Gilbert Gottfried chats with Scranton comedian about stealing toiletries, selfies with Nazis, and more hilarity
While it was an honor and a blast chatting with Gilbert Gottfried before his gig at the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel in 2015, when it was announced that he would return to Scranton to perform at the Ritz Theater on Friday, April 27, the NEPA Scene team wanted to try something different this time around by asking a local up-and-coming comedian to talk to the raucous comedy legend on our publication’s behalf, and few could match Gottfried’s crudeness and creativity quite like Angelia Petrillo.
The Scranton comic – who performs frequently throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania, was recently a headliner and finalist of NEPA Scene Rising Talent, and appeared as a guest on the NEPA Scene Podcast – was eager to learn from the 63-year-old Brooklyn native while trading wisecracks, leading to a fun conversation about success and failure, stealing toiletries, taking selfies with Nazis, “USA Up All Night,” deliberately crossing the lines of good taste, reincarnation, free gifts from the Electric City, and more. Petrillo will open Gottfried’s Scranton show with fellow regional comedians Russell Austin, Chris Jones, Mike Peters, Aaron Decker, Kevin Lepka, and special guest emcee Dave Kuharchik of “PA Live” and WBRE/WYOU Eyewitness News fame.
Doors at the Ritz (222 Wyoming Ave., Scranton) open at 7:30 p.m., and the show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets, which are $25-$35 or $250 for VIP meet and greet tables of five, are available online via Eventbrite and at the door.
ANGELIA PETRILLO: In 2015, you performed in Scranton at the Radisson. What are your thoughts on coming back a second time?
GILBERT GOTTFRIED: I don’t remember what places I’ve done, where I’ve been. You can tell me I was in Scranton an hour ago and I would go, “OK.”
AP: So it’s all a blur for you. Is that from traveling so often?
GG: Yeah. There are states I swear I’ve never been to and then I get there, I go to the club, and I see I’ve signed their wall. So, I have no idea.
AP: You’ve been performing for nearly 50 years, starting at age 15 and even dropping out of high school to pursue comedy. What advice do you have for young comedians trying to make it?
GG: That’s a scary one. I always feel like you should look at everything I do and do the opposite.
AP: Do you feel like becoming successful was an accident?
GG: Yes and no. I started to go to the clubs every single night. I decided that’s what I was gonna do, go every night. That went on for a number of years, where you just show up, not even sure if they’ll put you on stage. And then when they do, they didn’t give you any money; you couldn’t even get a soda out of them.
Then there were some TV shows that people say were my big break that turned out not to be. There was “Saturday Night Live;” that season was a failure because it was right after the original cast left. Now you watch “Saturday Night Live” and the cast changes every five minutes. But back then, how dare they continue the show with a new cast. It would be kind of like if “Friends” was on the air and all of a sudden you changed the whole cast and said, “OK, now everybody watch it and pretend there’s no difference.” So yeah, I wouldn’t say it was an accident, but luck was definitely involved.
AP: What was it that initially drew you to comedy?
GG: I was one of those kids that would watch a lot of TV, and I remember they would have variety shows on where you could watch a little of everything, and there were old movies, and I would imitate people I saw in the old movies. Then that got me interested in doing comedy or anything in show business. Then my sister, Arlene, she said a friend of hers said there’s some club in Manhattan where you just go there, write your name down, and when they get to your name, they go, “OK, and now here’s so and so!” And that was it. We traveled up to Manhattan and I did that. That was the first time. When I got up on stage it was mainly imitations. Pretty much like when they used to have Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, or Fred Travalena.
AP: Do you still go to open mics?
GG: Some people go there to try out new stuff. I haven’t done that for a while.
AP: You’ve been performing pretty consecutively since the 1980s. How do you feel comedy has changed over time?
GG: It’s weird; I feel like the entire business has changed. I feel like the second I had a vague idea of how showbiz works, it all changed. Right now, if you asked me to name two big stars I would say Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts. And nowadays it’ll be some guy who picks his nose, films it on his phone, and puts it up on the Internet.
AP: Eat a Tide Pod and get famous.
GG: Or people who shove 9,000 jellybeans in their mouth, people will say, “Oh, he’s great!”
AP: Maybe what America needs is to see Gilbert Gottfried shove 9,00 jellybeans in his mouth.
GG: Yes. Believe me, if I could…
AP: You describe yourself as very old school, but your “Amazing Colossal Podcast” just surpassed its 200th episode. With society so dependent on technology, do you feel that starting a podcast was an inevitable step?
GG: It’s a weird thing. Once again, I’m out of the loop. If you asked me how to find my podcast, I wouldn’t know how. I would need some 5-year-old to do it for me. My wife said to me, “Everyone’s doing podcasts now. Why don’t you try a podcast?” And then my idea was I like old movies and old TV shows, and I’d like to people from that period. I thought nobody would be interested, but I tried it anyway and it’s amazing. I get people that go, “I had no idea who that was, but I liked it and I’ve been looking up their movies.” It’s like a fun homework assignment for them.
AP: I watched your documentary “Gilbert” and noticed that you were super frugal, which is something we have in common. I love getting things for free. It seems your favorite is hotel toiletries, and you have an insanely huge collection. Do you have a favorite?
GG: Oh, well, it’s funny. I don’t have a particular favorite. First thing I do when I get into a hotel room is run into the bathroom and see what they have. Some hotels will go the extra mile and have a fancier bottle. It’s always fun to see that I’ve got shampoos, conditioners, and soaps that say “Trump” on it because I can tell people, “Oh yeah, me and the president hang out all the time!”
AP: Can you remember the last time you bought toiletries? Or do you just pull from your endless supply?
GG: The funny thing is my wife still buys them. I don’t know why, but I use my hotel ones. I have enough to pass on to my grandkids if I ever have them.
AP: Scranton might be a good place to use your celebrity power to get free stuff if you were willing to stay and check out the area.
GG: Oh, that’s good. I feel like if I did a job and they said, “For this job, we’ll give you 100 million dollars and a free bag of potato chips.” In my mind, I go, “Wow, I got a free bag of potato chips!”
AP: There was a part of the documentary when you checked into a hotel for a show and there was a war convention being held simultaneously. You had quite an interesting experience there.
GG: I was there, they said they were having this convention. It was like wars from old times – they were all in complete outfits. I walk in and I had a bunch of Nazi officers run over to me with the swastikas and iron crosses and they all wanted selfies with me and were telling me how much they liked me in “Problem Child” and I remember I was standing there thinking, “Gee, you know, I had these Nazis wrong the whole time. They’re just a swell group of guys.”
AP: Did any of the Nazis come to your show?
GG: Yes. It’s one of those stories that gets more and more freakish. A few hours later, I’m on stage and in the audience there are Nazis in their full regalia and they’re watching the show. They’re having their drinks. It was like a scene out of “Cabaret” and, after the show, one of the Nazi officers came over to me and said, “I have a joke for you,” and he told me a Michael Jackson joke.
AP: Do you remember the joke?
GG: I forget. Oh, “Why did Michael Jackson’s wife leave him? Because he found crayon on his collar.” Something like that. Then he apologized and said, “It’s kind of a bad joke,” and I said, “Well, it’s not the worst thing the Nazis have done.”
AP: You are known for being “one of America’s filthiest comics,” but in the documentary, your wife mentioned that you worked clean the entire time you were courting her. Did toning it down influence how you were received?
GG: I don’t know. For years, I would work clean because I always wanted to see what jokes worked on their own. Sometimes when I would see a comedian on TV, and his punchline was, “And I wore a hat.” I would think that’s not funny. But then I’d think, “Oh, when the producers of this TV show saw him in the club, he probably said, “And I wore a fuckin’ hat.” That’s what got the laughs. The producers probably thought, “Oh, that was funny. You got a laugh, just cut out the dirty word,” and it wasn’t funny. So I used to work extra, extra clean. And then I got extra, extra dirty.
AP: You have a reputation for making controversial jokes at times that society deems inappropriate. For example, let’s just say after major tragedies. Do you think it’s a comedian’s job to shock? Or is it just how we cope and society can’t understand that?
GG: Well, George Carlin said, “It’s the duty of a comedian to find out where the line is drawn and deliberately cross over it.” If you are at a funeral, you’ll see people sitting there with a little smirk, muttering something to another person and laugh, but then cover their face up because they want to laugh to release what they’re suffering with, but they know they’re not supposed to.
It was kind of like when I did the September 11th joke at the Hugh Heffner roast just a couple of days after it happened. First, I did the September 11th joke and they were booing and hissing. One guy yelled, “Too soon!” which I thought meant I didn’t take a long enough pause between the setup and the punchline. Then I lost them completely. So I did “The Aristocrats” joke, which is total obscenity, but the audience was laughing hysterically, and it just showed that they needed some kind of release.
AP: If I’m correct, you were the one responsible for bringing “The Aristocrats” joke to the mainstream public. Did you get a slap on the wrist from other comics for that?
GG: I think so. And no, the other comics at the roast were familiar with it and they were cracking up.
AP: I reached out through social media to see what questions people have, and one was, “Did you actually watch any of the movies on ‘USA Up All Night’ when you were hosting?” And, if so, which movies were your favorites?
GG: Wow, let’s see. I’ve watched one or two. I wouldn’t watch myself on that show. The bad thing about “Up All Night” is that they would edit these movies, so it was like they would have movies that the only reason to watch was for the nudity, but all of the nudity would be cut out. It was like watching “King Kong,” but they cut all the scenes with King Kong out of it.
AP: So you never saw the monkey?
AP: If you were to die and be reincarnated as any character you’ve played, who would it be and why?
GG: I don’t know if I’d like to come back as a parrot. I imagine Sidney Bernstein in “Beverly Hills Cop II.” He at least made money.
AP: What can Scranton expect from you this Friday?
GG: I think they can expect to sit there for five minutes and say, “Whose idea was it to see Gilbert Gottfried?”
AP: Is there anything else you want to say to the people of the Electric City?
GG: Oh, is that what it’s called? Gee, I didn’t know that.
AP: Yes, we had the first electric streetcars, and we pay extra taxes to have a huge flaming sign over the city to make sure nobody forgets that.
GG: Next time somebody asks me if I’ve been to Scranton, I can say, “Oh sure! The Electric City!”
AP: Is it safe to say there is an open invitation for local businesses to show up with free “Gifts for Gilbert?”
GG: Oh, everything. And if hookers are giving away freebies, that of course too.
Read NEPA Scene’s 2015 interview with Gottfried here.
This is an article sent to NEPA Scene by a guest contributor and approved by the editor.