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Farewell, Gilbert Gottfried

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April 14, 2022


Gilbert Gottfried, a great and fearless man of comedy, died this week, and it’s a major loss.

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I knew his work — I first discovered Gilbert Gottfried on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” during the 1990s.

Gilbert performed hysterically funny caricatures of Harry Potter, Kim Jong Il, and even Pontius Pilate, during various skits. Words such as ‘iconic,’ ‘distinctive,’ and ‘inimitable’ are often used gratuitously in current times. But in Gilbert’s case, these adjectives were apt. There is nobody who looked or sounded or laughed quite like him.

Gilbert began his career at the age of 15, when he dropped out of school to pursue stand-up comedy in New York.

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By the 1980s, Gilbert was a success: He had a short stint on Saturday Night Live, he did comedy specials for HBO, and he appeared on David Letterman’s show.

Gilbert’s on-stage routine had him squinting, grimacing, contorting, hiding his face, and grabbing the mike like a prop. It seemed like considerable self-torture. Often he would dedicate several minutes to thanking his audience and bowing. This nervous awkwardness caused laughter even before a word was uttered.  

He frequently made references to stars from the past in uncanny situations such as Bogart at the post office. At times, he did mime impressions. 

He also invented situations such as breaking the ice after meeting Jackie O at a party by asking: “Do you remember where you were when…”

Gilbert also earned the reputation of being a comic’s comic — i.e., he was revered by fellow comics.

Gottfried was also known for his appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show. Sometimes he did impressions of senile, rambling, Groucho Marx, and at other times he was Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Jerry Seinfeld, or an irate Andrew Dice Clay.

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It wasn’t just his impressions but how Gilbert applied them in his skits.

The Lugosi impression was applied to caricatures of the pope, a war correspondent in Iraq, pornographer Al Goldstein, and even Jennifer Aniston on “Friends” in Lugosi’s voice professing her love for Ross.  Occasionally, Gottfried did the Lugosi’s Dracula monologue from the 1930s in Seinfeld’s voice.

The result was ceaseless mirth often causing Stern to quiet down, allowing an improvising Gilbert to take over.

Gilbert relished puncturing the pretensions of showbiz.

During an appearance at the Emmys in 1991, Gilbert caused outrage when he went off-script making references to masturbation.

Gilbert also appeared on Hollywood Squares and various late night shows.

Gilbert hilariously chewed the scenery during his various film and TV appearances.

Gilbert is perhaps only actor to play both Lincoln and Hitler on celluloid.

Gilbert became a pioneer during the Friars Club Roast of Hugh Hefner, held weeks after 9-11. The mood was somber and comedians were treading carefully.

Fearless contrarian that Gilbert was, he began with a joke about being nervous about his upcoming flight to Los Angeles with a connection at the Empire State Building. The audience reaction was that of shock, disgust, a prolonged chorus of “boos” and an individual shrieking “too soon.”

At that juncture, most comedians would have exited the stage. These days they even capitulate before an online mob. But Gilbert was relentless, he promptly launched into his infamous raunchy aristocrat joke. Gilbert went on to improvise his joke using copious expletives and mentions of excrement and bodily fluids.

The very audience that was outraged by a 9-11 joke, lapped it with unrestrained jubilation. Fellow comedians on stage almost collapsed with laughter.

This laughter that Gilbert caused was a catharsis, and the healing that people needed at that juncture.

Gilbert’s myriad other roast appearances are legendary, his targets were everyone from David Hasselhoff to Pamela Anderson.

He was funny, side-splittingly funny. Personally, Gilbert’s roasts were among the rare instances for me where my body seemed incapable of handling the overload of laughter. It was almost like being smothered and gasping for breath due to Gilbert’s comedy with his countenance and delivery.

Gilbert was among the first celebrities to be “canceled” before the term came to be commonly known.

Following a 2011 tsunami in Japan, Gilbert was the target of a frenzy of social media hate because of a few silly tsunami jokes on Twitter. It cause Gilbert to lose his deal with Aflac, which did 75% of its business with Japan. This was probably the first time a company capitulated before an unruly online mob.

Gilbert penned a column defending the rights of comedians to make jokes, thus becoming an unlikely ambassador for freedom of expression.

Gilbert’s last tweet was in support of Chris Rock who was struck in the face at the Oscars for telling a joke.

Gilbert was also the voice of the wisecracking parrot Iago in Disney’s “Aladdin” and various other spin-offs. It spawned a parallel career where he did voices for children’s programs such as Cyberchase and Ninja Turtles.

Gilbert remarked that his career walked the line from early morning children’s programming to the edges of actual porn.

The Amazing Colossal Podcast’ named after the 50s Sci-Fi picture had Gilbert and his co-host Frank Santopadre interview comedy and showbiz greats, including those from the golden era. It was hilarious, insightful and a treat for cinephiles and pop culture aficionados. The podcast was a huge success running over 300 episodes, the most recent new episode dropped just nine days ago

In 2011 Gilbert published his memoir titled “Rubber Balls and Liquor” and in 2017 appeared in a documentary called “Gilbert.” Here Gilbert offered an insight into his childhood, his youth, and his early days doing stand-up. In the documentary, we saw Gilbert the caring father, the loving husband, the kind son, and the devoted brother. Contrary to his public persona, he was kind, sweet, and gentle. We saw the frugal side of Gilbert as he pinched toiletries from hotels and used the bathroom sink to wash his socks instead of using the laundry service.

His idiosyncratic voice also made him part of various online bits. One such video had Gilbert recording an audiobook for the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey and various women cringing with disgust as they hear his rendition. It was done in Gilbert’s typical self-effacing style.

He even interrupted a press junket with Sandra Bullock resulting in hilarity.

Beyond his comedy, Gilbert also dedicated himself to myriad charitable endeavors. He appeared on Celebrity Apprentice with Donald Trump to support his charity Autism Speaks

Gilbert was never petty or mean, he never was political, he always punched up, he was never ever politically correct and his goal was always laughter.

When a master such as Gilbert, who was still in his prime. passes away suddenly, one often wonders what might have been. 

In Gilbert’s case, there would have been more books, appearances, podcasts and so much more laughter.

A White House Correspondents’ Dinner with President Trump, for example, with Gilbert eviscerating the haughty and entitled luminaries of the media, politics, and showbiz, would have been a joy.

Alas, that was not to be.

It would be blasphemous to end on a somber note, Gilbert would have preferred a foul-mouthed roast instead of a poignant eulogy.

His family put it best in their message announcing Gilbert’s untimely passing “Although today is a sad day for all of us, please keep laughing as loud as possible in Gilbert’s honor.”

That’s how Gilbert should be remembered, a fearless, forthright, and hilarious comic genius who brought boundless joy to everybody he touched.

Image: Montclair Film Festival, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

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