Gilbert Gottfried, defender of cross-border comedy and a return to the great joke tellers

Gilbert Gottfried, who died on Tuesday at the age of 67 after a long battle with a genetic muscle disease, was a true cartoon. A return to set-up and punchline humor in an era dominated by storytellers and observation comedians, he relied on impeccable timing and a peculiar style – partly whining voice, partly squinting eyes – to beat his audience with joke after joke. His delivery made him unique and unforgettable, and his mastery of an audience left his fellow comedians in awe.

“If Gilbert wanted to kill, forget it,” stand-up comedian Ritch Shydner told Salon. Shydner often had the unenviable task of following Gottfried at comedy clubs in New York.

He relied on impeccable timing and a quirky style. . . to beat his audience with joke after joke.

Gottfried was born in Coney Island and grew up in a small apartment above the hardware store his father and uncle run. He was an awkward child who gained the acceptance of his fellow students by becoming the class clown. . . at least the days he went to school, which were few and far between. Whenever he could, he played hooky and spent his days in the library reading books. At home, he lived in front of the television.

Gottfried decided early on that show business was his calling. “I could not sing. I could not dance. I was not very nice,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Rubber balls and spirits.” “I had no noticeable talent or admirable qualities, even though I liked making voices.”

While still in high school, Gottfried developed a series of impressions that amused his family so much that his sister decided he was ready for a real audience. She took her 15-year-old brother to “Hootenanny Night” in Bitter End in Greenwich Village. His first concert went well enough for Gottfried to continue to perform there weekly, build his act and eventually perform wherever he could in the early 1970s comedy scene in Manhattan.

In the early days of cable time, MTV gave Gottfried his big break and hired him to record ad-libbed bits to be broadcast between music videos. His MTV presence led to a brief stint on “Saturday Night Live,” which in turn gave him a number of film roles. After appearing as an accountant in “Beverly Hills Cop II” alongside his former “SNL” buddy Eddie Murphy, Gottfried became a regular performer and often created memorable characters with his unmistakable voice. His most notable role: Iago the parrot in “Aladdin”.

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“Our hearts are broken over the loss of our beloved friend, collaborator, behind-the-scenes mischief and most disrespectful spirit, full of light and magic,” Linda Larkin, Scott Weinger and Jonathan Freeman, his co-stars in “Aladdin,” wrote on Instagram. “Gilbert Gottfried, you were one of a kind.”

Gottfried cartoon

Throughout his career, Gottfried’s sharp joke story remained his business card. From his regular work in comedy clubs to his appearances on “The Howard Stern Show” and on Comedy Central, he worked as blue as he could, often tackling material that was too edgy for most comedians.

“Gilbert was a wonderful mimic and impressionist,” Shydner told Salon, “but it was his daring attacks on forbidden subjects that made the other comics bend at his feet.”

“It was his daring attacks on forbidden subjects that made the other comics bow at his feet.”

Sometimes his willingness to take comic risks costs him. In 2011, hours after a devastating tsunami hit the coast of Japan, Gottfried tweeted jokes that seemed to minimize the resulting human suffering. Although they were tamer than some of his regular material, the insurance company AFLAC – which had cast Gottfried as the voice of its commercial duck – fired him from the concert.

Actor / comedian Gilbert Gottfried performs at the International Myeloma Foundation’s 6th annual comedy celebration hosted by Ray Romano for the Peter Boyle Research Fund at the Wilshire Ebell Theater on October 27, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Joe Scarnici / Getty Images for IMF)However, a particular Gottfried joke went far beyond edginess, into a transcendent stratosphere that embedded him in American comic book history: “The Aristocrats.”

For a short time after 9/11, comedy felt both inappropriate and impossible. The networks pulled their talk shows out of the air in the evening, and the media declared that the age of sarcasm was over. Laughter seemed like secondary damage in the war on terror. After two gloomy weeks, however, Comedy Central decided to move on with a roast by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Gottfried decided that leaving comedy dying would mean the terrorists had won, and he was not about to let it happen on his watch.

“I just wanted to be the first person to make a really bad taste joke about 9/11,” he wrote to Vulture.

And he ever did. Gottfried opened with a joke about not being able to get a direct flight from New York to California because they first had to stop at the Empire State Building. Then he told a self-ironic, defamatory joke about the Muslim version of his name: “Has not been laid.”

“I just wanted to be the first person to make a really bad taste joke about 9/11.”

Vinnie Favale, producer of “The Howard Stern Show,” was in the room when it happened. He told the Salon that after that opening, “there was a shift in the room.” The audience was not ready to laugh at the recent events. Does not matter. “… Then he went straight into the Aristocrat joke and stole the show.”

The beauty of “The Aristocrats” – the legendary, elaborate joke about a family performing a lewd vaudeville act for a talent scout – is all in the spotlight. As Gottfried’s description of the family’s deviant action stretched, his whining voice turned staccato and grew louder, the audience slowly surrendered to the bite, some literally falling to the floor. When he finished the gag with its classic punchline – the agent asks the family what they call their action and the family says “The Aristocrats” – Gottfried had started a comedy, which sent a clear signal that it was not “too early” “but it was rather OK to laugh again.

Gilbert GottfriedGilbert Gottfried performs at The Stress Factory Comedy Club on November 25, 2015 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Getty Images / Bobby Bank / WireImage)

In recent years, he launched “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast,” which revealed a new side of his comic mind. Each episode offered penetrating insights into popular culture built on Gottfried’s encyclopedic knowledge of comedy, film, commercials and cartoons.

RELATED: Interview: So, Gilbert Gottfried, about the tsunami jokes. . .

A particular target of his podcast critique was a much-loved Matthew Broderick film from 1986. On Broderick’s birthday, Gottfried took to Twitter to wish the actor good luck, but opened with a wild assessment: “I still hate ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.'”

While the film may have seemed innocent when it came out, Gottfried argued, a story in which Bueller’s nihilistic hedonism triumphs over characters just trying to do their jobs and worry about others landed differently during the Trump era.

“His podcast is a comedy treasure,” Judd Apatow remarked on Twitter. “What a terrible loss.”

the man Gottfried

Gottfried was known for his gentle, almost shy, off-stage presence, a stark contrast to his bombastic stand-up persona. “He was the cutest guy in real life,” Favale recalled. As much loved as he was by comedians, however, his family valued him most.

“In addition to being the most iconic voice in comedy, Gilbert was a wonderful husband, friend and father to his two young children,” they shared on social media. “Even though today is a sad day for all of us, keep laughing as loudly as possible in Gilbert’s honor.


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Although he was a secular Jew, Gottfried reflected on the possibility of life after death in his autobiography: “If there is a hell,” he wrote, “and if that is where I go, an endless gag will probably be played. real. on some big screen TV where I’m trying to talk to women. “

Appropriately, in his last post on social media, Gottfried defended the comedians’ right to work with the bleeding edge in their material, just as he himself had done throughout his career:

“What’s the worst crime? Chris Rock being physically assaulted or Chris Rock telling a joke?”

To the last, he devoted himself to the art of jokes – set-up, punchline and laughter – and all that jokes can give rise to: great offense, deep insight and relief from great tragedy.

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