The thing about Gilbert Gottfried is that you could imagine him reading a pamphlet on dental benefits and it would be funny. He would sound agitated, frustrated and bursting with sarcasm, and you'd be laughing about crowns and copays.
But Gottfried has more than his voice going for him. Decades of writing and performing comedy has allowed him to cover any topic, and his habit of turning tragedies into comedy has both gained him fans and cost him work (most notably being the voice of the AFLAC duck after making light of Japanese earthquakes and tsunamis in 2011).
In advance of his run at Side Splitters this weekend, we asked Gottfried about playing Hitler, getting in trouble for what he says and having a documentary made about him.
Your stage voice is one of the most distinctive in comedy. Do you ever use it when you're talking to a telemarketer, or the cable company? Has it ever helped you in an everyday situation?
I don’t know if it’s helped me in an everyday situation, but I think one day I may use it to start my own phone sex hotline.
You were in a '90s B-Movie called Highway to Hell, in which you played Hitler. We apologize, but somehow we missed that one. Could you walk us through the role?
Missing that movie is nothing to be sorry about. I sat though it. I’m more sorry.
At this stage of your career, people want to see you because you're Gilbert Gottfried, and they laugh at both what you say and how you say it. Is it easier or harder to write jokes now, as compared to when you were an up-and-comer? Has your approach to writing changed, knowing what audiences expect from you?
It definitely affects how people judge you. I used to be able to go up on stage and say whatever popped into my head and people would boo or leave the club. Now, the audience is unreasonable and they expect me to be funny when they see me. It’s so unfair.
You've never believed in "too soon" with regard to making jokes about current events, whether it was about 9/11, Japanese earthquakes or whatever's in the news. What's the secret to taking on controversial material and making it funny?
George Carlin once said, “It’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and then deliberately cross over it.” I guess I feel that way.
You've paid a price for getting involved in those controversial subjects, too. But it's also how you've built your loyal fanbase. How do you feel about achieving success despite going against the grain, especially in today's political climate?
A number of times I became a news item where their top story was "Gilbert Gottfried’s career is over." It made me realize that if your career is truly over, you’re not the top story. I’m kind of happy that I keep a career regardless of the trouble I’ve gotten in.
Few people (let alone comedians) have a documentary made about them, but you do. And it's getting great reviews. What made you agree to participate and how did you deal with people seeing a different side of you?
It’s very weird. Since I never out-and-out agreed to do the documentary, the filmmaker Neil Berkeley came up to me and said, "I've always dreamt of doing a Gilbert Gottfried documentary." I told him, "You should set your dreams a lot higher."
He started following me around with his camera and filming my day-to-day life, and followed me to various clubs out of state that I worked at. I hated being filmed and watching it is like that first time you hear your voice recorded. It’s that uncomfortable.
And yet, I’ve read nothing but glowing reviews about it. So I guess I’m happy I did it.
What surprises people when they see your full stand-up set, as opposed to clips on the Internet?
Probably that I still have a career.
Gilbert Gottfried | Side Splitters, 12938 N. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa | $20-$25. Get showtimes and tickets here. Never miss a comedy show — subscribe to Creative Loafing's weekly Do This newsletter to learn about all the best events in Tampa Bay