Gilbert Gottfried is disgusting — and proudly so. In reviews of the 2005 documentary film The Aristocrats, which chronicles the supposed dirtiest joke in the world, the squinty-eyed comic with the famously grating voice is often cited as stealing the film with his rendition of the obscenely taboo joke during a Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner in New York City shortly after 9/11.
"One of the reviews said, 'Of the hundred or so comedians in the film, no one is more disgusting than Gilbert Gottfried,'" the comic recalls. "And I thought, You know, that's really an honor."
But as another, more recent, documentary reveals, Gottfried — who performs at Burlington's Vermont Comedy Club this Friday and Saturday, April 20 and 21 — is something else, too. He's thoughtful, sweet, devoted to his family and more than a little cheap, especially when it comes to hoarding hotel freebies.
Gilbert, released in 2017, follows the comic through various periods of his life, both onstage and off. The doc, which has scored almost universally favorable reviews, offers an unusually candid look at its subject, from his home life in NYC with his wife, Dara, and their two children, to the decidedly unglamorous grind of touring. We meet Gottfried's sister, who is battling cancer, and learn of his sometimes fraught relationship with their father. Gottfried's friends, including comics Bill Burr, Bob Saget and Jim Gaffigan — as well as Dick Van Dyke in one especially memorable scene — weigh in with illuminating, and often hilarious, commentary.
The film also zeroes in on a famously tumultuous period in the comic's life surrounding a series of insensitive tweets he made in 2011 about a Japanese tsunami. The tweets and resulting media controversy ultimately cost Gottfried a lucrative gig as the voice of the Aflac duck.
Seven Days recently spoke with the comic by phone.
SEVEN DAYS: Let's start with the documentary. Your sister has an unbelievable singing voice. So what the hell happened to yours?
GILBERT GOTTFRIED: [Laughs] Yeah, you can only dig from the talent well so much. But my sister couldn't do a good Boris Karloff imitation, so it evens itself out.
SD: One of my favorite scenes in Gilbert was you at that weird military memorabilia convention. The Nazis seemed like surprisingly nice fellas.
GG: It was funny. That looked like something that was planned ahead of time because it was just too perfect. But it was just this war reenactor convention on a whole floor of this hotel. So I walked in, and these Nazi officers with their swastikas and Iron Crosses run over to me all excited, and they're taking selfies with me and saying how much they loved Problem Child.
SD: Nazis like Problem Child?
GG: I remember thinking, You know, we've had the Nazis all wrong all these years. They're a swell group of guys. [Laughs]
SD: The most laugh-out-loud moment of the film was when that Nazi officer apologized for his bad joke, and you told him it wasn't the worst thing the Nazis had ever done.
GG: That was after they had attended my show in full Nazi regalia. It was like a scene out of Cabaret.
SD: I was impressed by how much access you gave the filmmakers and how open and candid you and your family were. How do you feel about that now?
GG: It's peculiar, because the filmmaker came up to me and said, "I've always dreamt of doing a Gilbert Gottfried documentary." And I said, "You should set your dreams a lot higher than that."
I've always hated the idea of doing a documentary, much like I hate doing reality shows. I feel much better if they hire me as Joe the Plumber for a sitcom. But here he was, following me around through different episodes of my life, and more like a wimp than really wanting a documentary I said, "Well, I guess he really wants to do this, so we'll do it." And then I figured that if we're going to do this at all, it would have to be totally honest. I think by now audiences would realize if something is fake, with all the reality TV stuff.
SD: Was it surreal to watch it?
GG: Oh, yeah. The movie, shockingly to me, has gotten great reviews. But when I watch it, it's always uncomfortable to me. It's kind of like the first time you hear your voice recorded, and you go, "No, that's not me. I don't sound anything like that." I look at the film and think, I don't look that way, and I don't walk that way.
SD: Your wife Dara claims that you weren't a blue comic until The Aristocrats. So this is a two-part question: Is that true? And if so, why go so blue after that film?
GG: I don't know if The Aristocrats is what did it. I mean, I've always enjoyed dirty jokes. But it's funny, I used to go out of my way to work clean and never put in any kind of four-letter word. That's because I always wanted to make sure the joke works on its own merits, and it's not the word that's doing it.
Like, I would see comedians on TV where, say, the punchline is, "I wore a cowboy hat." And you go, "Well, that's not funny." And then I realized that the producers of the show probably watched him in a club where he said "I wore a fuckin' cowboy hat." And then they laughed and thought it was a great joke, not realizing that the word was the joke.
So I always tried to work clean. But now I enjoy going up there and being disgusting.
SD: Well, you certainly have a gift for it. Back to the doc, there is a significant section about the Japanese tsunami tweets. Did that experience alter how you approach social media now?
GG: I think the internet makes me sentimental for old-time angry mobs, because they actually had to go out and get their hands dirty and get people. Now everybody can form an angry mob sitting in their underwear on their couch. So sometimes I'll think twice before I tweet something, but then usually do it anyway.
I think when people get offended, they're really patting themselves on the back: "See? I was offended. That makes me a good person, and I'm joining in on this good fight."
SD: But you seemed genuinely upset and remorseful about the controversy.
GG: I took it seriously. I thought, The world hates me, and it's all through for me. But then what you realize is, it's like how the top pop song changes every week. There's the Villain of the Month on the internet. People move on.
SD: You've done a bunch of celebrity roasts. Do you have a favorite celeb that you've roasted?
GG: The most famous one was Hugh Hefner, because that's where I did the September 11th joke and then followed it with The Aristocrats. And that showed terrorism: bad taste, incest and bestiality: good taste. And it showed that if there is a horrible situation, people want a release. They want to have a laugh.
But I've enjoyed all of them: Roseanne [Barr], Joan Rivers, Bob Saget, David Hasselhoff. And of course, Donald Trump.
SD: Right! In hindsight, what stands out about the Trump roast now?
GG: Well, now I can finally say I met the president. I never thought I'd be able to, because I'm not the kind of comic that's invited to the White House.
SD: Do you think you'll eventually be a roast target?
GG: Maybe, because eventually they'll run out of people to roast.