Do a little background research on comedian Gilbert Gottfried and just about any news story will start off telling you that he’s most famous for playing the AFLAC duck and a parrot in Disney’s animated Aladdin. But long before any of that, and even more so today, you’ll find a funny, loudmouthed extremely un-PC comedian who will always fearlessly go for the joke first even though he’s bound to piss off someone in the process (hence the reason he’s no longer the AFLAC Duck). Gottfried, whose also been in countless movies and TV shows, spoke to City Paper from his New York Apartment recently about his past, his present, his podcast and Bill Cosby.
It seems like every story about you brings up the duck and the parrot. Are you worried about that being your showbiz legacy?
Yeah, All the reporters bring up the same stuff and I feel like I'd like to have a bunch of answers printed up and mass mail them out to every newspaper and internet service and say here are the answers that you’re looking for.
But long before the bird roles, you were doing TV and standup comedy. What was your breakthrough? Was it the Cinemax special in 1987?
That Cinemax special was the first time I'd really been noticed in a good way. Because I had two other shows that I was on. I was on Saturday Night Live and that bombed because it was right after the original cast left and people were like, “how dare you continue Saturday Night Live without the original cast?” But I was able to top that failure by doing Alan Thicke's show, Thicke of the Night. So those were two bad exposures. The first really good one was some people from MTV saw me at a club and asked me to come and audition. And I just went in and started improvising. They filmed it and started putting it on air throughout the day. People started noticing me from that and that led to the Cinemax special and all of these other things.
Have you always leaned toward edgier comedy?
It's funny, I was always leaning toward edgier stuff. But as far as being dirty, the first few years of doing this, I went out of my way to avoid the dirty words because I wondered what were they laughing at, the joke or the word?
You definitely have no problem working blue now. Was that your choice or do you think audiences wanted that kind of comedy?
The stuff I do is usually because it's stuff that I want to do and that I think is funny. I never really thought consciously of ... well, I guess I never thought consciously (laughs).
Another big break for you was a guest spot on The Cosby Show. Have you kept in touch with Bill during his times of trouble?
Oh yes (laughing). Sometimes he drops pills over at my house to hold onto.
Did he offer you anything to drink?
(Laughing) Yes, and I woke up the next day with my pants around my ankles.
Now, what I do remember about that episode was, I was doing Thicke of the Night and somebody told me that Bill Cosby was a fan of mine. So, I had an audition to do a guest spot on the Cosby Show and before I had a chance to read, the person in charge of the audition said “Bill said he was looking for this guy.” He didn't even know me by name but he wanted me on the show. The funny thing was I went on the show — and it was already the number one show back then but there was also a huge snowstorm that night that helped with the ratings —it broke records as the number one most watched sitcom episode at that time.
So Bill Cosby really helped your career?
Yeah and I didn't have to drink anything to do it.
You realize that you’re the only person telling positive Bill Cosby stories at this point?
Yeah, that's scary when you think about it (laughs).
You’re having some success with your “Amazing Colossal Podcast,” which features guests and stories out of old Hollywood. It seems a bit odd because you’re pretty old school and don’t strike me as a podcast guy.
You're absolutely right about me not knowing about podcasts. I still don't quite know what I'm doing. People were saying do a podcast and I thought everyone else is doing it, so I may as well. I figured, I like old Hollywood, I like old showbiz. But what makes it tough is everybody I want to talk to is dead or is dying. I had (actor and comedian) Jack Carter scheduled to do the show. He had to cancel out the week of the show because he was going into the hospital and that was it, you know. [Carter died June 28 at the age of 93]
So you're not scheduling too far in advance?
Right. I've become like the grim reaper. I was originally going to call it “The Before it's too Late Show.”
Podcasts are a big deal for younger consumers. Are you able to connect with younger audiences even though you're talking about topics that they probably don't have a frame of reference for?
It wasn't a conscious decision. I remember thinking that when I do this with people of a certain generation that no one is going to want to listen. But I've gotten a lot of tweets and emails from people saying, “I didn't know or care who this person is, but I'm fascinated and entertained by them.” Other people say they don't know the person so they start looking them up. It's become a fun homework assignment.
You’ve long said comedy is too politically correct. Have you changed because of that? You lost your AFLAC job because of some tweets about the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Do things like that slow you down?
I like to stay the way I am. Maybe I'm just plain self destructive. Although now I do think twice before I say something, even though I go ahead and say it anyway. Things have realy gotten insane because of the Internet. Take the whole thing with AFLAC. They fired me and got loads of free publicity off it and then hired a guy to imitate my voice for less money. Apparently that’s their way of separating themselves from this horrible person.
You used to be a regular fixture on the Howard Stern show. But you haven’t been on in some time. Some people say it’s because that show has gotten more p.c. Do you know why you’re not booked anymore?
Yeah, it's still kind of a mystery to me. But what people who say who listen everyday is that it's become more of an interview show; before it was more a madhouse. But still, it's funny because of the years that I've been going on there, it's like I'm still on everyday because of the amount of tape they have on me that gets played in reruns.