Gilbert Gottfried, as an onstage personality, is an insensitive loudmouth. That’s the whole shtick of his character. Speaking with him in an unrecorded interview session, he comes across as a nice and thoughtful guy who, well, doesn’t normally speak like that. It becomes clear, in other words, that the stage persona is an alter-ego. In 2011, a series of insensitive tweets in response to the Japanese Tsunami resulted in his termination as the Aflac duck. This incident raises an important question about comedians and free speech. We applaud a person for taking on a persona and committing himself to being as obnoxious and lewd as possible — then convert that persona back into a person whimsically, when we want to chastise him. If nothing else, we should be aware that was the nature of the backlash by Aflac and the press: a convenient shift in context.
Gottfried’s most memorable recent work has been for the Comedy Central celebrity roasts, including Hugh Hefner’s, where he launched into an epic telling of the bawdy joke feature in The Aristocrats. Gottfried is a Hollywood Square. He is Iago in the Aladdin franchise. He is Sidney Bernstein, bribing Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop II.
I spoke recently with Gottfried about Aflac, self-censorship, how social media has changed entertainment culture, and sneaking into movie theaters to watch himself perform.
CL: What’s your creative process like?
GG: It’s kind of scary with me, because I’m relying all on the time on something coming to me onstage. So I’m kind of at the mercy of how creative I am at any given time of the year.
CL: So each performance is different at each city of a tour?
GG: It’s not something that changes all the time…. Sometimes I’ll be in more of an improvisational mood than others. It’s always hard to tell from night to night.
CL: Do you get at all concerned about offending people? Some of your approach can be perceived as shocking or abrasive.
GG: Well, that’s not something I’ve thought about in the past — which has been financially detrimental to me at times. Self-censorship seems to me the worst thing that could happen creatively. It’s not like I want to be shocking. It’s that once you start censoring yourself, that can be damaging.
CL: So you err on the side of offending people — because censoring yourself would water you down?
GG: I err on the side of unemployment. [Laughs]
CL: I’m wondering to what extent there was a misunderstanding with Aflac. You were made out to be the bad guy. It’s not like an insurance company is squeaky-clean.
GG: What I’m wondering is what they were thinking when they hired me in the first place. All they had to do was look at my career. The funny thing is, it was all over the newspapers and TV — but you step outside your house, and nobody really cares. The idea that a comedian is making jokes doesn’t seem that surprising. [Laughs]
CL: I mean, did these guys watch The Aristocrats?
GG: Right — and they kept talking about “comments and remarks” — calling my jokes “comments and remarks.”
CL: So their official statement has a problem with your “comments and remarks”?
GG: Yes — and then the press picked it up, and that’s how it got out of control.
CL: Are you a fan of social media?
GG: It’s back and forth. It can be quite annoying. They didn’t send a tweet to Humphrey Bogart and tell him they didn’t like his movie. The scary part: it used to be there were actors and writers and filmmakers, and now it seems like everybody is all those things.
CL: You mean YouTube, and things like that?
GG: That and movie reviews, anything anybody can now go and make. I’m happy when I was starting out they didn’t have the Internet. I see comedians on the Internet who don’t have a character and who are not ready. Also, Orwell warned about people watching us. In the 60s, the CIA was watching. And now it’s every shmuck with too much time on his hands is watching you.
CL: Well, and I think that’s especially true for celebrities.
GG: Right. Paris Hilton was in a cab and said something, and someone posted it. I think she lost a job for it. And anybody with any sense at all reads it, and says, “This is what all the big deal is about?”
CL: How has your perspective changed on comedy since you were fifteen and started performing standup?
GG: Wow. I don’t know. I was an idiot at fifteen. But I’m stupid now. Since I was fifteen, I haven’t updated anything in my act.
CL: How are live performance and film work differently rewarding?
GG: My theory has always been, whoever’s waving a check in my face. I feel like, “How much money is it paying?” And second: “Oh yeah, the art.”
CL: That’s a good name for a future DVD — Oh Yeah, the Art.
CL: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever heard from a fan?
GG: One thing that popped into my head that was very weird was one time I met Bobby Brown. He said he was a fan of mine because I said things that black people couldn’t say. I have no idea what that meant.
CL: [Laughs] That makes me think of The Aristocrats. It would be different for a black guy to go up and say he’s gonna “fuck all the white bitches.”
CL: What’s the most fun you’ve had, that you can think of, during your career?
GG: Oh geez. I remember sitting in a movie theater at the premiere of Beverly Hills Cop [II]. I was shocked at how positive the reaction was to my scene.
CL: Did you ever return to a theater to watch the movie, to see that reaction again?
GG: Yes. I’d sneak into theaters an hour into it to watch my scene, feel good, and then run out.
CL: [Laughs] Are you serious?
GG: Oh yes — that’s the shameful part of my life.
CL: “We’re gonna be late! I’m almost on!”
GG: I’d say to them, “Oh, I think I left my watch in there. Can I just run in for a second?”
CL: What’s the weirdest heckle you’ve ever gotten?
GG: Um … Well, one time I was working at a night club, and I was onstage at about 11 o’clock. And someone yelled out, “Hey, there’s children in the audience!” And I responded, “Well, you’re certainly a good parent, bringing your kids out this late at night to a place that serves alcohol. Tell your kids not to listen to me and have all the drinks they want to.”
CL: What’s in development for you that you’re excited about?
GG: You know, I don’t have anything developing. I kind of sit back and let things come to me. My book is Rubber Balls and Liquor, and my DVD is Dirty Jokes. And both you can get from GilbertGottfried.com. I had to buy my website from a guy in Thailand. It was a double insult: one, having to buy my own name, and two, how cheap I got it for.
CL: [Laughs] What does it feel like when you go onstage? Are you nervous, or is it just adrenaline at this point?
GG: When I’m getting ready to go onstage, I feel rotten and angry and depressed. And luckily, when I walk offstage, that is how the audience feels.
CL: How important is it to have a distinct character onstage?
GG: There are some who just speak the way they speak in real life, but delivery or attitude or something is there. It’s something I can’t figure out how to explain, but then I can’t figure out how to explain anything, as you can tell from this interview.
Gilbert Gottfried performs at Side Splitters Comedy Club on Thu.-Sat., December 6-8. Thu. 8:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 8 and 10:15 p.m.; $20-25; sidesplitterscomedy.com.
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