TRANSCRIPT Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: Remembering Gilbert Gottfried

Gilbert Gottfried died last month. The standup comedian and actor was 67. To millennials of a certain age, he was an iconic voice actor: Iago in Aladdin, Kraang Subprime in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the voice of Aflac Duck commercials. We’re taking a moment to remember Gilbert’s life by revisiting our conversation from 2017. At the time, he joined us to talk about the documentary Gilbert, which profiled the life and work of the comic. In this conversation, Gilbert talked about what it was like to star in a documentary about his life, and why he struggled watching parts of the film. Plus, we dive into some of the Twitter jokes that got him into trouble over the years. This conversation also features segments that were previously unaired including Gilbert’s thoughts on his early career, and he expands on finding jokes from the worst possible situations.

Guests: Gilbert Gottfried

Transcript

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Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

jesse thorn

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. Gilbert Gottfried died last month. He was 67. To Millennials of a certain age, he was an iconic voice actor: Iago in Aladdin, Kraang Subprime in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the duck from the Aflac commercials. He was also a beloved, boundary pushing standup comic. When he’d hit the stage, he'd become a character. He’d squint his eyes, scream at the top of his lungs, and tell jokes that frankly only Gilbert Gottfried could get away with. When I talked to Gottfried in 2017, he was the subject of an excellent documentary that had just come out, called Gilbert. The film showed Gottfried for who he really was: a complex guy who, of course, doesn’t shout all the time, who loves his family, who walks to the end of the block to get paper towels. That kind of stuff. The director, Neil Berkeley, tags along with Gottfried to gigs. He goes to his house. He interviews his wife, his children. And what it shows you is a portrait of a brilliant, complex comedian—a comedian whose work has gotten him into trouble plenty of times. Here’s a little bit from the documentary, towards the beginning.

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Music: Gentle orchestral music. Gilbert Gottfried: Quite often, I look at my life as a Twilight Zone episode, like those episodes where a guy wakes up and he’s in this totally different world, totally different life. I wake up, and I go, “What are these other clothes hanging here? And what’s this weird apartment where the furniture matches?” And they go, “Why, you’re married, sir!”

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jesse

[Laughs.] Gilbert Gottfried, welcome to Bullseye. It’s great to have you on the show.

gilbert gottfried

Oh, thank you!

jesse

I feel like there are about ten minutes in this film dedicated specifically to your history of defending your personal life. Anything besides your stage character from Being Seen. I guess the first question is why was that? Why didn’t you wanna have a public life besides performing?

gilbert

Well, there’s one part of the film—and it’s called Gilbert. [Chuckles.] Um. It’s that—and I’ve always—I always think this, like 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 always felt with my life, as far as a performer goes, I feel like, “Oh, I don’t want them to see that guy behind the curtain. It might kill anything they like about me.”

jesse

Were you worried that the real you was disappointing?

gilbert

Uh, yeah. And I mean, it’s just like—I remember, for years, after I do a set—and sometimes I do a great set, and you know, or get a lot of laughs and everything. And I’d be scared to go up and, you know, try to talk to women in the bar or something, ‘cause I thought I’ll just wind up killing everything I created up there.

jesse

Did you ever see that episode of The Larry Sanders Show, where Bobcat Goldthwait is gonna take over the show?

gilbert

Uh, no.

jesse

[Chuckles.] What happens in this episode is Bob Goldthwait, who—of course—was famous as—particularly at the time for his kind of screaming and caterwauling onstage, takes over The Larry Sanders Show for Larry Sanders, and he does it in his real voice. And the executives are like, “Wait a minute, we hired Bobcat Goldthwait, the guy who yells in The Police Academy movies. And the tension of this episode is Bob wanting to have his own real life, human being persona and the network wanting his screaming weirdo persona. Which, to be fair, is very funny.

gilbert

Uh, me, I just kind of felt—I always felt safe in character. This movie is like one of the few times you see me like break character. And it’s funny! I’ve been doing it so long. Either one [laughs] of my characters seems natural to me, now.

jesse

What kind of comedy did you do when you started out? You started out as a teenager doing open mics before—basically before there were comedy clubs.

gilbert

Oh, yeah! I was one of those kids that watched way too much TV, and started to, after a while—I used to draw pictures. I used to think of being a cartoonist. And then I started to joke around. Like, I’d watch these old actors in the old movies they’d show on TV, and I’d do imitations of them. And then I started getting more and more interested in showbusiness. And my sister, Arlene, had a friend who told her, you know, there’s some club—and I don’t remember the name of it—that you could just go there and write your name down on the list, and when they get to your name they just call—you know, announce it and you go up, and you do something. I mean, no money, of course. And I was 15 years old and made the trek from Brooklyn to Manhattan and did it. And I’ve always said that what I had on my side was stupidity. [They laugh.] ‘Cause I mean, now it makes me cringe to imagine what was going on in my parent’s heads. It’s like to say you were gonna make it in show business, that’s like saying, “Well, I’m gonna be an astronaut.” It was really a—‘cause now that I’m older, I see things in a more logical sense. So, when people say to me, you know, “Oh, you know, I’m thinking of going into show business,” or how would I feel about my kids going into show business—and I feel like I’d be fine with my kids going into show business if they started out as rich, international superstars and never had a second of rejection. [Jesse laughs.] Then I’d be fine with it. But—

jesse

Did you like—did you believe, when you were 15 years old, that it was going to work?

gilbert

Uh, yeah! It’s like I said! It was the stupidity level. I would do it, and I—sometimes I bomb horribly. A lot of times I bomb horribly. And—but I just kept doing it! Yeah.

jesse

I feel like I talk to a lot of standups who tell me that they had a great first set and then they bombed for six months thereafter, but they remembered what that first set was like. And I often think like how many comedians we’ve lost because they didn’t have—their first set wasn’t good. [Chuckles.] You know? [Gilbert agrees.] Like, their second set would’ve been the good one.

gilbert

Yes! And that was one of those things I—one of those lessons I learned: that sometimes you go up and you’ll do a powerhouse set and you think, “Well! That’s it! I’m great!” And then, like the next night you go up and you can’t buy a laugh from the crowd. And so, that’s the—that’s the first thing. I think Steve Martin once said it’s easy to be great. It’s hard to be good.

jesse

Was it easy for you to look at your past in the film?

gilbert

Uh, no. It’s funny how it happened. The filmmaker, Neil Berkeley, he approached me and said, “I’ve always dreamt of doing a Gilbert Gottfried documentary.” And I said, “Well, you should set your dreams a lot higher than that.” [Jesse laughs.] And then he just started following me around, and me, I didn’t have the guts to say “get away from me”. So, he would follow me. He’d show up at my house and I’d be walking around in my bathrobe, ironing a shirt. And then he started following me to clubs I was booked at. And it made me very uncomfortable. And I’ve seen the film about four or five times. And I cringe while I’m watching the film! Because I’m fine if I’m in a sitcom as Joe the plumber, but me as myself, I reeeally—it’s painful to look at. And I feel like what Hell must be is that you die, and you’re forced to watch your life on a big screen.

jesse

Why do you think that is?

gilbert

Uh, I don’t know. I mean, I think watching your life could be a painful and embarrassing experience. Well, you start delving in the past and just seeing yourself. And what was happening—I mean, by now, I’m used to seeing myself onscreen. I’m used to hearing myself. But now it was kind of like when people hear their voice on an answering machine or whatever. And they’ll go, “That—that doesn’t sound like me! That’s not the way I talk!” And that—yeah.

jesse

I mean, one of the—go ahead.

gilbert

No, so I was watching myself and going, “No, no. I don’t—I don’t look like that! I don’t sound that way!

jesse

Even more from my conversation with Gilbert Gottfried after the break. Stay with us. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

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jesse

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. If you’re just joining us, we’re listening back to my conversation with the late standup comedian and actor, Gilbert Gottfried. He died last month. When I talked with him in 2017, he was the subject of an excellent documentary called Gilbert, which profiled his life and work. Let’s get back into our conversation. One of the themes in this movie is the way that your relationship with your wife and children has changed you rather unexpectedly. As a—you know, well into middle age. How did you meet your wife?

gilbert

She used to be in the music business, where—you know, she was one of those that tried to get songs onto the radio. And somebody had invited me to a Grammy party, at Circle in the Square, I think it was. And you know, I went to that, ‘cause I knew there’d be free food. And so, I met her there. And now, I have—yeah, I have two kids. Two young kids. It’s very weird! And I think this is with everyone. I don’t think it’s ‘til you have kids that you have any idea of who your parents were. It’s like your parents, growing up, they’re two people who—they’re kind of out of it, and they just get in your way, and they don’t understand anything. And then, when you have kids it’s like all of the sudden a light goes on in your head. And you go, “Oh! Oh, okay! Okay, now I see what they were doing all those years.”

jesse

Trying to protect you?

gilbert

Uh, yeah! Trying to protect you, trying to get you, uh, ready for the world. Like, I know—you know, my father would get angry with me. And then, you know, I started to understand that years later. And I’d think, you know, he just wanted me to be ready for the world. And he used to say to me—he said to me a number of times, he said, “You know, your parents aren’t gonna be with you forever.” Which is one of those things that you can’t conceive of, back then.

jesse

It’s kind of a scary thing to hear from your parent.

gilbert

Yeah! But I mean, it’s—you know, a jolt of reality.

jesse

Did it change the way that you thought about your relationship with him?

gilbert

Uh, well, it was—it was kind of what’s becoming at times a very tense relationship. But, you know. And once again, like after he died, I started rethinking everything about him, and especially when I had kids and I thought, “Oh. He was just… basically wanted me to be ready for the world.”

jesse

Are you comfortable with the rejection that comes with show business?

gilbert

Uh, after a while, you just realize it’s part of it. You know? And not only is it—is it part of it. Rejections always part of it, ‘cause it’s funny; it’s like—you know, you’ll hear stories like these movies where the lead role, these legendary actors, all wanted it and only one person could get it. And you’re thinking, “Boy! These are legendary, award-winning actors, and they’re still being rejected. It’s kind of like I think—well, every actor wanted to be Vito Corleone in The Godfather. And they were being turned down left and right. I think both Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall, among a bunch of other stars wanted to be Hannibal Lecter. But only one person gets it and you gotta say, you know, “Sorry, Dustin and Bob.” [Laughs.] “I, uh—we don’t want you.”

jesse

I wanna play another clip from the documentary Gilbert, which is about my guest, Gilbert Gottfried. And his wife, Dara, is a big part of this. And in this scene, she is going through a sort of memories file in their apartment. And she’s talking about what was probably one of the toughest parts of your career, Gilbert, which was when you got fired from the comedian’s dream job of the century, which was being the voice of the Aflac duck.

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Music: Peaceful wind instruments. Dara: Oh, wow. These are the tweets that got him fired from Aflac. I guess I printed them. We took them down; we deleted them from twitter, and I guess I found them somewhere online, and I printed them just to have. Speaker: Right, what do they say? Dara: “Japan is really advanced. They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.” Speaker: That’s it? Just that one? Dara: Nooo! “I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent. I said, ‘Is there a school in the area?’ She said, ‘Not now, but just wait.’” “What do Japanese Jews like to eat? Hebrew National Tsunami.” It’s so cheesy, you know. He didn’t mean anything wrong. He didn’t mean anything bad.

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jesse

It’s funny, I was—I was watching that part of the documentary and thinking back to when all of that went down, and it was—you know, it was genuinely national news. And I wonder how the many years that have passed since all of that went down have changed the way that you’ve thought about that situation.

gilbert

Well, my favorite tweet that somebody sent me when that happened was “Aflac fires Gilbert Gottfried after discovering he’s a comedian”. [They laugh.] And I thought that was really it in a nutshell. And I mean, I remember George Carlin one time said, “It’s the duty of a comedian to find out where the line is drawn and deliberately cross over it.”

jesse

In the movie, your wife said that when the Aflac stuff went down, you cried over it. Is that true?

gilbert

I don’t know if I cried or if it was—I remember I was, uh—I—first of all, I didn’t understand the internet at all then. And I thought this was the world. This was the entire world telling me they hated me. And I mean, one of those things that I started to realize later on is it’s that old saying, “As long as they’re talking about you.” Because when they say, “Our top story tonight, Gilbert Gottfried’s career is over,” it—your career is over, you’re not the top story. If your career’s over, you could save a building of babies in a burning building, and they won’t bother putting you in the paper or mentioning you on TV or putting you on the internet. It’s when your name still means something to people. That’s when our top story, his career is over. Also, I remember people—I’d go on these shows and the interviewers would act like, you know, this is an important story. Like I’m the dictator of a country or something. Or I’m the biggest criminal. And I’m someone who’s putting poison in baby food or something. And I remember one in particular. There was this woman who was just—wouldn’t crack a smile and was very confrontational about the whole thing. And I gave her an example of a bad taste joke, and I said it and she like turned her face and covered her mouth and was laughing. And I thought—and right then and there is the whole interview. It’s like she knows the joke she heard she’s not supposed to laugh at, but she still wants to laugh at it.

jesse

One of the things that I think is magical about your jokes about the most horrible things is, you know, you’re up there and your stage persona isn’t quite as intense as it was 25 years ago, because—you know, you’ve been doing this a long time and you’re a 62-year-old man. But, you know, you’re still doing Gilbert Gottfried up there. It's unmistakable. [Gilbert agrees.] You know, you’re still squinting and yelling. And you’re talking about something horrifying, often. You know, whether it’s—you know, there’s a moment in the movie where your wife says, “Well, I mean I really love my husband, but maybe if he didn’t do that one incest joke.” [They laugh.] But the thing that I love about these jokes—and you know, even those jokes about the tsunami—is they’re so silly! And it’s just this idea of, well, what if we took the worst—it’s sort of—built into it is this acknowledgement, “We are talking about the worst thing in the world.” And there’s no way to get comfort. All we can do is knowledge that it’s the worst thing in the world. And maybe just give half an ounce of warmth, just the tiniest bit of comfort. You know?

gilbert

Well, it’s like—I love the term “too soon”, because that to me is like—where is there an office and a guy is behind the desk going, “Okay, on this date, it’ll be okay to make a joke about this.” And to me, I could make an argument that I’m more sensitive by doing it right while it’s happening than people who do it later on. Like, you could make all the jokes you want about the Titanic, and no one’s gonna be offended by it. And I feel like, in a way, that’s more offensive, then. Because at least when you watch me and I’m doing a joke about something that is currently in the news, and the audience will like—you know—cover their face. You know? ‘Cause they don’t wanna laugh. And they go, “Oh, this is horrible!” So, they’re acknowledging that it’s horrible. When you do a joke about the Titanic or something like that, you’re saying, “Oh, you know, those people, they’re dead. They’re grandkids are dead. The hell with them. The hell with all the people who died on the Titanic. We waited enough years, so we don’t care. It’s not a tragedy anymore.”

jesse

We’ll finish my conversation with the late Gilbert Gottfried in just a minute. After the break, we’ll hear some clean, family-friendly humor from Gilbert: a joke about maple syrup. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

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jesse

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. We’re replaying my 2017 conversation with the late comedian Gilbert Gottfried. Let’s get back into our conversation. I wanna play another clip from Gilbert, the documentary about my guest, Gilbert Gottfried. And this is a—this is another one with your life looking through files. I can understand why you would cringe. I can imagine cringing at my wife looking through my history and discussing it onscreen. [They laugh.] My wife loves me very much, just as yours does you, but I feel like there’s nowhere that can go but wrong. But anyway, in this clip she has pulled out kind of a classic thing, which is like a file of—you know, it’s like the love letters file that she’s kept from her— [Gilbert cackles.] —20 years with you. Let’s take a listen.

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Dara: First anniversary, February 3rd, 2008. “Dara, warmly thinking of you and hoping this will be a happy celebration of our anniversary. Happiness always, go [censored] yourself. Gilbert.” [Laughs.] I haven’t seen these in a long time. “For you, on Valentine’s Day.” “Dara, go [censored] yourself 500 times. [Laughs.] This comes straight from—this comes straight from the heart.”

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gilbert

[They laugh.] That’s me being sentimental. [They laugh.]

jesse

Was it hard for you to have the kind of relationship with your wife that—and I—[sighs] Gilbert, I wanna be clear that I ask this as someone who is also in a loving marriage who has struggled with this his entire life. So, it’s not accusatory. But was it hard for you to be in this relationship with your wife where you have to have real, intimate, emotional engagement? And your instinct is to jokingly write “Go [censored] yourself.”

gilbert

[Cackles.] Oh, it definitely is a challenge that way, because it really is where my personality would always—always leads to a go [censored] yourself. And once—and there, too. If she had written on the internet, “My husband tells me to go [censored] myself,” then it would be an outrage through the world of people saying how could you stay with this beast?

jesse

It is a tough thing, though. I mean, I know through my life I have often used humor just so that I—I mean, because I love it. But also, so that I don’t have to… be emotionally vulnerable to someone—even someone that I actually do love and trust and care about. Or at least trust as much as I trust anyone. [They laugh.]

gilbert

Well, there is that thing of like if you talk sincerely, you could come across like an idiot. And if you already intend to sound like an idiot, then you’re fine. [They laugh.]

jesse

Yeah, I mean I wonder if part of you not wanting to reveal your real self is that you’ve got this character that’s bullet proof! Because it’s already the most—you know, you know what your character is because you’ve been—I’m sure that you’ve gotten the, you know—the character description for every part you’ve ever auditioned for. You know, your character is the most intense, screeching, aggravating, annoying guy that’s ever existed. You know? [Gilbert cackles.] And if you’re already that, well then there’s nothing bad that anyone can say about you, because yeah! Well, that’s my thing! That’s what I do!

gilbert

Oh yeah! It’s [clears throat]—it’s kind of like gameshows I’ve been on, where I really don’t know the answer. And you know, people at home—and it doesn’t matter, ‘cause people at home are going, “Oh! He’s so funny! He’s acting like he doesn’t know the answer to such a simple question.” And yeah, so it’s kind of a protective thing. And it’s hard dealing with both, to be sincere and then also funny.

jesse

Do you get satisfaction out of being sincere?

gilbert

Only if—like, I’m one of those people if I’m sincere and it’s successful, like I feel like it’s a good review I just got.

jesse

But if you’re sincere and it doesn’t work—?

gilbert

Oh yeah. That’s when it’s a problem. It’s kind of that double-edged thing. It’s like—you know, like you hear a song on the radio, and you start like, you know, singing along with it and the other person in the car looks at you and goes, [shocked] “You like that song?” And you go, “Oh! No, no, no! I was just making fun of what a bad song it was.” And it’s like then you’re protecting yourself by being—acting like, “Oh no, I was sarcastic.”

jesse

You weren’t always a dark and brutal truthteller, onstage. I’m gonna play a clip. This is from about 25 years ago.

gilbert

I’m probably doing the same bit now, that’s the scary part. [They laugh.]

jesse

This is—sorry! This is not even from 25 years ago. This is from 35 years ago! The early 1980s. You—so, you are in your late 20s, and you’re at the comic strip in New York. And you’re talking about maple syrup.

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[Audience laughs and cheers regularly.] Gilbert: I was in Canada recently. It’s like another country. It’s, uh—it’s like getting on a plane and going somewhere else! They eat maple syrup there! [Getting more and more incensed.] They eat—yeah, they eat maple syrup, they manufacture maple syrup. It’s a maple syrup—you get off the plane and they go, “What a long flight! I suppose you’ll be wanting your maple syrup, now! Would you like your maple syrup in jars or bottles? Or, uh—how would you like—how do you take your maple syrup?” Well, I’d like a hotel room if I—[loudly interrupting himself] “Would you like little glasses of maple syrup?!” Once Canadians were walking through forest and they looked at a tree and they said, “There’s gold dripping out of that tree! LET’S EAT IT!”

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gilbert

[Laughs.] You know what’s funny? I just performed a couple of days ago in Canada. And the club manager said, “Make sure to do the maple syrup bit.” [They laugh.] So, I did it!

jesse

But it’s funny, ‘cause it feels like there is—in a weird way—this—there is—there is this—there is a string that ties together your most clean observational humor with your most insane and vulgar and profane material.

gilbert

Oh, yeah! It’s the same—I don’t know, same self-destructive person, I guess. [They both laugh but Jesse absolutely loses it.]

jesse

Well, Gilbert, I am so grateful to you for taking all this time to come be on Bullseye. It was really great to get to talk to you and meet you. And I so admire your work, so thank you so much.

gilbert

Oh, thank you.

jesse

Gilbert Gottfried, folks. If you haven’t seen Gilbert, the documentary about him, you can stream it or rent it just about anywhere online, these days. Go watch it if you wanna see Gilbert being a sweet and very unusual family man. If you wanna see him be vulgar, which he basically did better than anyone else ever—I mean, you could do a lot worse than watching his scene from The Aristocrats. Which, uh, you know, you can either rent the movie or just watch it on YouTube or whatever. It is truly the most filthy thing that anyone has ever recorded to tape. It’s really extraordinary. He was a special guy.

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jesse

That’s the end of another episode of Bullseye. Bullseye, created from the homes me and the staff of Maximum Fun, in and around greater Los Angeles, California. The other day, I was gonna have a birthday party. So, I rented a bounce house for my kids and their friends who were gonna be around. And then my youngest got sick. Just a cold, but a bad cold. So, we had to cancel the party. But they still delivered he bounce house. So, it just sort of was our personal bounce house for a day. It was weird but fun! Our show is produced by speaking into microphones. Our senior producer is Kevin Ferguson. Our producers are Jesus Ambrosio, Valerie Moffat and Richard Robey. Our production fellow at Maximum Fun is Tabatha Myers. Welcome onboard, Tabatha. We get booking help from Mara Davis. Our interstitial music is by Dan Wally, also known as DJW. Our theme song is “Huddle Formation”, written and recorded by the great band, The Go! Team. Thanks to them and to their label, Memphis Industries, for letting us use that song. Bullseye is also on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. You can find us there. Give us a follow; we will share with you all of our interviews. And I think that’s about it. Just remember: all great radio hosts have a signature signoff.

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About the show

Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

Bullseye has been featured in Time, The New York Times, GQ and McSweeney’s, which called it “the kind of show people listen to in a more perfect world.” Since April 2013, the show has been distributed by NPR.

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