The voice! That high-pitched, kvetchy, caterwauling rasp — the sound of an angry Jewish uncle from 1940 shouting in your face. The sour squint of disapproval. The teeth so bulgy they look like dentures that want to bite you. And the jokes! Vulgar (and cheap) enough that they’d seem right at home on a second-tier Catskills nightclub stage. In the 1980s, Gilbert Gottfried became one of the first walking-pieces-of-kitsch comedy stars: a man who seemed to be playing a character so obnoxious that the obnoxiousness became the point. He was the one-joke version of a post-Andy Kaufman jester. He killed, as they say, by letting the audience in on the garish bellowing absurdity of his act.
He found his way into the spotlight (on “Letterman” and “Arsenio” and “Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee,” in chintzy Hollywood sequels like “Beverly Hills Cop II” and “Problem Child 2”). And he solidified his ironic mainstream status with a highly popular vocal performance in Disney’s “Aladdin,” even he was becoming a hall-of-fame fixture of comedy’s cutting edge (on “The Howard Stern Show,” on the anything-goes “Comedy Central Roast”). Through it all, if you were a Gilbert Gottfried fan, or even if — like me — you enjoyed him well enough, but in fairly small doses, the question lingered: Was he for real? Or, more to the point, since he obviously wasn’t for real: Who the hell was he?
“Gilbert,” directed by Neil Berkeley, answers that question in a way that’s both tantalizing and touching. The movie is a documentary portrait of the man Gilbert Gottfried is today — which is to say, he’s still doing his Yiddish-nails-on-the-blackboard comedy stylings, traveling around to gigs wherever they’ll take him (a nightclub, a mall, a gun show), hawking himself with a vigor that never seems to get old.
At the same time, the movie, like Gottfried himself, takes a nearly fetishistic delight in demonstrating to us that he’s become a “normal” person. For a while, this seems like a bit of a gee-whiz stunt, since it’s not as if the Gilbert Gottfried we saw on TV was pretending to be “real” any more than Pee-wee Herman was. In “Gilbert,” he’s revealed to be a soft-spoken man in his early 60s, who now looks like a tiny wizened samurai, married with two children, living in an elegant New York co-op with a poster of Groucho Marx in the living room, doted on by his very sweet and smart wife, Dara, who resembles a domestic Toni Colette, and who takes care of Gilbert by accepting the fact that he is, on some level, her third child.
He is, in his way, a kind and affectionate daddy (his kids, Lily and Max, seem very well-adjusted, and both agree that their father is “not very” funny). He’s revered by his fellow stand-ups, he’s close to his two sisters, and he’s good friends with the 89-year-old Dick Van Dyke. The most Gilbert Gottfried-ish thing about him is that he’s a maniacal cheapskate, with a penchant for hoarding mountains of free-sample soap, shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste that looks, to these eyes, like a form of OCD (Dara has stashed his collection in huge plastic bags). On the road, his idea of a night out is washing his underwear and socks in the sink.
Being a husband and father, says Gottfried, gives him the how-did-I-get-here? feeling that, each day, he has woken up in a dream. On some level he feels he’s impersonating a human being. But it’s in that very place, where the stunted geek meets the Twilight Zone of reality, that “Gilbert” becomes a spooky study in the mysteries of comedy.
The movie captures Gottfried as a golden oldie of the club circuit, still hawking his outdated DVDs, but as we learn, his comedy underwent a major zigzag in 2005, after “The Aristocrats” came out. That was the documentary about the world’s dirtiest joke — the one that comedians tell each other (and only each other) in endless can-you-top-this? variations of disgusting shock value. Up until that movie, Gottfried had never worked dirty; he was obsessed, in fact, with doing an act that was outrageous but clean. Yet once he’d appeared in “The Aristocrats,” the cantankerous nerd got in touch with his inner blue-streak id. He was born again, for a more extreme era, as a stand-up comic who gleefully smashed the boundaries of tact and taste, and it gave him new juice, a new relevance, and a new infamy.
The phrase “Too soon!” was coined the night that he told a 9/11 joke — the first one ever — at a “Friars Club Roast” of Hugh Hefner that was held just weeks after the Twin Towers fell. The movie replays the incident, but more than that it looks at why he did it: at the need to push the envelope that became a geek’s scandalous but bizarrely innocent compulsion. He got in as much trouble when he tweeted tasteless jokes about the 2011 Japan tsunami, and the Aflac insurance company dropped him as its pitchman mascot.
A lot of people would say that he deserved it. Yet in “Gilbert,” Gottfried displays no regrets; he has the courage of his abrasive conviction. The most offensive joke we see him tell is one in which he compares his own daughter to Mackenzie Phillips — but if the joke, on some level, is indefensible, it’s really one designed to mock his own insecurities. He is full of fear, but fearless. He’s just kidding, but totally means it. He’s a man who puts on his entire stand-up personality like a moth-balled old suit, but once he’s in character he is never more himself. You may or may not walk away from “Gilbert” a Gilbert Gottfried fan, but either way the movie makes you glad he exists.