Working for an insurance giant like Aflac and a media behemoth like Disney is all well and good — until you say the wrong thing. Considering the abrasive, brash, and often crude nature of Gottfried’s comedy, it is surprising he lasted as long as he did with both companies. His jokes are not family-friendly, and he might have delivered the greatest, and raunchiest, version of the always-evolving Aristocrats joke in the 2005 film of the same name.
With one tweet about the Japanese tsunami in 2011, he was canned from one of his better-known gigs, never to utter “Aflac!” in one of the company's commercials again.
New Times spoke with Gottfried ahead of his tour through South Florida for a four-night series of performances at the West Palm Beach Improv. And to be clear: The conversation was lovely and outright hilarious.
Gottfried has been doing standup for more than 40 years. The first time he walked onto a stage was at the age of 15. What was his reason for taking the plunge at such an early age?
“Total stupidity, really," he says. "Now when I think in terms of doing that, when I hear people say they’re going into standup or when people ask me, 'How would you feel about your kids going into standup, into show business?' I feel like, if you told me you wanted to make a living by going to trash cans and taking the soda bottles out and turning them in for a five-cent deposit, it would make a lot more sense to me.”
Yet here he is all these years later, still in a business he thinks any sane person should avoid. The thing that continues to drive him is simple: fear.
“Basically, it boils down to I always feel that show business is a party I snuck into and they haven’t found out yet. As long as there are people around dumb enough to pay me, I’m willing to do it.”
Ironically, the reason casting directors and club owners continue to hire Gottfried is the same thing that repulses others: his onstage persona. His loud and grating delivery (not his natural speaking voice) is not something he created intentionally. It just happened.
“I’ve been doing it for such a long time, that one day you wake up and you go, Oh, this is what your delivery is. It’s like going up to someone walking down the street and asking, 'How did you develop that walk?'”
Over the past couple of years, Gottfried has been an interviewer on his successful Amazing Colossal Podcast, which features guests that are often in their 80s and 90s. It’s a labor of love meant to document incredible stories from the days before tabloid gossip was on the morning news.
“I was originally going to call the show The Before It’s Too Late Show. And I do like documenting their lives. I didn’t think anybody would be at all interested in old Hollywood because they didn’t remember them or never knew them in the first place. Now people tell me they didn’t know who it was, but... they enjoyed [listening]. It’s like a fun homework assignment.”
One of his favorite stories involves the great Dick Van Dyke, who was a guest on the podcast with another performer, Orson Bean. “Each day,” Gottfried says, “when they were working together, they would go to the zoo, where there was a masturbating monkey they would go watch.”
On the flipside, Gottfried himself was the subject of a documentary, Gilbert, by Neil Berkley. In typical self-deprecating fashion, Gottfried says there is one thing he thinks will shock people.
“They’ll be most surprised that anyone would think to do a documentary on me,” he laughs. “I hated every minute of it. And I’ve seen it at a few screenings with other people watching it and hated it, because to me, it must be what Hell is like when you’re forced to sit and watch your own life.”
So how does Gottfried want people to remember him?
“That’s like one of those death questions. I always notice reporters ask celebrities, 'What do you want on your tombstone?' I mean, I want to be remembered for all of it.”
Nonetheless, he comes up with an apt and succinct epitaph:
“My career walks the tightrope between early-morning children’s programming and hard-core porn.”
Gilbert Gottfried. 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 25, and Saturday, August 26, at the Palm Beach Improv, 550 S. Rosemary Ave., #250, West Palm Beach; 561-833-1812; palmbeachimprov. Tickets cost $22 via palmbeachimprov.com.