When I first picked up the phone to talk to Gilbert Gottfried, I was taken aback: The prolific comedian/actor/writer/outrageous personality sounds nothing like the infamous shrieky schtick he’s known for. Instead, he sounds something more like a cross between Diane Rehm and Perry Como. He speaks softly, slowly, and graciously, like a humble grandfather.
But make no mistake: Gottfried—for better or worse—is still the filthy, loud-mouthed personality we’ve come to know. Throughout his three-decade career, he’s been in countless films and shows—-oh, and commercials for Eastern Motors. He’s become something of an icon because of his unrelenting, outrageously filthy, and usually offensive stand-up routine. He’s also written a memoir called Rubber Balls and Liquor, and he’s stand-up DVD out called Gilbert Gottfried’s Dirty Jokes, both of which he insisted I mention.
In anticipation of his appearance at the D.C. Improv this past weekend, we chatted about his new DVD, filthy jokes, his favorite film roles, and how he feels about the controversial material that’s gotten him into trouble.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Washington City Paper: So I understand you have a new DVD coming out?
Gilbert Gottfried: It’s out already. I have a new DVD called Dirty Jokes and it’s exactly what the title tells you.
WCP: I’m curious: what’s the filthiest joke you’ve ever told?
GG: Wow…there’s so many! Well, I’m kind of famous for my joke in the film The Aristocrats.
GG: When that movie came out I remember I’d get these reviews saying that there’s no one more disgusting than Gilbert Gottfried. Which, to me was a rave.
WCP: In your career, you’ve been in many, many different movies and shows. What’s the role you’re most fond of?
GG: Wow, great question. Well, in movies, I’m proud of a lot. There’s that one scene I have in Beverly Hills Cop 2 as Sidney Bernstein. And then there’s my role as the Parrot in Aladdin. I did two of those. But there’s been a lot of stuff. Those are the two roles that jump out right away.
Nowadays, most people know me from the Problem Child movies. It’s funny, when those came out they got, like, the bottom-of-the-barrel reviews, but everybody comes up to me all the time and says they loved me in those.
WCP: You mentioned earlier that you think you’re probably best known for your part in The Aristocrats. Why do you think that movie resonated so strongly with American audiences?
GG: It’s so funny, when I heard they were doing that—-making that into a movie—-I remember thinking, “Well, this is going to be fun for their living room, but it’ll never get further than that.” And then when I saw how it was hitting all these theaters, it amazed me. Penn Jillette asked me to do it, and he asked me to do it for free, which may have been his greatest magic trick. I never expected it to be anything like it turned out to be.
WCP: In the past, you’ve taken some heat for telling some jokes that aren’t exactly politically correct.
GG: Oh yeah.
WCP: Do you regret anything you’ve ever said?
GG: No, not really. It’s a funny thing: They are, after all, just jokes. There’s a quote from George Carlin that I turn to often: “It’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and then deliberately step over it.” I always felt that really hit the nail on the head. I also like that he said “doody.”
But now, more than ever—-especially with the Internet—-everyone has an opinion. So there’s people that demand apologies for everything.
WCP: How do you think the Internet has shaped stand-up routines for comedians in 2013?
GG: Wow, yeah, there’s definitely more and more stuff to get in trouble for. I don’t know, it’s still kind of early to see what kind of major changes are taking place.
I don’t quite understand the Internet fully. It’s kind of like how George Orwell predicted Big Brother. But it’s not like how people used to suspect that the government and the CIA were watching us—-now it’s like every schmuck is watching us.
WCP: When do you think it’s too soon to tell a joke that’s tied to current event or tragedy?
GG: Well, the problem with “too soon” is that there’s no office with one guy looking at a calendar and deciding which is the date that makes it OK. People make jokes about the Titanic; like if they had a bad day or a bad date, they’ll go “Oh yeah, that was a regular Titanic.” And I’m thinking, “Well, why is that OK now? And would have it been OK then?”
With me, a year after I got into all that trouble, the word “Tsunami” popped up everywhere, like as a funny-sounding word. I’d see newscaster saying things like “Hey, we weren’t expecting rain, but last week was a regular tsunami!” And I’m like “Oh, so now it’s OK to joke about? After a year it’s a joke and not a crime against humanity?” I even tweeted something out I saw at a restaurant: They had on their menu a “Tsunami Sandwich.” I thought, “It’s OK, it can’t be a joke, but it can be a sandwich.”
WCP: Let’s change gears a little: What makes a great dick joke and why?
GG: I mean, is there such thing as a bad one? Actually, I prefer a pussy joke myself.
WCP: What is your favorite curse word and why?
GG: Oh jeez, now you’re starting to sound like James Lipton.
WCP: Well, I have watched a lot of Inside The Actors Studio.
GG: In James Lipton’s show, when they ask “What’s your favorite curse word?” everyone always tries to be really witty and say something like “Oh, I don’t know, I say tomato paste! Or I say limity lamety!” And I’m thinking, “No you don’t, you’re trying to be a little cute here and it’s not funny.” But for real, all of the curse words are enjoyable to me.
WCP: How much of your act is improvised?
GG: It depends. Some nights I’m really into improvising, other nights I’ll do bits I’ve been doing way too long, where I ask the audience “Hey, how many of you watch Bonanza!” So, it varies from night to night. Certainly, when something’s improvised, it wakes me up a little.
Due to a reporting error, the original version of this blog post misspelled Perry Como’s name. It has been corrected.