He invented a squinting, screeching persona to become a famous stand-up comedian.
This Friday, Gilbert Gottfried performs live at The State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia.
“What people can expect when they come to see me is to be sitting there for five or ten minutes, then turn to each other and go, ‘Whose idea was it to see Gilbert Gottfried?'”
Gottfried told WTOP it was awkward returning to the stage after a long pandemic hiatus.
“It’s been very weird, especially the first few times,” Gottfried said. “I found myself on stage going, ‘This is what I do for a living?’ … Now I’m getting back to normal, but boy, the first couple of times it was like I’d be on stage thinking, ‘I know I have more material than this.'”
Outside of comedy, he insists his life didn’t change much at home in New York City.
“It was very odd because I found that, the kind of life I lead, the pandemic didn’t make it that much different,” Gottfried said. “I would sit on the couch and watch TV, which I would normally do anyway. … I wasn’t going to any Hollywood parties that I was missing.”
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1955, he grew up watching all the greats on TV.
“I had heard comedy albums, but I never owned one — there was something always depressing about comedy albums,” Gottfried said. “Growing up there was still the old guys around like Jack Benny, George Burns, Groucho [Marx] and Jerry Lewis, so those I would watch, and then the new comics coming along, so I used to get a little of everything.”
His life changed at age 15 when he began performing stand-up gigs in Manhattan.
“I would start watching actors in movies and doing imitations of them and I decided I wanted to be in show business,” Gottfried said. “My sister’s friend told her there’s a club in Manhattan where you write your name in the book, you wait andthey call your name. … I traveled up from Brooklyn to Manhattan and went up on stage and did mainly imitations.”
He even briefly joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” for one season in 1980.
“They were having auditions for ‘Saturday Night Live’ and saw me at Catch a Rising Star,” Gottfried said. “Everybody else was talking about how they were so scared and nervous and anxious. … I really didn’t care for some reason. When I got the show I wasn’t thrilled that I got the show, and when they fired me, I wasn’t upset that they fired me.”
He said the cast didn’t stand a chance after the departure of Bill Murray and John Belushi.
“It was the worst time to be on ‘Saturday Night Live’ because the producer and original cast had left,” Gottfried said. “It was like if in the middle of Beatlemania, they said, ‘We’re having four new guys.’ … People were attacking the show before it even aired like this was sacrilege without the original cast. … You don’t want to be the replacement.”
After that, he honed his schtick with an intentionally obnoxious delivery.
“It just kind of happened,” Gottfried said. “I would go on stage more and more. After a while, you find yourself and that’s your delivery. For me, it’s kind of like going up to somebody walking down the street and saying, ‘Hey, the way you move your arms when you’re walking, where did that come from?’ It’s just your regular day to day personality.”
Soon, he joined his fellow “SNL” alum Eddie Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop II” (1987).
“Doing that scene, I wish they had filmed the entire thing of us doing take after take because we kept improvising,” Gottfried said. “We had these traffic tickets and he says, ‘Is there some way we can avoid this unpleasantry?’ And he gives them some money. We just played with it each time. … I remember Eddie and I just laughing and having fun.”
After that, he was cast across John Ritter in the surprise hit “Problem Child” (1990).
“Nobody thought ‘Problem Child’ was going to be anything,” Gottfried said. “Most people thought it’ll come out and it’ll bomb. When I was through with my shooting, I went to John’s trailer and said, ‘I’m leaving tomorrow. Nice working with you.’ He seemed uncomfortable and apologetic. … Then it came out and it surprised everyone. It was like a monster hit.”
His biggest role came as Jafar’s sidekick parrot Iago in Disney’s “Aladdin” (1992).
“It’s amazing to think I was once actually in a quality production,” Gottfried said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve seen articles saying, ‘Gilbert and Robin [Williams] got in that sound booth together. That was craziness!’ During the making of ‘Aladdin,’ I didn’t run into Robin once. … Just to be attached to a classic Disney cartoon is pretty amazing.”
So much of the script was improvised that it was disqualified from Oscar contention.
“They let me play around with it,” Gottfried said. “I didn’t have to stick to the script. Every now and then they’d stop me and say, ‘This is a family movie.’ I remember them getting a complaint. There was one part where I said, ‘What the?’ A woman complained to Disney saying, ‘Although he didn’t say the whole sentence, we knew what word was coming up.”
Disney got a similar complaint during the animated TV series of “Aladdin.”
“There’s one part where a tiger is chasing us and my character goes, ‘He’s going to eat us like kitty chow,'” Gottfried said. “The TV show actually had me redo it to sound clearer, because one woman complained that she was watching the series with her family and…”
Just then, the fire alarm went off in his hotel during our interview.
“That’s what the woman said!” Gottfried joked. “She didn’t use any words. A siren came out of her mouth. That’s how angry she was! … She said, ‘I want to complain about [wooo!]’ … She said, ‘Dear Disney, [wooo!]’ … I feel like the actual story can’t live up to the fire alarm! … Maybe it’s better without finding out because it will build up a legend in people’s minds.”
Thankfully, Gottfried kept rolling instead of running for the fire escape.
“I’m evidently in a burning building,” Gottfried said. “At least this will be a valuable interview if I’m burned alive. … I think you should definitely keep the alarm. … I wish I could take credit for coming up with the idea of a fire alarm in the middle of everything. … This is funnier than anything I’ve come up with. … That’s Iago from the movie!”
He also voiced the Aflac duck until a series of tweets about the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
“They dropped me,” Gottfried said. “Every time some tragic event happens or something in bad taste, I like to make jokes about it. It’s what I do. I found out that 90% of their business was Japan, so they fired me, got loads of free publicity by firing me, then got a new guy to imitate my voice for less money, thus bringing closure to a horrible tragedy.”
Today, you’ll see him show up on various reality shows, comedy roasts and game shows, harkening back to his outrageous appearances on “The Hollywood Squares.”
“Growing up, I would watch Hollywood Squares with Paul Lynde, John Davidson and Charley Weaver,” Gottfried said. “I would laugh, but I remember thinking even as a kid that ‘Hollywood Squares’ is something when you’re at the bottom of your career. There’s something pathetic about being on this show. I guess there is a God and they called me.”
Through it all, he’s never had to contend with a villain as menacing as the fire alarm.
“You’re wrapping up before the next fire alarm?” Gottfried said. “You’ll release this after I’m dead, which will be in 15 minutes from now. … I got the vaccine, but the fire killed me.”