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Gilbert Gottfried Could Only Go Too Far

The squawking comic offended many — and couldn’t seem to help it

Is there anything inherently funny about a grown man squinting and screeching in the loudest, most obnoxious voice he can muster? Not really. So begin by giving Gilbert Gottfried, who today passed away at the age of 67, tremendous credit for maintaining the shtick over several decades, to the point where he could make you laugh by reading three-star Yelp reviews of restaurants in Boise, Idaho. It was the abrasive tenor of a man who could not be shushed — a man who would go on making a scene, as he did not have it in him to stop. 

As a comedian, Gottfried lived a double life, his unmistakable delivery a fit for both raunchy Friars Club Roasts and children’s cartoons: the scheming parrot Iago in Disney’s Aladdin, and roles on shows like The Fairly OddParents and Ren and Stimpy. While he had a brief stint on Saturday Night Live at what most consider the nadir of the show, he found a more suitable niche as a recurring guest of radio host Howard Stern, where he did bits “impersonating” Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Andrew “Dice” Clay — but many years later, Stern stopped booking him, and some believe it had to do with an incident in which Gottfried spat on cupcakes in the hallway of the SiriusXM studio that were meant for the staff. But it could have just as well been his tendency to cross every meager boundary of decorum that Stern set out for him, as in this appearance when he repeatedly used the N-word, applying it to President Barack Obama.   

Gottfried’s talent for offending was so immense that he pioneered the arc of celebrity “cancelation” as we know it today. A series of tweets making light of the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan drew widespread outrage and cost him the job of voicing insurance company Aflac’s duck mascot. (His replacement, of course, had no choice but to emulate Gottfried’s signature squawk.) It prompted what was perhaps his sole public apology for such taboo material. 

At other moments, he salvaged tasteless humor with more of the same: Less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, he was roasting Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and quipped that he couldn’t get a direct flight back to California, as the plane “had to stop at the Empire State Building first.” When the audience turned on him for this comment, he thought, “why not go to the bottom level of hell,” as he recounted years later — and launched into a ferociously dirty riff on “The Aristocrats,” an infamous routine dating back to the vaudeville era. It brought the house down and became among the most revered performances of the bit. 

Appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2017 to promote Gilbert, a documentary about his life, Gottfried described how he had helped a non-responsive autistic child to communicate with his family by engaging him through a puppet of Iago, his Aladdin character. Immediately after receiving applause for this, he remarked that he learned everything he knew about autism from Jenny McCarthy, who falsely claims that vaccines cause the condition. He went on to say that while his own two kids aren’t autistic, “the bad news is they both have polio.” Colbert recalled him springing the same gag on a room of 1,500 people, many of whom were there because their children were developmentally disabled. “And this is what I love about you,” Colbert continued. “There’s no joke you won’t tell as soon as you think of it.” 

That, it seems, was his gift and his curse, an unstoppable momentum that always put him at risk of a trainwreck.

But way more often, Gottfried was able to barrel through and break your defenses. Even that earliest 9/11 humor — of course he was the first to puncture the solemnity around it — got a wave of shocked laughter before anyone thought to boo him. And, as in his recovery with “The Aristocrats,” or all the times he irritated Donald Trump in his run on The Celebrity Apprentice, he was best when he carried on with unyielding force and surreal stamina. A 1999 episode of Hollywood Squares proved a platform for this irresistible energy, with neither contestant able to claim Gottfried’s winning square as they continued to miss every single question. Gottfried delighted in their struggle the longer it went on, bellowing “You fool!” at each answer before the host could declare it incorrect. By the end, everyone on set was yelling it along with him, elevating a cheesy, forgettable game show to something like performance art.       

Any other comic might have succumbed to the excruciating stupidity of the sequence. But not Gottfried, who found himself right at home in a moment of entertainment breaking its own stale format. Over the years of his strange career, he went too far whenever he could, though cruelty was hardly the aim — this formal transgression, chaos and collapse of order were his touchstones. Was he crossing a line, or did he not realize the line was there? If he could drag you over with him, you didn’t get the chance to wonder. You could only try to keep up.