Comedian Gilbert Gottfried is famous for his screechy, loud voice and abrasive comedy style. But here’s the thing, the squinty man with the grating voice is just an act.
When he uses his regular speaking voice, Gottfried is nearly unrecognizable. He’s mild-mannered, self-deprecating and quick to laugh, often in response to his own wry jokes and observations.
Gottfried’s first big break was on Saturday Night Live, but he had the misfortune of being in the cast which followed the departure of producer Lorne Michaels and the original cast.
It was when he literally found his voice and his career started to pick up. His iconic voice has made him a popular choice for voice acting, with his most famous role being Iago, the parrot in Aladdin.
While he has appeared in films, including The Problem Child series, he seems most comfortable on such TV shows as Hollywood Squares and Comedy Central Roasts.
Gottfried’s current on-going project is “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast,” in which he discusses classic film and television and interviews icons of the past.
I recently spoke with Gottfried about all these subjects and more in anticipation of his appearance at the Gold Room in Portland, Maine, on March 2.
On your podcast you interview classic actors. Who has been your favorite guest?
So many come on. Sometimes I’m not expecting much from them and they really deliver. I love getting the older ones. I had Sonny Fox on, who was the host of this kiddie show years ago called Wonderama, and he came out with stories about how he was a prisoner of war during World War II. Just recently, it hasn't aired yet, I interviewed Carl Reiner and he was terrific. Bruce Dern was a great interview. I mean so many of them.
If you could interview absolutely anyone living or dead who would you choose?
It is funny because so many of the people who I think “Oh, we’ve got to interview him” and we’ll call them and then the next day they die. I’ve kind become like the Grim Reaper. I was originally going to call this show The Before It’s Too Late Show. I feel funny saying who because I feel like if I name the person then I am going to jinx myself.
Well then, who do you wish you could’ve talked to that isn’t alive anymore?
So many people. And people even before my time in old movies, like I would’ve liked to have talked to Lon Chaney Jr. The closest I came was I interviewed with this woman, Janet Ann Gallow, who when she was a kid she was a child actress who was in Ghost of Frankenstein with Lon Chaney Jr. She told stories about how Chaney and Bela Lugosi, both of them in their monster makeup, would play hide and go seek with her. But so many legendary people like Humphrey Bogart or even more recent ones that were around like Charles Durning I think would’ve made a great interview. Norman Fell would’ve been fun.
Your one season on Saturday Night Live was the first when Lorne Michaels and the original cast was gone. I feel like it came under unfairly harsh scrutiny. Do you feel if you had been on the show at a later time you would’ve been able to succeed more?
Oh absolutely. I feel like you don’t want to be the replacement, you want to be the replacement of the replacement. Because when you are the replacement, you get compared to the original and you can never live up to that. Then after you fail, they bring in someone else who is coming in on the white horse and saving the day. I remember before we even aired an episode, we were being attacked in the papers, all these different articles. I do think the season that we were on sucked.
I did find one sketch that I really actually liked you in quite a bit. You were giving a confession to a cop and then he became a director and started giving you notes. I thought that was a pretty well-written sketch and I thought you were really good in it.
Oh, thank you. Because when I think back on any of Saturday Night Live, I cringe at the idea of watching myself.
But when you were on Saturday Night Live you hadn’t developed your comic persona yet; how did you go about creating that?
Well, that’s the funny thing, there was never anything conscious about it. It was just one day, I woke up after my delivery being that way for a while saying “Oh, I guess that’s my delivery.” Because I never actually sat down and thought it out or anything like that. It just kind of happened through performing so much. Now it has become as legitimate a personality as my own stage personality.
Do you remember the first time you got a laugh and thought, “Hey, I want to do this for a living?”
I remember, I was sitting on a couch with my mother, my father, and my grandmother. It was this long couch and my sister was going to take a picture and I was a little kid and we were sitting there a long time while she was trying to get us all in the shot and I said “When’s this rollercoaster going to start?” My parents and grandmother started cracking up and I remember that being one of those moments. And then I started, because I watched so much TV, to imitate different actors and comedians and everything. That’s kind of what led me into it.
My earliest recollection was, it could’ve been kindergarten or first grade, but the teacher was talking and there was some kid who wasn’t paying attention, so she had a newspaper with her and she places a newspaper on his head and I called out “These are the headlines!” and that got a laugh. And my comedy hasn’t advanced since those days.
What were your best and worst times on stage?
It depends. There have been times that, God, I couldn’t wait to get off. I feel like performing and dealing with an audience is like the difference between a good and a bad date. Like a good date, you could be talking for five hours and it feels like just five minutes went by. A bad date, you’re doing five minutes and you feel like five hours have gone by.
It is the 25th anniversary of Aladdin this year. When you took the role of Iago, did you ever imagine how much longevity the film would have with a sequel, a TV series and video games?
Not really. I understood Disney was a big name. I remember, at the time, running into somebody and we were talking and they said “So, what are you doing lately?” and I said “I don’t know, I’m working on some stupid cartoon.” Boy, when it came out, it just exploded. It is one of those quality productions, one of the few I feel like that I’ve been in.
To show even more of an afterlife, there was this article in The New York Times that has been made into a documentary about this autistic boy who would watch Disney films all day long but he couldn’t communicate with his own parents. One day, the father went it to his room and saw a puppet of my character, Iago the parrot, and he put it on his hand and started imitating my voice and the son respond to that. They had a full conversation with him imitating me and the son responding. It just shows what an amazing afterlife Aladdin has had. The documentary is called Life Animated.
I have heard of that. I haven’t had a chance of seeing it, but I watched the trailer and just that practically made me cry.
(Laughs) That’s usually what my comedy does.
You were on Celebrity Apprentice, so you were able to see Trump’s leadership skills, or lack of, up close and personal, so what was your impression of him?
I didn’t really know him all that well. I would speak to him briefly here and there after it was all shot. It would be like a publicity thing. Off camera, he was perfectly nice. As far as leadership skills, the guy in charge of those shows just pops up for one time a week to say “OK, you’ve been doing thing wrong, you’ve been doing this right.” So, there was no way of really knowing.
But with Trump do you think comedians have any responsibility to keep pointing out how absurd things have gotten.
It is always good when there’s comedy. I think it keeps things in order in a way, in a very slight way. For instance, when Hitler was in power, the Three Stooges made two films with Moe as Hitler. When those pop up on TV, I think “You know what? That’s really a good thing.” It took him down a couple of notches.
You were a regular staple on Hollywood Squares. If they were to bring it back again, what newer star do you think would be a good fit for that show?
I remember growing up, I used to watch Hollywood Squares and I always enjoyed it and it always made me laugh and I remember thinking “Oh, this must be when someone is at the rock bottom of their career doing a show like this.” Then of course, I guess God was listening, and I got asked to do it. I really had a great time on that show. But yeah, that would be a tough one to figure out who would do it.
I watched your Wife Swap episode which showcased how frugal you are. If I had $20, how would you recommend that I use it?
I’d tell you to give it to me, I’ll get right back to you.
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