Even if you don’t know the name Gilbert Gottfried, you almost certainly know the voice: a shrill, grating thing delivered with annoyance, attitude, and a general disregard for the appropriate. You probably recognize it as the voice of the Aflac duck and as Iago the parrot in Disney’s “Aladdin.”
In fact, Gottfried is much more than his voice. He got his start in the late 1970s at just 15 years old as a standup comedian, and despite a career of film roles and voice work since, he still takes to the stage to deliver his own brand of off-color humor. He’s also hosted “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast” since 2014.
The documentary “Gilbert” was released last year to critical acclaim, providing a remarkable inside look at the notoriously private and frugal performer. Among the revelations: Gottfried has a “real voice” apart from his “stage voice;” he sometimes takes the city bus to gigs; and he doesn’t throw anything away.
On May 12, 2018, Gottfried appears at the Downunder Club in Bangor, Maine. The Weekly recently had an opportunity to talk with him about fame, tattoos, and the risks of being a comedian in the age of social media.
Have you ever been to Bangor?
GG: It’s so strange. I travel all the time. And there are these entire states I swear I’ve never been to, and then I show up at the club or I go to a radio show and they’ll say, “Oh, welcome back.” It’s kind of like those movies where the lead character has amnesia and he sees, like, an ashtray, and he lifts it up and it gives him a flashback.
Do you ever go to a city thinking it’s your first time, only to get home and realize you have souvenirs from five previous visits?
GG: Oh yeah, yeah. Some places, I’ll have keys to the city that the mayor gave me and I’ll go, “Was this mailed to me?"
How many shows do you have lined up for this tour?
GG: The word “tour.” I never understood that. I always thought that in order for it to be a tour, you’d have to be with a band and you’d have an electric guitar and you’re singing in arenas. And you’d have to be traveling on your own bus.
Well, I think you need to get a band, and maybe an electric guitar.
GG: Yeah, I’ll have to do that. And maybe a weird tattoo.
What sort of tattoo? Have you put any thought into this?
GG: Yeah, one where I swore I’d stay in love with Winona Ryder. And another one written in some kind of ancient language that doesn’t exist anymore. I’ll find out it doesn’t mean what I thought it meant—like it was supposed to mean “peace in the afterlife,” but it actually means “go f— yourself.”
So I watched the documentary over the weekend. You’re a pretty private guy. How does it feel to see yourself laid to bare like that?
GG: It’s funny, I see just great reviews, and I hate every second of it. It’s like remembering the first time you ever heard your voice recorded. Everybody goes “No, no, that’s not what I sound like.” Or you see a picture of yourself and you go “No, no, there’s something wrong with your camera. That’s not the way I look.”
But you’ve been on screen many times. What’s the difference between seeing yourself in, say, an Eddie Murphy film, and seeing yourself in the documentary?
GG: I’m totally comfortable if I’m, like, “Nick the Plumber” in a sitcom or a movie. Give me a janitor’s jacket to wear, or a policeman’s cap, and I’m fine. But if it’s me as “me,” that’s the horrible part. I always think of that scene in “Wizard of Oz” where it’s like, don’t look at that man behind the curtain. And that’s the way I feel—“Uh-oh, everyone is looking at the man behind the curtain.”
A lot of your fellow comedians have very high praise for you. How does it feel to be an ‘elder statesman’ of comedy?
GG: Oh, that’s the scary part. It’s especially scary when a young, sexy girl comes up and says, “Oh, my mother is a big fan of yours!” Like, “My grandparents have a ¾-inch videotape of you! We watch old kinescopes of your shows!”
How have you seen comedy involve in the social media generation?
GG: It’s very weird. I found out that Twitter is a very expensive hobby to have. [Gottfried was fired as the voice of the Aflac duck after joking about the Japanese tsunami disaster on Twitter in 2011—Ed.]. I’m happy Twitter wasn’t around when I was starting. I don’t want to see the things I was saying and doing. I’m sure it was horrible. Now with social media, someone who’s never been on stage before records themselves with their phone, and they put it up on social media. And yet there’s the other part of it, where people will film themselves picking their nose and put it online and it’s like they’ve got seven billion fans.
Do you feel like it’s lowered the bar for the craft, or just evolved it?
GG: I don’t know. For the longest time, I didn’t want to do reality shows. Then I finally ended up doing “Wife Swap,” “Celebrity Apprentice,” “Celebrity Cook-off.” And for a while I was like, I don’t want to be in a category with the Kardashians, I want to be in a category with Robert De Niro. And then you go, well, the Kardashians have a much bigger fanbase than De Niro. You start listening to yourself and realize you sound like one of those old Shakespearean actors: “This ‘talking film’ business is a fad, and I won’t lower myself to it.”
What sort of material can fans in Bangor expect when you perform here?
GG: I think they can expect to sit there for five minutes, and then look at each other and go, “Whose idea was it to see Gilbert Gottfried?” And then—”How can we get up without him seeing us?”
Anything you’re hoping to see in Bangor while you’re here?
GG: When I go to these towns, I get off the plane. I go to my hotel. I wake up in the morning, wondering where I am. Sometimes I’m forced to get up at 3 o’clock in the morning because I have to do the “Wacky Jim and Crazy Bob Morning Zoo” radio show. Then I go right back to the hotel and ride the elevator back to my room. In order to see anything, my hotel would have to be like those rooms in the movies where you can see the Eiffel Tower right outside your window. That’s the only way I’d be able to know where I am.
OK, so what’s your favorite short joke?
GG: Oh, god. Whenever people ask me my favorite anything, my mind goes completely blank. I got asked one time for my favorite recipe for a magazine. They said, “Just say any kind of food, and we’ll look up the recipe and put your picture next to it.” So basically, just type in “joke” on the internet, and then claim it’s mine. [The first joke that appeared after searching “joke” on Google was this—Q: How do fish end their work emails? A: Let minnow what you think. There you have it: Gilbert Gottfried’s favorite joke—Ed.].
This article was originally published in The Weekly, May 8, 2018.