Gilbert Gottfried talks about the jokes that cooked his goose with Aflac, and the great virtue in a good shock
It had been about a month since Gilbert Gottfried lobbed those brutally crude jokes about the Japanese tsunami when I met him earlier this week. He still seemed a little stunned by the reaction, which included a public drubbing by the morality police, and being fired as the voice of the Aflac spokesduck. Still, he couldn’t quite make himself grovel for forgiveness. “You start to feel sorry, and then you wonder what you’re feeling sorry for,” he says. “That I made jokes?”
Sure, they weren’t just any jokes. (Buzzfeed has ranked the most jaw-dropping of them.) But in many ways, they are typical ones for Gottfried, 56, who has paved a long career with the shock and awe of the taboo. He is famous for his version of the notorious “Aristocrats” joke, delivered a mere three weeks after Sept. 11, at a New York Friars Club roast for Hugh Hefner, which has somewhat romantically been christened (by Frank Rich, the New York Observer and the film made in honor of the joke) as the moment it was OK to laugh again. That epic release was made possible, though, only by the World Trade Center joke Gottfried detonated right before, which drew boos, hisses and the refrain that could wind end up as Gottfried’s epitaph: “Too soon!”
Everything about Gottfried’s comedy is intended to grate, from his shrieking delivery (in person, he speaks softly and thoughtfully) to his material, which is in rich display in his new comedic memoir “Rubber Balls and Liquor,” where the Brooklyn-born Gottfried manages to squeeze a warmly remembered childhood and sometimes perilous career (he was an “SNL” cast member for the much-derided 1980 season, the year after all the originals left) in between a succession of generously filthy stories and jokes. We spoke over a lunch picked up by Salon at a Midtown Manhattan steak restaurant, during which Gottfried carefully ordered three courses — including a New York strip, with a side of baked potato and a side of broccoli — most of which he barely touched and had wrapped to go. An edited transcript of the lunch follows.
So about those tsunami jokes…
It’s amazing. I think millions of years from now when aliens land here and are digging up our civilization, they’re probably going to be looking at all the reports and say, “This guy must have caused the tsunami.”
When I look at how the media just went nuts with it, there were so many tricks they had. Number one, they didn’t say “his jokes,” they said, “his comments and remarks,” because if you say jokes, it just lets the air out of the sails. If you say “jokes,” people say, “Well, yeah, he’s a comedian, he makes jokes.” And then you say, “Yeah, but these were bad-taste jokes.” And then people go, “Kind of like the bad-taste jokes I heard at work today.” And then they go, “Well, this is a guy who starred in ‘The Aristocrats,’ and is on every roast and was on ‘The Howard Stern Show,’ so we were of course shocked that he would do something in bad taste.”
Then they pick out some of the jokes, and they go, “We’re warning you ahead of time that this is shocking and offensive.” So they present it, and it’s what I’ve always thought about the media, they [warn that something] is shocking and offensive, like, “We’re good, we’re watching out for you,” but it’s really their way of saying, “Here, we got you now, you gotta watch this.” And it’s OK for them to say it, because they have a stern look on their face. The people most outraged in the beginning were TMZ and Perez Hilton, Dr. Laura. Oh, [CNN's] “Showbiz Tonight” picked me as the most provocative celebrity, beating out Charlie Sheen.
Who doesn’t want to be provocative?
Yes. But then to talk about how offensive and how wrong it was, they brought out Kelsey Grammer’s ex-wife Camille, and she was…
She was the voice of reason?
TMZ and Perez Hilton have built their brands having it both ways.
Right, Perez Hilton, who outs gay stars and draws penises on their faces, was very shocked and offended. And the best part is that they always say, “Too soon,” and “Too soon” meant that if I had waited like three more days, the tsunami was forgotten about. And what I remember was turning on the TV one day, and all of a sudden I noticed there’s not one mention of the tsunami, and the big news item all over the place — all over the Internet, all over TV — was that Chris Brown got angry backstage on “Good Morning America” and threw a chair. And the tsunami was lucky to get mentioned after funny sports bloopers.
Did you regret the jokes? Because you did delete the tweets.
Oh, yeah. I deleted it. And then they dug [them] up.
Right, which always makes it look like there’s been a coverup.
Yes. With the Internet, if you erase something it just means you have to spend another half-minute to find it. It’s just like when they go “so-and-so did not comment.” If you’re avoiding their news show or their paper, then you’ve got something to hide. I actually did have cars parked outside my building, with these different news crews and people hiding in hallways.
Were you shocked when Aflac reacted the way it did?
I remember I was away in Philadelphia working; I came back and then the whole world blew up. When people say, “Are you sorry you did it?” I’m kind of mixed on the whole thing because it’s my character. You start to feel sorry and then you wonder what you’re feeling sorry for. That I made jokes?
Those particular jokes are exactly what you do.
The funny thing was, any comedian who heard it didn’t understand what the big deal was about, and usually started their emails to me with, “Hey, did you hear about the Japanese so-and-so,” and then they’d go into a joke. And my fans, in the very beginning when it first happened there were the psychos’ emails, the ones who I think live on the Internet and are shocked; I think they’re the people who send hate mail to Jennifer Aniston for calling Brad Pitt…
Right, right. They take it all very personally.
Yes! But then there was just an overflow — pardon the pun — of people going, “Hey, what’s the big deal? You made jokes.”
Did anyone you know say, “Too soon”?
The other part that really got me was when they’d report how much these things hurt the Japanese people. And I’m thinking, so what this means is that when the tsunami was taking place, their top priority was [going to] Gilbert Gottfried’s Twitter account, translating the jokes, and being offended. I’m thinking, they really need to get their priorities straight.
And the crazy people in the press were saying, “Imagine if it was your loved ones,” and I’m thinking, so? If it were my loved ones I [wouldn't be] going, “Let me get onto some Japanese comedian’s Twitter account, and see what he’s saying…”
Did Aflac contact you immediately?
I really can’t say much about that.
Was that the extent of the fallout?
Well, it’s hard to say what may or may not have happened. At times like this I get a better understanding of things like the House Un-American Activities [Committee]; you know, maybe no one was out-and-out saying, “We’re not hiring you because we’re scared of this,” but they just weren’t hiring you.
So you’re left to your own paranoia.
At the same time you’ve got your book coming out, so there’s that. Has it all helped your comedy?
Nothing can help my comedy. [Laughs] But what I did notice was that the thing that started all this — my Twitter account — was at this certain level, and it wasn’t going much higher, and then all of a sudden it just exploded. Like 50 times as many people were following it.
And I did a thing on “Funny or Die” called “Too Soon” that’s me throughout history telling bad-taste jokes. I’m convinced that when Christ was on the cross there were people around there telling jokes to each other, making sarcastic remarks.
What is Twitter like for a comedian?
I find the whole Internet, number one, how quickly everything moves … like, I feel like if tomorrow I say I have a Twitter account, they’ll go, “You’re still on Twitter? We stopped using that years ago.” I feel like this line has been erased between people who do stuff and everybody else. So, like, columnists and writers who you used to buy a paper to read what they had to say, or watch their news shows … it’s like the line is erased, now everybody is commenting on things, with some people … much like with cellphones, when you hear somebody on a cellphone going, “I’m about three doors from your house now, OK, now I’m two doors, OK, now I’m in front of your building, I’m about to press the button.” It’s like they narrate their entire life.
Everyone wants the stage now.
You were sort of a prodigy; you were performing live in the Village when you were 15. How different are you now from then?
I remember when I started out I was doing mainly impressions, and I remember I would do Bela Lugosi, and you know, back then, as I said in the book, growing up the greatest film school in the world was in your living room, because you’d turn on the TV and there’s all these movies coming on constantly. So I remember part of my act I would do Groucho Marx and Bela Lugosi, and the funny thing is, even back then, it was pretty dated with my references. And then somewhere along the way I started more kidding around in between the impressions, and it developed into whatever I developed into.
Do you think that’s changed a lot? Is that how young comedians do it now?
That’s a scary thing, that I find very worrying. Now, if someone wants to be a comic, they just film themselves and put it on YouTube. And they haven’t learned anything, they haven’t learned to develop anything or how to experience working in front of an audience. When I see people doing stuff on YouTube, or even if they’re just writing things, I always think, Wow, thank God this wasn’t around when I was that age.
You think you wouldn’t have developed your chops?
Yeah. I think I would have terribly undeveloped, unfunny bits that I’d be doing on YouTube.
There’s this new kind of celebrity comic, Kathy Griffin being an example, who isn’t crafting jokes, but just trying to create a sort of amusing persona, maybe getting a reality show.
Yeah, there are the people who just have a certain quirky personality and get famous. That’s another thing now. Reality TV has totally destroyed soap operas. They’re gone. They used to be the biggest thing in the world, they’re gone. Sitcoms are pretty much dead. There used to be billions of those on, now they’re dead. It’s just so much cheaper to make reality TV.
Which spawns stars like the Situation, who bombed thoroughly recently during the roast for Donald Trump. Is it satisfying to see something like that?
What I thought about that was, he did bomb. But it’s like, so now because he’s bombing on TV, he’ll still be making a fortune from the TV show, and he’ll get paid a few hundred thousand to show up at a restaurant opening.
I envy like crazy those people who get money to show up at events, where they just walk down the red carpet and then sneak out a side door.
You’ve never been paid an appearance fee?
Do you get a lot of requests to just tell the “Aristocrats” joke?
I tell jokes from my dirty jokes DVD, but the “Aristocrats” one I don’t tell that much. I’m almost like rebelling against people who want it, and that was a funny thing too as far as people being offended. It started with the Sept. 11 joke. And they’re booing and gasping and yelling, “Too soon!”
I think a lot of people forget the first part, the World Trade Center joke that really upset people. They just remember the “Aristocrats” joke — and that Gilbert made it possible for us to laugh again.
What I love about that, they were all offended and shocked and outraged, and then I win them back by talking about incest and bestiality. And they go, “That’s OK. Now we can relax.”
You had to know the World Trade Center joke was going to be risky.
Yeah. I definitely wanted a reaction. There was the case of people walking around putting flags on their cars and flags on their lapel like, “Look, I’m doing something,” just like the red ribbon that cured AIDS. Scientists saw those red ribbons and suddenly realized they had to cure AIDS. And what I remember, too, about that time, they were thinking of canceling the Emmys, and then they decided to run the Emmys because there’s just too much money in the Emmys not to run, but people would be dressing down. So Pam Anderson showed up and she was not showing as much cleavage — that makes the people who died in the World Trade Center feel that much better.
The funny thing is, a couple of days after the whole Japan thing, I attended a funeral. And you know, of course, at the funeral people were going up speaking and they were telling funny stories about the person, and you’d see people whisper something to another person and they’d laugh nervously, and I had people come up to me and say, “I know I’m going to hell for this but I laughed at some of those jokes.”
I put up on Twitter a line from George Carlin. He said it’s the duty of a comedian to find where the line is and cross it. And I thought that put it much better than I ever could.
There is no bigger laugh than when you’ve just crossed the line, is there?
Yeah, and there’s that laugh where people laugh extra hard because they don’t want to laugh.
Have there been times when you think, that was too far?
Sometimes when I say it. But then afterward I think, What is going too far? When people first learned to communicate there were people laughing at bad things that happened, as some kind of release. As long as civilization is around that’s going to happen.
Your book is coming out, while Tina Fey’s book will be at the top of the bestseller list. Are you going to topple her?
Oh, naturally. [Laughs]
Are you a fan of hers?
Yeah, I guess. I did a voice on an episode of “30 Rock,” so I guess I’ll be a fan.
What was the episode?
Oh, it was peculiar. It was an episode of the show where they’re auditioning people for their “Saturday Night Live”-type show that they do, and there’s a guy who does impressions, and he does a dinner party impression of me, Martin Scorsese and Christopher Walken, [and] they actually got all of us to do our own voices. There’s also a scene too where they get voice messages saying, “Hire this guy, he’s great,” from me, Scorsese and Walken. And they believe it’s the real people. And Tina Fey says, “This guy is really impressive, he did a film with Martin Scorsese, he was in an off-Broadway show with Christopher Walken, and he studied the Meisner technique with Sir Gilbert Gottfried.” [Laughs]
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