To most fans of pop culture, the comedian Gilbert Gottfried — who headlines the 4th Annual Woodstock Comedy Festival with an appearance on Saturday, September 24 at the Bearsville Theater — is best known as an iconic voice actor, his high-pitched near-yell having been heard as the parrot Iago in Disney’s Alladin, as well as the Aflac duck until 2011. Or maybe as one of Hollywood Squares’ final guests, as well as a regular on late night television.
For those who know the more serious side of modern comedy, Gottfried is legendary for having been the brave soul who allowed humor back through the gates after the shock of 9/11 fifteen years ago. At an unusually tepid Friar’s Roast of Hugh Hefner, he told a bad hijacker’s joke (“I intended to catch a plane, but could not get a direct flight because ‘they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first”), got booed, and then launched into one of the raunchiest jokes of all time, winning his audience back.
That was “The Aristocrats,” and Gottfried’s telling of the classic dirty joke became one of the highlights of the 2005 film of the same name. But it was not the comic’s last taste of controversy, despite his career as a voice in kids’ television and proprietor of the increasingly popular Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast. In 2011 he lost his gig as the voice of that Aflac duck following his Tweeting of a series of jokes following the Japanese earthquake (he was replaced by a sound-alike).
Seems like the perfect comic for this season of political inanity, right?
“It’s a strange period now,” he said in an interview about his upcoming Woodstock gig. “The internet makes me sentimental of old time lynch mobs where you used to have to get your hands dirty a bit. Everybody is a moral compass unto themselves now and everything you say gets an angry mob out. I feel like if Charlie Chaplin was around now he’d be attacked for making fun of homeless people.”
As for the candidates, and actual politics of the day, Gottfried all but shrugged.
“I’ve shied away from political humor,” he said. “With the two who are out there now you don’t even have to make jokes.”
What got Gilbert Gottfried into the comedy business?
“I remember as a kid I’d say stuff to be funny and after a while you start to understand how jokes work,” he recalled of his process, if not any actual jokes he heard or told. “As a kid I watched a lot of TV and at some point someone told my older sister some club where you put your name down on some sheet of paper and then got to go up on stage. I was 15, and I’m unsure now where the club was exactly. It’s all a blur.”
We asked whether humor had gotten harder, or easier, over the years and Gottfried noted how he feels more and more like a kid facing cold water each time he has to go on stage. But then you jump in and all’s well. You swim and enjoy the swimming.
Was his podcast a move into a more ambitious direction, similar to what Louis C.K.’s been pioneering with his FX series, or recent Pete and Horace experiment, which moved in the direction of serious television drama?
“Not with me so much,” Gottfried replied soberly. “I think it would be great if I thought in those terms, was more pro-active. Now, if the phone rings I’ll do it. I seem to be one of those careers that’s all over the place.”
We explored the life of a reactive artist more intensely as the veteran comic talked about his life as a father of two kids, age 7 and 9. He doesn’t find himself wanting to work his family life, or children, into his act. But then he does notice how his own sense of humor gets reflected in them, along with his personality.
“If one of them comes out with a dirty word it’s very uncomfortable for me to reprimand them,” he says in his characteristic voice.
Is humor changing? Can it still provide a level of catharsis akin to what Gottfried was able to do, at least for his peers in the comedy business, 15 years ago?
“What I notice now is that with the internet, anything you say, the world holds you accountable for,” he says, returning to his worries about how moralistic so many people have become. Or think they’ve become. But then he addresses something he’s noticed at weddings, and even funerals, where someone talking will start telling bad jokes, or whisper something to the person next to them, starting a chuckle, maybe even a guffaw.
“Humor’s still a way for people to deal with hard things,” Gilbert Gottfried observes. “And after a gig like in Woodstock — where I’m sure plenty of stuff will pop up into my mind and I’ll say it — I will still end up both exhausted and exhilarated in my hotel room afterwards, staring at the ceiling.”
And wondering what he’ll be expected to react to, and provide catharsis for, next.
For more on the Woodstock Comedy Festival, running September 23 to September 25, see www.woodstockcomedyfestival.org.