With his exaggerated, high-pitched voice, the stand-up built a career on crude jokes and a sense of the absurd
Gilbert Gottfried, a comedian with a signature honking voice who delighted in shocking his audiences with pointedly crude material and who achieved greater renown in film and on TV commercials, has died aged 67.
Gottfried, who began doing stand-up comedy when he was 15, was briefly in the cast of Saturday Night Live, appeared in major comedy clubs and on Howard Stern’s radio broadcasts and was often featured in raunchy roasts of other comedians.
He played the squawky parrot Iago in the 1992 animated hit film Aladdin and appeared in dozens of other movie and television shows as a character actor or voiceover artist. From 2000 to 2011, he was in several popular television commercials as the voice of the Aflac duck.
But his penchant for jokes that could offend, especially after national tragedies, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Japanese tsunami of 2011, led to cancelled contracts and a downturn in his career.
Aflac fired him within an hour of learning of tweets Gottfried had posted about the tsunami, which claimed thousands of lives in Japan. Gottfried said he learned of his firing from news reports, not from Aflac.
“I don’t regret the joke,” he said in 2017. “I regret losing the money.”
Like many comedians, Gottfried built his act around sex, celebrities and his own inadequacies. He combined an older, Borscht Belt style of a loud delivery with often-vulgar subject matter.
“Gilbert’s somewhere between Mark Twain and a birthday clown,” comedian Dave Attell said in Gilbert, a 2017 documentary about Gottfried.
Although he spoke in a resonant baritone offstage, much of his humour derived from an exaggerated, high-pitched, nasal inflection and a sense of the absurd. In one routine, he read passages from the erotically charged Fifty Shades of Grey in his trademark screech.
When he appeared on Hollywood Squares, a semi-scripted celebrity quiz show, he was asked, “What mammal has the largest eyes?”
He answered, “Marlon Brando at a buffet,” speaking of the renowned actor, who gained a great deal of weight in his later years. Brando complained to the show’s producers, which only prompted Gottfried to make fun of him more often.
When Julia Roberts married stone-faced country singer Lyle Lovett, Gottfried added it to his routine, but with a personal touch: “I should have asked her out. What’s the worst thing she could have said to me? ‘I’m sorry, but you have a normal-shaped head. Could you do me a favour and lie with your head inside the elevator door and let it slam against it throughout the day and then give me a call?’ I loved doing that bit. That was the only celebrity divorce I cried about. The bit made no sense anymore.”
For Gottfried, comedy had to risk being offensive, it needed to have an edge of danger that would cut through pomposity and polite expectations. For years, that quality made him a favourite at celebrity roasts.
A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Gottfried appeared at one such event, poking fun at Hugh Hefner, and made a joke about flying on an airliner after the terrorist attacks. Someone in the audience shouted “too soon”, and the room went silent.
“You could hear people getting really angry, shocked, and gasping,” he told Vulture.
Gottfried then decided to tell the “aristocrats” joke – one of the oldest and filthiest jokes in the comic repertoire, one with so many variations that a 2005 documentary film was made about it, featuring Gottfried, Bob Saget, George Carlin and many other comics.
“I figured, ‘Why not go into a lower level of hell? I’ve already lost them beyond belief,’” Gottfried said. The audience roared with every twist of the joke.
“That they laughed at, and a writer wrote that it was ‘cathartic’.”
Gilbert Jeremy Gottfried was born 28 February 1955, in Brooklyn, where he grew up above a hardware store run by his father and uncle.
He dropped out of high school to pursue comedy and appeared in clubs at the same time as other rising stars, including Jerry Seinfeld, whom Gottfried sometimes imitated in his act.
He was a cast member on Saturday Night Live in the 1980-81 season, almost always speaking in his real voice and seldom in his comic persona. Between comedy club performances, he acted in dozens of films and TV shows, including a role as an unscrupulous lawyer in Beverly Hills Cop II (1987). He reprised his role as the hapless parrot Iago in several Aladdin movies.
“Another person, when they were considering me,” he later recalled, “said, ‘I don’t know. Gilbert Gottfried seems a little one-dimensional.’ I thought, ‘So maybe they should call Meryl Streep to be the parrot.’ You know, I don’t have the range to be a cartoon character.”
For years, Gottfried appeared on Stern’s radio broadcasts and on late-night talk shows with David Letterman and Jay Leno. In recent years, he appeared on shows such as Celebrity Wife Swap and the Sharknado TV movies and remained active on the comedy circuit.
Since 2014, he and writer Frank Santopadre hosted a podcast featuring interviews with actors and other celebrities.
“You don’t want to go on a rollercoaster that advertises that this rollercoaster goes very slowly and doesn’t make any sudden turns of drops,” Gottfried told Vulture, describing his philosophy of comedy. “You want to feel like you’re going to go on a ride and there’s a chance it will kill you.”
He is survived by his wife, Dara, and his two children, Lily and Max.
Gilbert Gottfried, comedian, born 28 February 1955, died 12 April 2022
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