Gilbert Gottfried obituary

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Scott Roth/Invision/AP</span>
Photograph: Scott Roth/Invision/AP

Those unfamiliar with Gilbert Gottfried, the comedian and actor who has died aged 67 of a rare form of muscular dystrophy, would instantly recognise his voice, shrill, high-pitched and grating. It was the voice of Iago the parrot in the movie Aladdin, or Mr Mxyzptlk, Superman’s trickster nemesis, or Kraang Subprime in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series. Putting a face to the voice, they might recall his desperately conniving corrupt accountant Sid Bernstein in Beverly Hills Cop 2.

While Gottfried’s voice made him a family favourite, it was also part of the character of a tasteless, often profane, stand-up comic. Only 5ft 5in (1.65 metres) tall, with a frail-seeming body and large head, performing with an exaggerated squint, his act resembled a precocious child’s tantrum: as audiences recoiled from a touchy joke, elaborated in ever more flowery language, the voice got louder, more insistent. Then he might stop to deconstruct what he was doing: “Logically, this doesn’t make sense,” he would yell, “but it’s a joke!!”

His greatest fame as a comedian came in the film The Aristocrats (2005), where comics discussed and performed the eponymous dirty joke which they had for decades told each other: a detailed description of a family (and their dog) auditioning their depraved vaudeville act for an agent. When they’re finished, the agent asks what they call their act, and the father proudly replies: “The Aristocrats.” Gottfried’s telling stole the film; in fact he may have been its inspiration.

In 2001, performing at a roast of the Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner, Gottfried made a joke about 9/11, which much of the audience booed, crying out: “Too soon.” To recover, he told The Aristocrats, famously winning them over. For an R-rated version of the effect, you could listen to his 2012 reading of excerpts from the novel Fifty Shades of Grey.

He was born in Brooklyn, where his father, Max, ran the family’s hardware business; his mother, Lillian (nee Zimmerman), was a homemaker. His older sister, Arlene, became a successful photographer, but Gilbert started comedy early, beginning at open mic nights when he was only 15. He soon learned to aim for the last spot, where he could mimic those who had already performed. “Jerry Seinfeld would refuse to come into the room when I was doing him,” he recalled.

His big break should have come in 1980, when he was hired for Saturday Night Live, but he was barely used in his 12 episodes. He was Alan Thicke’s sidekick on Thicke of the Night (1983-84), then did a special for Cinemax in 1987, which led in 1989 to nine years of hosting USA Network’s Up All Night, presenting bad B movies. From 1994, the show’s lead-in was the edgy animated sitcom Duckman, starring Jason Alexander, on which Gottfried had a recurring part.

Another missed break came in 1988, when he starred in a series pilot called Norman’s Corner, written by Larry David, playing a New York newstand vendor. The offbeat series didn’t sell, but the pilot was released as a TV movie. Gottfried later joked that when David went in to pitch Seinfeld, the executives said: “Aren’t you the guy who wrote that piece of shit for Gilbert Gottfried?”

He then hosted the 1991 Emmys, opening with jokes about the arrest of Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) for masturbating in an adult cinema (“if masturbation were a crime, I’d be on death row. By 8.14 this morning, I was already Al Capone”). It so upset Fox that the jokes were edited out of the programme’s later, west coast feed.

Gottfried’s credits are a comedy routine themselves, befitting someone nominated three times for the Golden Raspberry award for worst supporting actor of 1990 (as Johnny Crunch in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Joey the baby gym instructor in Look Who’s Talking Too and Mr Peabody in Problem Child, a role he repeated in its sequel). He had cameos as both Hitler in Highway to Hell (1991) and Abraham Lincoln in A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014). He played the TV reporter Ron McDonald in two Sharknado movies, then Ron’s father Rand in The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time (2018).

But his best, most uncensored, work came in roasts, performed for his fellow comics, memorably including fellow bad-taste comic Bob Saget, Joan Rivers, Star Trek’s George Takei and Roseanne Barr, whom he christened Rozilla. Insiders knew where he came from. As Tom Bergeron – the host of the gameshow Hollywood Squares, on which Gottfried provided a memorable sequence when the contestants guessed wrong on his answers six consecutive times, Gottfried shouting “you fool!” each time – pointed out: “Never has such a sharp wit come from a sweeter source.”

Gottfried wrote a memoir, Rubber Balls and Liquor (2011), but more revealing was the 2017 documentary Gilbert, showing his family life with his wife, Dara Kravitz, whom he met at a post-Grammys party in the 90s and married in 2007.

He is survived by Dara, their children, Lily and Max, and a sister, Karen. Arlene died in 2017.

• Gilbert Gottfried, comedian and actor, born 28 February 1955; died 12 April 2022

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