Gilbert Gottfried has been doing stand-up for the past 40 years, and he has more than a hundred acting credits to his name. He was a Saturday Night Live cast member for a single season in 1980-81 before he cultivated his signature neurotically shrill delivery and began balancing mainstream fare with often extremely raunchy stand-up. His version of the Aristocrats joke, as immortalized in the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, is one of the most detailed and graphic around, and his provocative nature has made him a popular, controversial performer at Comedy Central and Friars’ Club Roasts. And yet he’s also voiced many animated characters, both on children’s shows—he’s practically made a cottage industry out of voicing Iago the parrot in Aladdin and its many spin-offs—and on slightly edgier fare like Ren And Stimpy and Beavis And Butt-Head. He’s currently on tour through October 23, with more dates to be announced soon; details are on his website. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Gottfried about the recently aired Comedy Central roast of David Hasselhoff, telling dick jokes to 10-year-olds, and the influence his new family has on his act.
The A.V. Club: You sound so different when you aren’t doing your familiar performing voice. Have you ever gotten the urge to perform in your everyday voice?
Gilbert Gottfried: Oh, no. Um, I don’t know. Off-camera, I sound like Perry Como.
AVC: You’ve appeared in so many Comedy Central roasts. Do you have a favorite?
GG: I don’t know. The one I got the most popular with was the Hugh Hefner one, because that had the Aristocrats gag, but I’ve liked all of them. I’ve always enjoyed them. I have the David Hasselhoff roast coming up.
AVC: Do you have to like someone to roast them?
GG: [Laughs.] Not particularly. Sometimes you can like them, sometimes not. Sometimes you have no opinion.
AVC: What about with Hasselhoff?
GG: Well, I have all of his albums at home, so that makes it a little difficult. I have great respect for him as a song talent.
AVC: And as an actor?
GG: He’s had some great work, especially Baywatch Nights, where he reached a peak.
AVC: Do you have a favorite moment from the show?
GG: It’s hard to pinpoint any one of them, because Baywatch Nights was one of those shows where—it’s someone who looked at Baywatch and said “Wouldn’t this be a much better show if you got rid of all the tits and ass and concentrated on a really crappy private-eye series?”
AVC: With all your roasting experience, are you ready for someone to roast you?
GG: If they pay me enough.
AVC: So you have a specific number in mind?
GG: Yeah, or if they wave any check in my face.
AVC: Who would you want to do the honors?
GG: Let’s see… [Late Friars’ Club founder] Georgie Jessel. I don’t know. It’d be a tough one. You know, the problem is, they generally get—they would have Orson Welles getting roasted by Gary Coleman. So it was always very strange that way. One time, I was talking to Milton Berle—not that I spoke to him that much—and he was saying that during the roast, when they used to do them, sometimes they wouldn’t run into each other. They just had the camera on someone and they’d say, “Okay, you just got a real zinger. React to it.” And “Oops, someone said something really embarrassing. Give us a look like ‘Ooh, I can’t believe they just said that.’”
AVC: Was that because of censorship regulations?
GG: Yeah, but it also just shows how those roasts were put together back then.
AVC: Is there a roast from a previous era that you wish you could have been a part of?
GG: I wish I could have been maybe at the real roasts from years ago when they would have Jack Benny and people like that talking really filthy.
AVC: Has getting married and starting a family recently changed your act at all?
GG: Thankfully not. That’s always a scary thing. These comics who all of the sudden start doing acts where they’re baby-talking and everything like that. It gets very annoying.
AVC: Your version of the Aristocrats joke is particularly graphic. Do you approach that any differently now?
GG: Yeah, now it seems like an activity. [Laughs.] Now I do it from experience.
AVC: You have a reputation for off-color humor, but have also contributed voiceovers to a lot of well-known children’s films, including Disney’s Aladdin. Is it ever hard to switch gears between those two disparate worlds?
GG: I’ve always said that my career walks a tightrope between early-morning children’s programming and hardcore porn. The only time it’s been—sometimes it’s been a problem. When I’m doing voiceovers for cartoons, quite often I’ll say something, and they’ll just stop me. The bad thing is when I’m on a corporate thing. That’s when I’ll end up cutting my own throat, especially when they say, “Okay, you have to work clean.” Because even if I wasn’t thinking of working dirty, then it’ll be irresistible to me.
AVC: The proverbial elephant?
GG: Yeah, like saying don’t think about the word “elephant.”
AVC: What’s a particularly disastrous slip-up that sticks in your mind?
GG: There’ve been a few. The time I opened for Belinda Carlisle. That was supposed to be a bunch of dates. At the beginning of the thing, a guy said to me, “You know, there’re going to be a lot of 10-year-old girls and their mothers out there, so you have to work clean.” I tried for like 10 minutes, and that was bombing, so I came out with every dick joke I could think of. After that, they called me in and gave me the classic, “Everyone here loves you,” which means that you’ve been fired. Another time was the Hefner roast, of course. I got censored on the Emmys around the time Pee-wee Herman got arrested. I said, “If masturbation is a crime, I should be on death row. By age 14, I was already Al Capone.” One of the producers said if he sees me, he’s going to kick my ass. There were all these apologies to the papers. One critic said it was a “sneak attack on the unsuspecting American public.”
AVC: Was that Fox, by any chance?
GG: Yes, the Fox network was deeply offended. What got me about it was a few months later, Jerry Seinfeld’s masturbation episode [“The Contest”] came out, and that’s considered classic TV.
AVC: Rolling Stone described you as the “Miles Davis of stand-up comedy.” How much of your act is written vs. improvised?
GG: Well, what they really mean is not the improvisation, but that I’m an old black man on drugs. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you draw on past improv experiences and your time at Saturday Night Live?
GG: Oh, I try to block out anything about Saturday Night Live. That was like the worst season of the show. I mean, now there’s no such thing as the worst season. Now, saying the worst season of Saturday Night Live is like saying “the issue of Playboy with the naked girl.” Then it was an outrage, like, “How dare they put a new cast in there?” Now, you can’t recognize anybody. The cast changes between commercial breaks. Back then, critics were like “Now they’re relying on drug and sex humor. The original show would never do that.” [Laughs.] I don’t know what I draw on. It’s just sometimes, something will hit me and I’ll improvise, and sometimes not.
AVC: Do you test out new material on friends before you get onstage?
GG: No, that’s always the case of you have to go onstage and say it. It’s really the only way you’ll ever know. That’s why I hate these comics and writers who say “Oh, I came up with a great bit last night.” I feel it’s not a great bit until you’ve actually done it in front of an audience. They’ll tell you if it’s a great bit.
AVC: Do you enjoy the excitement of finding out what works onstage?
GG: I like it when it actually works. There are times when I’ve had ideas walking down the street that I thought were great, and the minute I got onstage, I would think of them and go, “Wow, that would never work,” even before I did it in front of the audience.
AVC: Have you ever been typecast out of a role for film or TV because of your delivery style?
GG: No. I guess if they ever do a remake of Sophie’s Choice, I could play the Meryl Streep part. I’ve got to work on my Polish accent. Maybe I’ll be the definitive King Lear one day. You know, if they ever feel that King Lear should be more Jewy.
AVC: Do you have any upcoming projects after the roast?
GG: No, not really. If they’d only bring back Fantasy Island, I think I’d be ready for a guest appearance. Either that, or had they kept up those Old Navy commercials with Sherman Hemsley.
AVC: What about a reality TV show?
GG: I get asked to do those. The closest I came to doing one of those—they depress the hell out of me, and they seem like they’re the biggest shows. They’re much bigger than sitcoms, which seem like they’re on their way out, if they aren’t already. I did one awful one where they put me and some other kind of celebrities in an abandoned mental asylum, and we had this ghost-detecting gear that was kind of like a thermometer. Because if you hunt ghosts in an abandoned building, and one side is two degrees lower than the other, that of course is proof that there were ghosts there. You know, abandoned insane asylums are known for their temperature control. I was there with, among other people, Traci Lords, the porn actress, and even she thought it was too much to swallow.
AVC: This was actually on TV?
GG: Yeah. It’s hard to make jokes about it, because nothing you make up can be as ridiculous. So this one ran about four episodes, and I was on one, and it was about as intelligent as it sounds. They even have one now called Ghosthunters or something, but I think it was different producers. I forget the name, but it was pretty stupid. It’s funny that I say it’s pretty stupid, as opposed to a really intelligent show with celebrities in an insane asylum finding ghosts. The kind of really well-thought-out ones. [Laughs.]
AVC: What’s your guilty-pleasure show to watch?
GG: Oh God. The only guilty pleasure is one of these sitcoms on the Disney channel. There’ll be a girl in a bikini, and I’ll go, “Oh, wait a second—she could be 11.”