The family of Gilbert Gottfried announced on Tuesday that the comedian had died following a long illness, later revealed to have been myotonic dystrophy type II, a rare form of muscular dystrophy. He’d maintained a performing schedule, and recorded episodes of his podcast in the weeks prior to his passing. Since at least the early 1980s, he’s been a constant presence in film, on television, and on the standup circuit, his distinctive voice serving as an instantly recognisable calling card.
But how committed was he to the Gilbert Gottfried bit? To that loud and unforgettable voice, and that overdeveloped sense of absurdity that occasionally landed him in hot water? How much of it was an act? The answer, suggested by the 2017 documentary Gilbert (and pretty much anyone who ever knew him), is…not as much as you’d think.
And he did shock, on more than one occasion — sometimes in ways that seem quaint by modern standards (masturbation jokes don’t have quite the power they used to), and at other times (with cracks about 9/11, Hitler, and the behind-the-scenes of Full House, for example) with material that hasn’t lost much of its edge. Even as he was known for not holding back much of anything with his comedy, he was still one of the most in-demand and successful children’s voiceover artists in modern history.
Gottfried was an inescapable fixture in pop culture over the past four decades (give or take) who had an expansive love for, and knowledge of, classic film, which led to the long-running (400+ episodes) Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast! (with co-host Frank Santopadre). By all accounts, he was a genuinely kind person who just happened to have a comedian’s gift for going for the jugular, and an impeccable sense of the absurd. He was 67.
Highway to Hell (1991)
Sure, you could watch Beverly Hills Cop II (a reasonably good sequel in which Gilbert has a small but funny role), or the Problem Child trilogy, for which the comedian’s Mr. Peabody is the primary connective tissue. But, instead, I’ll recommend the weird and oddly star-studded (by 1992 standards, anyway) comedy Highway to Hell, a cult classic that involves Chad Lowe trying to save girlfriend Kristy Swanson from the devil’s clutches. As with most of his films, Gilbert’s appearance is a cameo, but his memorable turn as Adolf Hitler is very much in keeping with his few-holds-barred sense of humour.
43rd Primetime Emmy Awards (1991)
“Irresponsible and insulting” was the response from Fox (a media organisation that knows from irresponsible and insulting) when Gilbert’s extended riff on Paul Reuben’s recent arrest for masturbation (and the silliness thereof) had the nation clutching its pearls. He wasn’t invited back to the Emmys, but it didn’t seem to bother Disney: Aladdin, probably Gilbert’s biggest commercial success, came out just over a year later.
Hollywood Squares (1999)
Particularly during the 1990s, you never knew precisely when and where Gilbert Gottfried would show up to sow a bit of television chaos but, Emmys incident aside, he was a wildly prolific figure and a generally welcome presence. At his puckish best, he could make television magic as he does here, during an episode of one of the Hollywood Squares reboots, when he mercilessly trolls both contestants with the taunt: “You fool!” Neither seemed to mind.
Superman: The Animated Series (1997, 1998)
The fate of all modern actors is, inevitably, to wind up in a big-budget Marvel or DC production, for better or for worse. Gilbert didn’t land in any of those movies, but he did have a significant presence as the greatest version of classic Superman archnemesis, Mr. Mxyzptlk. He played the role in two episodes of the ‘90s-era Superman animated series (Mxyzpixilated and Little Big Head Man), on three episodes of the younger-skewing Justice League Action circa 2017, and a couple of video games.
Cyberchase (2002 — )
Naturally, Gottfried was much in demand for his voice work, but it’s the PBS Kids series Cyberchase where he clocked the most hours. Lesser known, perhaps, to fans of his of his standup, the show’s been running for twenty years, with Gilbert’s cyborg bird (cybird) Digit appearing in the vast majority of the show’s episodes. It’s a tribute to his versatility that, while he was occasionally stirring up controversy in the adult world, he was helping to educate and entertain the show’s target audience of kids.
Comedy Central Roasts (2003 — 2012)
Though not an insult comic per se, these roasts were almost certainly Gilbert’s perfect venue: an invitation to go as big as possible, pushing traditionally bawdy roast humour as far as it could possibly go. One of his most memorable (to say the least) moments as an entertainer came during a 2001 NY Friar’s Club roast of Hugh Hefner: When a (perhaps) ill-timed 9/11 joke (about a month after the fact) was received poorly, Gilbert launched into a full-scale aristocrats joke that won the audience back, but, oddly enough, didn’t fully make it onto the aired version. He didn’t let up with the Comedy Central-aired versions of those roasts, which included a particularly memorable run at Roseanne in 2012. The Comedy Central Roasts are available on Paramount+ as a series of “best-of” collections. Gilbert roasts Joan Rivers in the second episode, and Bob Saget in the third.
The Aristocrats (2005)
Gilbert’s run at Hugh Hefner at the 2001 Friar’s Club Roast became the impetus for this film that explored the history of the age-old joke about a family’s increasingly impressive stage act. The comedian’s roast bit is featured in the film, and I think it’s fair to credit Gilbert with not only a revival in interest in that particular bit of vaudeville history, but also with breaking a post-9/11 comedy taboo.
A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)
Though it’s probably not the best work from anyone involved, and Gilbert’s role is tiny, there’s clearly genius at work here. Whoever thought of casting Gottfried as America’s favourite (give or take) president and most-beloved orator deserves some kind of award.
It shouldn’t be surprising that many of our most outrageous comedians aren’t like that 24/7. What’s fascinating about Gilbert, the documentary, is in its examination of the ways in which he was, and wasn’t like his stage persona. What comes through is a genuinely thoughtful and big-hearted person with a highly attuned sense of the absurd and genuine idiosyncrasies that bleed into his comedic work.
It’s delightfully ironic that one of our most famously unfiltered comics is best known (by far) for his role in a popular Disney classic. Serving as the villainous counterpoint to Robin Williams’ spastic, perky Genie, Gottfried steals pretty much every scene he’s in — if Williams was a stand-in for the peppy, annoying kid we all wanted to be, Gottfried was the snarky, annoying kid we probably were.
Though it plays less like a Disney prestige piece than a Saturday morning cartoon, the direct-to-video sequel The Return of Jafar offers Gottfried’s Iago an expanded role (in the absence of Robin Williams, he’s more-or-less the star). It’s not an essential, but it’s a cute extra for Iago stans.