Instantly recognizable: A conversation with Gilbert Gottfried

He squints. He screeches. Everyone knows Gilbert Gottfried. He has been an instantly recognizable voice in the comedy industry for the better part of three decades. The often loud and occasionally offensive comedian has been a night club draw since the mid-‘80s, with his hyper-extreme twist on vaudevillian comedy. He often walks the fine line between genius and irritating. But, if you were a kid at all in the last 25 years, you will remember him as the voice of Iago from the Disney classic “Aladdin.” Gottfried will be in Louisville this Saturday, Jan. 24, performing at The Laughing Derby.

When I spoke with Gottfried on the phone, he was not in “character” — certainly not the manic marionette people generally picture when they hear his name. But that is a persona he clearly protects and values, asking me, “So this is for print? People aren’t going to be listening to this?” His conversational voice is obviously much lower than what you would identify with him. His New York accent is generally far less pronounced, only occasionally sneaking in as we talk. These occasional notes of accent are the only reminders of the squinting, screeching mad man we have come to identify him with. He’s very nice, soft spoken and seems to consider his answers a great deal.

There is a classic vaudeville feel to your material now. Was that intentional?

Gilbert Gottfried: Well, it was definitely something I was exposed to, but I watched way more television as a kid than I should have, so I think it was just a combobulation of all of that in my head that just kind of came out this way.

LEO: What was Brooklyn like when you were growing up? During your formative years, there was a critical shift in the artistic renaissance that was happening in New York.

GG: I think I was kind of aware of it. I remember my sisters and I taking the train down to Central Park, and in those days there was a lot of weird stuff happening there. People were walking around in costumes and makeup, it was hard not to acknowledge there was some kind of cultural shift going on.

LEO: When you’re acting, which is easier, on-screen acting or voice acting?

GG: I always say whoever is writing the check. But doing voice work is a pretty sweet deal. I’ll wake up — I don’t even have to shave — and get paid to show up in a studio and scream into a microphone all day.

LEO: Squinting and that voice have become a trademark for you…where did that “character” come from?

GG: To be honest, I don’t know. I’ve done it every night for so long now, it’s like asking someone how did they learned to walk the way they do. Growing up in Brooklyn, I’m sure on some level it was an amalgam of all the old ladies in the neighborhood coming out of my mouth in one long, distended screech.

LEO: You’re certainly no stranger to controversy; did you ever tell a joke knowing ahead of time people were going to lose their minds?

GG: With some of it, I kind of knew. But it’s hard for me to take any of it seriously because with the rise of the Internet, everyone has come to think that their opinion is important. It’s wrong for me to say whatever I said, but it’s ok for them to go online and say they want me and my entire family to die. And then, after that, they want some kind of validation of their opinion on how or why me and my family should die.

LEO: Has there ever been a joke that was so offensive you wouldn’t tell it?

GG: I’m not sure. Going back to the Hugh Hefner roast in 2001 — a couple of weeks after 9/11 – I told a terrorist joke and completely lost the crowd. They booed and said it was too soon. I then told The Aristocrats joke, filled with incest and bestiality, and everyone started laughing, applauding and gave me a standing ovation. So incest and bestiality are fine, but terrorism is too far?

LEO: And what made you finally decide to write a book, “Rubber Balls & Liquor?”

GG: A publisher paid me to sit down and write a book. I said sure, and then I thought…damn, now I have to sit down and actually write something. After I did that, I sent it to them, they printed it up and sent it back to me. I had to re-read it, edit and make changes…that was terrible. I don’t wanna read anything I’ve written and I don’t wanna make anyone else read it either. But thankfully, when it came out, a lot of the critics gave — including the New York Times — it really kind reviews.

LEO: Last year, Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. Do you feel you got snubbed this year not being nominated for your portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in “A Million Ways To Die in the West?”

GG: It just goes to show how political these award shows are. [Laughs]. My portrayal was much more accurate to how Lincoln behaved and I’m sure I did a lot more research than [Daniel Day-Lewis] did.

LEO: You’ve had a long, varied career in show business. When you die, what do you think they’ll put on your gravestone?

GG: This question scares me. I’m afraid I’ll die soon and someone will come back and see this and actually put my answer on my gravestone. [Laughs]. So I feel like I can’t die as long as I don’t answer, because of my silence, [I’ll] actually end up living forever.