Gilbert Gottfried’s nasally obnoxiousness has wormed its way in (and out) of America’s hearts for decades — through his stand-up comedy, his voice-acting work as Aladdin’s Iago and Aflac’s duck, and his epically crude rendition of the Aristocrats joke, his too-soon Japanese tsunami jokes (which got him fired from that duck gig). But he’s largely kept his personal life hidden from fans. In Neil Berkeley’s documentary Gilbert, we’re given intimate moments from the comedian’s life, as we meet his absolutely normal and beautiful wife, Dara, and their two children. Gottfried’s comic shield is down, and we’re beholding the loudmouth grouch not on a bare stage in front of a brick wall but in a modern kitchen, making the kids’ lunches, complete with little “I love you” notes from dad.
Gottfried’s vulnerability and curiosity, it turns out, are endearing. Berkeley goes on the road with the comic and at one gig venue, they encounter a military-enthusiasts conference next door, where attendees cosplay in their fave uniforms throughout history. Of course, there are more than a few dressed as Nazis, some of whom attend Gottfried’s show later on, the kind of absurd situation the comedian cherishes. When one apologizes for wearing the costume to his show and cracks a bad joke, Gottfried shrugs it off: “Hey, it’s not the worst thing the Nazis have done!”
Gottfried’s neuroses run deep — and cheap. Dara reveals giant plastic containers filled with hotel toiletries and freebies he refuses to throw away, and Jay Leno says Gottfried was the only guest he had on The Tonight Show who cleared out the green room of all its free sodas. We see Gottfried boarding a low-cost Megabus to one of his shows, even though, as all his friends remind us, this is a guy living in a $3 million apartment. But as the story carries on, we begin to understand that Gottfried has never not feared that one day he would wake up and the world would shun him, and he’d lose everything. It’s fitting that a 5-foot-tall illustration of Frankenstein hangs in the center of his living room — he’s worried the townspeople will grab their torches. And, in one sense, they already have.
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After he tweeted out those tsunami jokes just days after catastrophic destruction in Japan, even Gottfried’s own friends denounced his jokes publicly — for good reason. He lost that lucrative Aflac deal and, as he says, the ability to negotiate his performance fees. America had loved his crass, dark humor at the Hugh Hefner Friars Club roast in the days after 9/11, because his initial Twin Towers joke was quick and un-graphic and then obscured by the utter filthiness of his performance of the Aristocrats joke. These tsunami tweets were instead visible immediately to those devastated by the disaster. He made a mistake, apologized, deleted the tweets and laid low for a while — exactly what he should have done to atone. But the film’s least persuasive passages come when some of the interviewed comics use this as the moment to decry what they see as PC culture, championing Gottfried as a crusader against political correctness. If you’re a fan of Gottfried, you’d know he’s always tried to be on the right side of the joke, using his humor not as a weapon but as a means to help his audiences cope with the worst the world can offer, even if, God help him, he failed miserably sometimes.