Aspen Laff Fest: Gilbert Gottfried on Trump and comedy in the age of Internet outrage
If You Go …
Who: Gilbert Gottfried
Where: Aspen Laff Festival, Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, Feb. 19, 9:30 p.m.
How much: $45
Tickets: Wheeler box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: Jerry Rocha will open for Gottfried.
Gilbert Gottfried competed for a season on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” and roasted The Donald on Comedy Central (memorably translating Marlee Matlin’s remarks and skewering Trump for his taste in “Eastern European whores”). The experiences, suffice it to say, did not lead Gottfried to believe Trump would be a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination a few years later.
“I thought when it first started that this is one of those celebrity publicity stunts — like Gary Coleman running for president and Roseanne Barr,” Gottfried, who headlines the Aspen Laff Festival today, said in a phone interview. “There’s always someone like that. I thought for sure this was one of those. And the next thing you know, it picks up and he has supporters all over the country.”
The comic legend and Hollywood journeyman has been doing stand-up since his teenage years, and has been on the national stage since his brief stint on “Saturday Night Live” in 1980-81. Trump’s candidacy isn’t all that interesting to him as comic material (“I find a lot of people who think they’re doing political comedy are just doing really old jokes with politicians cast in the parts”). His routines tend to cut a little closer to the cultural bone.
In today’s age of Internet outrage and trigger warnings, Gottfried’s crude, take-no-prisoners approach to stand-up, where nothing is taboo, seems more transgressive than ever.
“The Internet makes me feel sentimental for old-time lynch mobs,” he said. “They had to actually go out and get their hands dirty, so you had to admire them a little bit. Now the lynch mob is sitting on your couch in your underwear and trying to destroy someone.”
But Gottfried could never be accused of censoring himself or hewing to the more polite, often over-sensitive social mores of our time. This, after all, is the guy who made headlines and drew scorn for one of the first publicly told jokes about 9/11 in the weeks after the attacks in New York. He’s the guy who lost his gig as the voice of the Aflac duck for making jokes about the tsunami in Japan on Twitter.
As the culture of online umbrage has forced many comics to censor themselves and move into more politically correct territory, Gottfried has held fast to his brazen comic spirit. (Political correctness, after all, is rarely funny.)
“I just try to ignore it and forge ahead,” he said. “It’s like you could say you like green jelly beans and there’s gonna be people angry about that. I also feel like people love getting offended. They compliment themselves and feel good about themselves when they’re offended. It’s like, ‘I’m not really doing anything to solve these problems but I’ll get offended, so that makes me a good person.’”
On the flip side of the coin, the Internet and the ascendance of the podcast has been very kind to Gottfried. Over the past two years, “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast” has become one of the most popular, most acclaimed podcasts around (the Village Voice named it the best podcast of 2015). Loosely themed around tales and figures from old-time show business, it reveals Gottfried as a surprisingly warm and absorbing interviewer.
“I still don’t understand what the podcast form is,” he said with a laugh, “and I have one, and it’s doing very well — to my shock. … People come up to me in the street or at clubs after a show and they’ll say how much they enjoy the podcast and I’m thinking, ‘How do they listen to this? ‘How do they know about it?’ I have no idea.”
The caustic tone of his stand-up, of course, is accentuated by his inimitable voice — that instantly recognizable Brooklyn squawk that’s become his signature and was put to use memorably in Disney’s “Aladdin.” It’s often used to great effect in less family-friendly endeavors, like the hilarious CollegeHumor.com sketch advertising a Gottfried-narrated audiobook of the erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Gottfried never consciously honed his voice for comedy, he said, it’s just the way he speaks. He’s baffled when people ask him about it.
“It’s like going up to someone on the street and going, ‘You know how you walk? I notice you hold your cup a certain way. How did you come up with that?’” he said. “You just wake up and that’s the way it seems to be.”
Last month, Gottfried was called on to give a eulogy for his friend Abe Vigoda, who died at 94. He prepared little, and was unsure of whether he should speak or not.
“There had been loved ones of his up there with tears in their eyes,” he recalled. “It was a sad event. But I went up and was totally irreverent, doing insulting jokes, basically roasting him even though he wasn’t there to hear it. And the audience loved it.”
Gilbert Gottfried might appear to be the last person you’d want speaking at a memorial service. But it gave people a release — had them laughing and applauding at a funeral. Which maybe speaks to the heart of what Gottfried does as a comic, and why he’s lasted for 40-plus years on stand-up stages. His comedy — vulgar and shocking as it may often be — allows us to laugh at the absurd and the tragic.
“Tragedy and comedy are roommates,” he said. “And whenever there is tragedy around, comedy is right behind, sticking its tongue out.”
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