is there anything else you wanted to mention?
GG: No! I think my career’s over, and hopefully they’ll bring back “Murder, She Wrote” so I can do one quick guest appearance, right before I drop dead.
NS: Maybe they’ll let you on “Law & Order” again as one of the bodies or something. That seems to be good work.
GG: Oh yeah! I remember, one quick story, when I was on “Law & Order,” there was this pretty girl backstage and I knew she wasn’t one of the regulars there, so I said, “Oh, are you one of the murder victims this week?” and with a big smile on her face, very happy about it, she said, “Oh, no, I’m raped, but I live!”
NS: What a pleasant set to be on! Well, we look forward to seeing you in Scranton and hopefully have some more pleasant times. Thank you for the interview!
GG: Oh, thank you!
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, photographer, and podcast host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.