Gilbert Gottfried talks about his signature voice, Old Hollywood, watching comics die and more

Published Nov. 12, 2014

For a long time, Gilbert Gottfried has been a sound. A grating, nasally nails-on-a-chalkboard sound that every listener identified as an antagonist before they even put together the words of his characters, from adoption agents with questionable ethics to evil parrots of would-be usurpers.

But that's not all he is.

The 59-year-old father of two got his start in stand-up in his teens and has never really stopped touring. "I can't even count how many years I've been on the road at this point," he told tbt* in a recent phone interview about his life in show business.

This weekend he'll bring his grating sound and dirty jokes to Side Splitters in Tampa (click here for details), and and hopefully wilt a few lilies while he's at it. He warns, "It's not all disgusting and pornographic, but don't be shocked."

Are you looking forward to your time in Tampa? Any fond memories here?

Oh God, I'm one of those people who never knows where I am until I get there. There have been clubs — and entire cities — I'll get to the club and swear I've never been there and I'll see I've signed the wall. Or when I do local radio promotions and shows in the area, they'll say "Welcome back." And I'll think, Oh. I've been here. For all I know, the way it works with my date book, I may have played China last week.

Do you still enjoy all that touring?

It depends on what minute of the day and what second of that minute you ask me. Some things I enjoy, some I don't. I keep reminding myself that it beats actually working for living. Every time I want to complain, I always envision my father and explaining to him that I make this much money to go up on stage and tell jokes for a couple hours. He's not going to feel all that bad for me.

If you weren't in comedy/acting, what would you be doing?

I think I went into comedy because I'm too stupid for anything else. One time many years ago, when I was doing Hollywood Squares, the show had a car and driver to take me back to hotel. The show was only supposed to take an hour but it was running longer because of technical difficulties. I got annoyed and when I got into the car the driver asked me about my day and I was really ready to start bitching about what a long annoying day I had. But the other part of my brain spoke up and said don't do that. I basically woke up, went to the studio, ate breakfast at the studio, told three jokes, broke for lunch, told three more jokes and went back to the hotel. So, you know, I shut up.

You've been giving your colleagues hell at their roasts recently. Are you preparing for what it will be like when it's your turn?

Oh, God. The way I feel about roasts is, I can joke about someone and their entire family dying in fire and it's fun and games, but if they make fun of the shirt I'm wearing, they've gone too far.

So you won't be roasted?

Well, I don't have any plans to. But the minute someone offers me money for something my opinions often change.

What's making you laugh lately? What can Tampa expect from your shows?

I always hate when people ask me what I'll be talking about in my show or to say one of bits out loud. I always hear it and think, "Oh my God! None of this is funny." I still live under the fear one day I'll find the jig is up, and they'll find out I don't belong in showbiz. It's like this big party snuck into and I'm just waiting for security to find me and throw me out.

You're still not confident in your standing after all these years?

It just gets worse over time. Stupidity is what started me out and what kept me going was pure stupidity. You know, when you get older, you see things in the more rational way and the real odds against making it. Back then, saying you were going into comedy, I can only imagine was like buying a lottery ticket and telling your parents that you were going to be the $100 million grand prize winner. It was that irrational.
But it doesn't seem that hard to be famous anymore, what with Internet celebrities and social media stars.
It's so strange; the distance between fame and obscurity is closer now. It's kind of like, years ago, being a celebrity meant you lived in this other universe. You couldn't send a tweet at the Beatles saying, "Hey. The Abbey Road album stunk." You couldn't tell Charlie Chaplin you don't like his movies.

Are people even flaming you on Twitter?

It's strange. It's kind of like... the Internet is a modern-day way of ringing someone's doorbell and running away... They feel like I said stuff too soon. It's so funny with the Internet. You could say you ate handful of jellybeans and people will start attacking you. I mean, people will wish for your death. But I still do it.

What else are you up to besides constant touring?

I have a podcast now, you know, just like your mailman has a podcast. It's called Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast. A podcast trying to mainly talk about old Hollywood and the new people who work there too. I interviewed Roger Corman and he told a story about how he was going to play tennis one day but it rained so he got some people together and made a movie. It was called The Terror and had Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson. And still to this day no one involved with the picture knows anything about the plot. He told the story one time, it was dark outside and they had to shoot a scene, but they didn't have nay light, so he asked them, "You got cars don't you? Then use those."

Why old Hollywood?

I was just always one of those people who are just fascinated by old Hollywood. When I was growing up, the greatest film school in the country was in your living room. I'm fascinated with the old movies and TV shows and now only a handful of those people are left. We thought about calling the podcast the Before it's Too Late Show, originally. But we didn't think it would go over well because nobody wants to hear, "Hey. I want you on my podcast because I think you'll be dead soon."

Most people think of Gilbert Gottfried as a voice first and then an actor. How do you deal with that legacy?

I'm happy with however they take me. They can think of me as the greatest opera singer as long as I'm able to pay the rent at the end of the month.

There have been some pretty devastating losses in comedy this year. What's it to have been around long enough to survive your peers?

That's certainly a strange thing when you start getting to that point you're the go to guy when someone else dies. "How do you feel about so-and-so dying?" is like it's a new job responsibility. You get to that point where you want to write and obituary just send around to the media. An obituary that they can slap in any name. I'll film myself. I'll say, "I feel very sad about the loss of Insert Name Here. The whole world will miss this talented choose actor/dance/singer."

I haven't quite become the go-to yet. But I've seen it more and more with other people... Milton Burle lived to ripe old age and they'd always ask him, "How do you feel about so and so dying?" There were tragic losses in comedy. Robin Williams was the most shocking — and Joan Rivers was great and will always be missed.

What do want your peers to say about you at the end?

That he never actually died. That he is now 1,010 and we still don't find him all that funny or talented.

-- Robbyn Mitchell, tbt*