Gilbert Gottfried requires no introduction. Thanks to his breakout onscreen roles in Beverly Hills Cop II and Problem Child, his work as the voice of Iago the parrot in Aladdin, his podcast, his years on the road, and his numerous Comedy Central roast appearances, the loud-mouthed stand-up comedian has solidified his place in American pop culture many times over. When the real Gottfried — a carefully softspoken man — calls me from his home in New York, however, the 62-year-old comedian cannot help introducing himself. “Hello,” he kindly says over the phone, “this is Gilbert.”
It’s a side of the comic audiences generally don’t get to see, but thanks to Neil Berkeley’s new movie Gilbert, that’s all about to change. Part family history, part road movie, and part unwanted self-portrait, the new film — which first screened earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival to much acclaim — presents Gottfried’s longtime fans (and detractors) with an intimate portrait of the artist as a happily married husband and father of two. And it never would have happened if Gottfried’s wife, Dara Kravitz, hadn’t invited Berkeley into their home despite her husband’s protests.
I’ve read elsewhere that you weren’t necessarily on board with this documentary when they started making it. Having done all this promotion, has your attitude towards it changed?
It’s strange because I always thought to be a subject of a documentary, you should be dead for at least 20 years. That, or you should have discovered a cure for some major disease. I’m happy with the reaction people have had to it, though. When I watch it, it’s like you’re watching your life on camera. I tend to cringe. I’m happy seeing myself as Nick the plumber on an episode of a sitcom, but I don’t want to see myself as me.
A lot of comics say they don’t like watching themselves perform. Actors and actresses, too. In this documentary, you’re not necessarily performing, so I suspect it’s a different experience watching it.
I mention this in the documentary. I always think of that scene in Wizard of Oz where they see the man behind the curtain, all the while he’s insisting they not look at that man behind the curtain. I’m scared of the man behind the curtain being seen, in my case.
At the same time, despite having all those fears and concerns, I’m sure the positive responses have alleviated some of it.
That’s true. I’m always surprised to see a good review. I haven’t seen any bad ones. They all seem to like it.
Tell me about that experience.
It was very weird because when Neil, the filmmaker, came to me and said, “I’ve always dreamt of making a Gilbert Gottfried documentary,” the first thing I said to him was, “Well you should set your dreams a lot higher than that.” After a while, however, he just started following me around, and I’m too much of a wimp to say, “Get away from me!” Eventually, it just came to be what it is. He followed me to clubs. He hung around my house. And through it all, people apparently like the film. I’m still amazed at that.
This is obviously a very personal film for you, but as a fan of stand-up comedy, I loved watching you work behind the scenes. Or, as you put it, “the man behind the curtain.”
There are some people who enjoy that, yes. I mean, I’ve heard that there are some people who have played the film for people who don’t particularly like me, and they wound up liking me after watching it. That’s very odd. Most people wind up finding reasons to hate me.
Maybe it’s because a film like Gilbert gives them a context.
Do you think the documentary might figure into your material sometime in the future?
Yeah, that would be interesting. I don’t know. I don’t have too much rhyme or reason for what I do in my career. People ask me, “How did you come up with this or that?” I think, “Geez, I don’t know.” It certainly wasn’t my work ethic, because I don’t really have one.
You self-deprecate, but you’re still going out there on the road. You’re touring. A lot of comics as popular as you are will often stop, given the chance. There’s obviously a commendable work ethic there.
Maybe so. Then again, I think it’s also like, “Dance with the one who brought you.”
One image that will never leave my brain is you meeting with fans attending a nearby historical conference who were dressed in Nazi uniform. There’s something about watching you lose it in that moment it’s hilarious.
It’s surreal. I’m sure a lot of people think that was all set up somehow because it seems so crazy. I was booked at this club in Chicago. At the hotel I was staying at, they had this giant conference room that was being used by all of these war reenactors. They had the American Civil War, the American Revolutionary War, and just about everything else. And of course, they had everybody’s favorite — World War II. And of course, they had to have at least a few guys there wearing Nazi uniforms.
The funny part about it is, you’d see these guys in Nazi uniforms with swastika armbands and everything. They’d be running over to me telling me how much they enjoyed Problem Child. These Nazi officers would very nervously ask if they could take a selfie with me. [Laughs] While this was going on, I was thinking, “Geez, you know maybe I was wrong about the Third Reich after all these years.”
I can’t help but imagine Neil being there and thinking, “Okay, this is happening. I won’t even interrupt Gilbert.”
Oh, yeah. It was one of those — like I said — a gift that just happened. It was such a surreal moment. So great. A weird moment, for sure, but a very funny moment to boot.
It’s a great story for your stand-up.
Especially, unfortunately, considering how often Nazis are in the news these days.
[Laughs.] True, but as the President of the United States said, both sides weren’t wrong. Which, by the way, I’ve never heard before when talking about the Nazis. Even the most fascist people would go, “Well you know, I think the Nazis were probably wrong about this one particular thing.”
Neil put together a great grouping of your fellow comedians and actors for this film. I suspect I know the answer, but I wonder what seeing their testimony was like?
It’s very strange for me because it kind of comes across at times as, “Uh oh, is this is my obituary?” Am I going to look down and see my dead body lying there and go, “Oh my God. No one told me!”
Even so, I suspect it feels good. Even if when they’re roasting your frugality, which I totally relate to, by the way. My father raised me and my brothers in a similar fashion.
[Laughs.] Yeah? First thing I do when I check into a hotel is I go right into the bathroom and — this is more important than peeing after a long trip — see if there’s any free stuff I can take with me once I leave.
A very intelligent move.
It’s all about the idea of something free. If the hotel is giving away free sanitary napkins, I’ll take them, because I’ll go, “They’re free!” I’m sure I can find a use for them elsewhere.
It makes sense for the lifestyle of a touring comic. You never know if you’ll be able to afford toothpaste when you go back home.
That’s always on your mind. Plus when I was growing up, my father worked in a hardware store. We lived in the apartment above the hardware store. I remember it like, growing up, I knew there were certain brand names that would never show up in the house. Those brands were for ultra-rich people, according to my father.
He probably fixed or repaired a lot of things. Today, if something breaks, it’s usually easier and cheaper to buy it new than get it repaired.
I actually like the way things are built nowadays. The way everything’s been arranged, it winds up being cheaper to buy a new thing than to get something repaired. It’s not like the old days when you owned one TV set that practically lasted forever. If it ever blew up, you’d just get the repairman to look at it and put it back together. Now it’s like any sign that something’s breaking or about to break, you toss it and move on to the next one.
My dad made me beat the dents out of my car’s bumper after a fender bender. He didn’t want to spend the money taking it to the shop.
Well, it makes sense! Oh absolutely, because to get it repaired, that’s more money down the drain.
With all the positive buzz Gilbert is getting, has the prospect of attending awards shows ever crossed your mind?
That’s one of those things I try not to think about because, after a while, your mind feeds on that. It makes you see yourself tearfully holding the Oscar. Then they announce the nominees and your name’s not even listed. I appeared in a documentary before that was actually nominated called Life Animated. Life Animated was nominated for an Academy Award, and they even showed a clip from it while they were announcing it as a nominee at the ceremonies. In the clip, you could see me for about a second and a half. I thought to myself, “Well, this is the closest I’ve ever been to the Academy Awards.” They ignored my performance in How to be a Player. It was shameful that I didn’t get the award for Funky Monkey.
Gilbert premieres November 3rd in New York and November 10th in Los Angeles at select theaters.