Performing since the age of 15, native New Yorker Gilbert Gottfried still boasts a jam-packed tour schedule, a delivery like a rusty can opener and an affinity for saying the perfectly wrong thing at the absolutely wrongest time.
Hot on the heels of his latest controversy, he headlines Carolines on Broadway May 7.
Tell me what happened at the Friars Club with Shecky Greene.
[Laughs] Well they were honoring Freddie Roman and Stewie Stone. The show was supposed to close with Shecky Greene presenting an award. I went on, and then later on Joy Behar–who wasn’t scheduled to be on, she was just there attending–they had her go onstage, and she said that Shecky Greene stood up from his seat and stormed out during my show because he was offended by my language. I was shocked, because I didn’t know that Shecky Greene could stand up from his chair. [Laughs] And he stormed out, and afterwards I found out that both Freddie Roman and Stewie Stone were yelling at him, saying to come back, that “You’re gonna wreck the whole evening.” Then he claimed he went home and tore up his membership to the Friars Club, and I was shocked again that he was able to tear a piece of paper in half.
He went on some radio show the next day and spoke about it. He said he was in the Navy, and he never heard language like that, which makes me feel very uncomfortable about today’s military, if a filthy limerick or something would make them throw their rifles down and surrender.
He was referring to me as “That Little Jew.” For anti-Semitism to be coming from Shecky Green, from all people…And he said if he saw me, he’d throw me against the wall. I don’t think he would have been able to throw Gary Coleman against the wall.
Was it just general language?
Yeah, my usual to anyone who’s vaguely familiar. He already knows what to expect.
So it wasn’t any pointed, deliberate barbs at anybody.
No, no one was brought up. It was an old tradition; even the most squeaky-clean comics, classic comics like Jack Benny and Milton Berle and George Burns and all those people knew that during a Friars event, they could be as filthy as they wanted. And I really can’t believe that Schecky Greene of all people, living out in Vegas, has never heard this type of language before.
You think there was something else going on?
Probably. Yeah, that’s my guess. Probably something else, and I was an excuse.
As somebody who had one of the stand-out tellings in The Aristocrats documentary, and even more recently, your reading of Fifty Shades of Grey, are we seeing a thinning of the collective skin when it comes to processing envelope-pushing comedy?
Yeah, nowadays, especially with the Internet, there’s somebody getting offended by something, and it’s always some mass-offended thing. Someone said something, and now the whole world can’t deal with it. Which is tiresome, to say the least, but doesn’t seem like it’s going away. There’s always someone who’s the new villain of the week.
It’s gotten even worse, because now you can’t mumble to yourself walking down the street without someone recording it and putting it up on the Internet and going, “Oh my God, did you hear what he mumbled to himself?”
The Michael Richards incident, where they recorded him saying it and put it up, I thought, “Well, number one, you shouldn’t be recording at a comedy club.” Had Michael Richards done that before the age of recording things, people would have said, “Oh, that was a weird incident,” and chuckled about it. It would have been forgotten about. But now it’s something major.
On the flip side of that, what positive things have you seem the Internet do for comedy?
I don’t know. Everything has changed as a business, so it’s hard for me to judge now. Another bad thing I’ve noticed: people used to go to clubs and try out material and try to put together a new act or a new special, and now it gets recorded before it’s finished and it gets up there. I’m glad they didn’t have it when I was starting out. I would hate to think back then that I would have recorded my set and put it up there, because now I think of my set from years ago, and think, “Oh my God!” That would be horribly embarrassing, and it would never go away.
You mentioned comics working up material to record. Is there a new special/DVD/album you’re actively working toward? It’s been quite awhile since Dirty Jokes.
I have to bite my tongue when I’m on a show and they say, “…and make sure to get his brand-new book and CD!” And I just go “Brand new? Yeah, if six or seven years is brand new.”
I’m one of those people who has to be kicked in the ass several times to do something.
What does it take to get your ass kicked?
It takes a lot. Lately as far as working on stuff, I’m trying to put a podcast together. I still don’t understand the term “podcast,” but I’m trying to make one without truly understanding what I’m doing.
Will there be any certain theme or slant to it?
Well, the podcast that I’m trying to put together–and I think it’ll be going up in a few weeks–is my fascination with Old Hollywood, old TV shows, old movies. I’ve already interviewed Dick Cavett and Marty Allen from Allen & Rossi, and Bela Lugosi, Jr. I’m going to be interviewing some more like that, people who have some connection with Old Hollywood.
[Laughs] That’ll be an awkward call. [Laughs] Just say, “So besides all that, you wanna do the show?”
Marc Maron has had a few people like that on [his WTF podcast]. But it’s getting to the point where Sid Caesar has passed…
It’s funny: We made a list of people that I’d like to interview, and in the past couple of weeks, I’ve had to cross off a few names. You can’t wait too long.
I saw you do Troy Conrad’s Set List show awhile back at The Stand. You seemed to still have some strong feelings about what happened with Aflac.
Oh yeah, everything eventually becomes material to me. That was another of those silly incidents, also on the Internet, where I was the biggest villain. I’ve said it before: Aflac immediately fired me and hired a guy to imitate me for less money, thus bringing closure to a horrible tragedy.
People like to pat themselves on the back when they go, “Hey, I’m offended! Doesn’t this make me a great person?” And I remember with that, the tsunami was in the news every second, and then one day wasn’t, and the big news item that day was that Chris Brown threw a chair backstage at The Today Show.
Part of it is also that when people say they’re offended, they’re being offended on behalf of others, even if they themselves aren’t.
Yeah, and there’s that, and there’s that people like to think, “Oh, I’m feeling it just as much as anybody!” Like “The people who are victims of it, I feel it an equal amount to them,” which is very silly.
There’s always something new out there to get angry about for those people. It’s kind of like when Alec Baldwin was the villain the first time, for leaving a message on his daughter’s machine. Everyone was attacking him, and all I could think was “If you removed Alec Baldwin’s name from the story, all you have is a guy who’s tired of his daughter’s attitude.”
What’s your take on the current crop of Comedy Central Roasts?
I’ve done a bunch of them. I like doing it. It gives me that great feeling of being able to attack people, and they can’t punch you because they have to show they’re a good sport. It’s kind of like some fight where you go, “OK, I’m going to punch you a bunch of times, but you can’t hit me back.”
Even times like when Amy Schumer was on–I can’t remember who the Roast was for–she said something about Steve-O’s dead friend, and even that had a bit of a backlash to it.
Yeah! That was another one of those very silly situations. I remember years ago, when Ted Dansen went up in blackface to Roast Whoopi Goldberg. It wasn’t even televised, and then Montel Williams, he stormed out. Then Ted Dansen in the blackface was on the cover of every single paper and magazine and all of these shows, and at no point did anyone say, “Excuse me, it was a Roast. It was for invited people, and nobody was killed by it.” And Ted Dansen was going out with Whoopi Goldberg at the time! So it kind of takes away the argument of what a vicious racist he was.
So what’s the antidote to all this?
I always kind of felt like nowadays every joke should come with a set of instructions that says, “If you like the joke, laugh. If you don’t like the joke, don’t laugh.”