The Family Man Behind the Cranky Voice

November 9, 2017
Gilbert Gottfried. Photo from gilbertgottfried.com

Editor’s note: Gilbert Gottfried has died after battling a long illness. He was 67. Below is an article we published about him in the Journal in 2017.

Even if you can’t place the face behind it, you will probably recognize that voice.

Cranky and abrasive, a Brooklyn bray perfectly pitched to heckle or lob vulgarities, the voice of actor-comedian Gilbert Gottfried is unmistakable, whether he’s behind the microphone at a comedy club (where he performs regularly) or he is waxing philosophical during an interview.

Gottfried, 62, is the voice of scores of animated characters, most notably Iago, the parrot sidekick of the evil Jaffar in Disney’s “Aladdin” franchise. He squawked famously as the exasperated spokes-duck for Aflac before a series of his tweeted jokes at the expense of victims of the 2011 Japanese tsunamis prompted the insurance giant to sever ties with him.

The tsunami-tweet dust-up was hardly the first time the comedian raised hackles. Employing that voice to its greatest foul-mouthed comic effect, Gottfried has never met a sacred cow he didn’t attempt to slaughter. Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he showed up at a roast for Hugh Hefner, saying he couldn’t get a direct flight because “they had to make a stop at the Empire State Building.”

Gottfried has never met a sacred cow he wouldn’t slaughter.

But in a new documentary, “Gilbert,” which opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 10, Gottfried emerges as a private and shy guy, a quirky artist and family man who offstage leads what most would consider a fairly conventional life.

Dara Kravitz, his wife of 10 years, noted in an interview with the Journal at a Pasadena diner that for several years while she and Gottfried were dating, he never told his closest friends about her existence. Gottfried, who was low-key but laughed plenty during the interview, had a theory as to why that was the case.

“I always think of that scene in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,’ ” he said as he sat alongside his wife and the documentary’s writer-director, Neil Berkeley. “Just watch me onstage or in a movie. What I’m doing up there, I don’t want anybody to think about, I guess.”

Berkeley concurred: “There’s this uncomfortable thing with Gilbert where he doesn’t want his personal life to collide through the other life he has, his life in entertainment.”

For the documentary, Berkeley tracked Gottfried across the country and internationally, and he also had his camera rolling during times Gottfried spent with his older sisters in his native Brooklyn and with his children, Lily, 10, and Max, 8. The film shows that while Gottfried may try to keep his worlds separate, he is still a comedian and, yes, his family  also  can be grist for the joke mill.

An off-color riff on actress Mackenzie Phillips made it into the film, to Kravitz’s initial displeasure.

“Now I can never show this movie to the kids,” Kravitz said. “But I guess it drives the point: It’s a joke.”

“I can kind of go into the lowest depths of hell and still be a human being, which a lot of people don’t see,” Gottfried said. “When I got in trouble with the whole tsunami thing, I did a TV interview and the interviewer was confronting me like I was the biggest criminal on the planet, like I blew up an orphanage or something. Later in the interview, I said to her, ‘You know, there are certain jokes that are in bad taste, but people tell them,’ and I told her this joke and she started laughing and covering her face.”

Gottfried’s religious background is part of the documentary as well, although not explicitly. He was raised in a Jewish home, although he never became a bar mitzvah and has never been particularly observant. But, “If the Nazis were to come back,” he said, “I’d be on the train car with everybody else.

“What’s interesting to me, ‘Jew’ is the only actual real word that’s considered a curse word in an ethnic group,” Gottfried said. “On my podcast, I’m always revealing what famous person is a Jew. That’s one of the things I remember when I was watching TV with my father. At the end of the TV show or movie, he would point out people and say, ‘So-and-so is a Jew. Jew, Jew.”

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