In 1978 there was a movie entitled Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? I’m not too knowledgeable about great chefs, European or otherwise, but during the last few months so many of the best comedians of our time have been dying prematurely that you can’t help wondering if somebody’s out there mowing them down.
I wasn’t a big follower of Louie Anderson (who succumbed to lymphoma on January 21 at age 68) or Bob Saget (who perished in a freak hotel accident on January 9 at age 65), but I revered Norm Macdonald (who died of leukemia on September 14 at age 61). And I was just plain nuts about Gilbert Gottfried, whose death of muscular dystrophy at age 67 was announced on Tuesday.
As far as I’m concerned, Macdonald and Gottfried — both of whom expired after long illnesses — were two of the all-time greats. They were also eminently, deliciously un-PC. And Gilbert, for his part, was a New York icon whom I first heard in the late 1980s or early 1990s on the radio program (or, perhaps, on the “old Channel 9 show,” aired locally in 1990-92) of another New York icon, Howard Stern.
Even as comedians go, Gilbert was eccentric. For years, Stern and other hosts would talk about him as if he were the ultimate misfit, barely incapable of getting a date. It made sense. Then, in 2007, he married.
Gilbert was a frequent guest on Howard’s show, often sitting in on the news segment at the end of the show and providing coarse, hilarious commentary on the headlines of the day. There were a lot of great things about the Stern show during those years, but Gilbert was arguably the greatest. When Howard went woke a few years ago, and began wasting his talents on unctuous interviews with the likes of Lena Dunham, one of the most conspicuous changes in the show was that Gilbert was no longer welcome.
For most Americans, Gilbert may be most famous as the voice of Iago in the animated movie Aladdin or as the voice of a duck on a TV commercial for Aflac — a lucrative gig that he lost after tweeting irreverent wisecracks about the 2011 Japanese tsunami. (“Japan is really advanced. They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.”) He did a lot of that sort of work. He also played minor roles in a number of light comedies. I didn’t really care about any of that. I cherished him as a stand-up who could make you laugh so hard that you gasped for air.
A stand-up, mind you, who told the filthiest of jokes — without flinching. Some were original, some antique. (Cf. Dirty Jokes, 2005.) But he made even the hoariest of them his own — and always leaned into the profanity, as if he didn’t realize just how profane his material was. I’m terrible at remembering jokes, but one of the jokes Gilbert told is short enough to stick in my head; it helps, mnemonically, that three of the fifteen words in it are the very nastiest in the language.
Among his most famous turns was at a Hugh Hefner roast that took place in New York not long after 9/11. (“Hugh Hefner is so old, his first condom was made out of bark.”) The feeling in the city — and in the room — was still somber, and when Gilbert, typically, sought to “go there” with a gag about a flight to L.A. that “needs to stop at the Empire State Building first,” there were groans. But he won the room back by launching into the “Aristocrats” joke — a minutes-long routine, legendary among comics, that’s so lewd that they usually tell it only behind closed doors.
For the last eight years, I’ve been a faithful fan of Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, on which he and co-host Frank Santopadre did long-form interviews with showbiz veterans, many of them well into their eighties or nineties. Some were big stars, like Dick Van Dyke (with whom Gilbert, who had the world’s worst singing voice, dueted on “Put on a Happy Face”); others were relatively obscure character actors who’d been ignored for decades before Gilbert and Frank hunted them down and picked their brains.
The podcast gave Gilbert a platform to enthuse over the old movies — notably horror films and Marx Brothers classics — that he loved and that he’d first seen (as I did) on New York TV in the 1960s. The podcast also proved to be a fount of salacious stories, which may or may not have been apocryphal, about such half-forgotten celebrities of yore as Danny Thomas, Danny Kaye, and Cesar Romero.
Even as comedians go, Gilbert was eccentric. For years, Stern and other hosts would talk about him as if he were the ultimate misfit, barely incapable of getting a date. It made sense. Then, in 2007, he married. Comic Artie Lange said that when he heard Gilbert was married, he expected the poor bride to be “emotionally damaged.” She turned out to be an attractive, vivacious, intelligent, and supremely level-headed woman named Dara. Soon they had two cute kids, and word was that they were a very happy family and that Gilbert, against all odds, had turned out to be a magnificently devoted husband and father
His private life with Dara and the kids was showcased in the wonderful 2017 documentary Gilbert, which, among other things, captured his notorious frugality. More than once, when he guested on TV and radio shows, Gilbert — born in Brooklyn, the son of a guy who owned a hardware store (and who, we learn from the documentary, died at 66, a year earlier than Gilbert) — would get caught pinching extra bottles of water from the green room and it would become a source of on-air mirth.
In Gilbert, you can see him checking into a hotel while on a stand-up tour and requesting his free toothbrush and toothpaste. And you can see Dara, back at home, dutifully curating his massive collection of little soaps and shampoos pinched from hotels and stashing them under couches and beds in vacuum storage bags. (“When we moved from his old apartment,” Dara confesses, “he had old soaps from PanAm and Eastern Airlines.”)
Also in the documentary, comic Susie Essman of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame testifies that Dara gave his life “structure.” Gilbert, she recalls, “was the guy who was showing up in dirty clothes and he didn’t function very well…. This is one of the most unique human beings alive.” What comes through most clearly in the documentary — and what attentive fans had figured out already long before — was that behind his outrageous façade Gilbert was a shy, sweet guy. It seems to be almost a rule with comics: the bawdier the humor, the more sensitive and sentimental the soul beneath.
The day before Gilbert’s death, I checked to see if there was a new episode of his podcast: it’s something I look forward to every Monday. I was disappointed — irked, even — to see that they’d posted a rerun. Little did I imagine what Gilbert was going through. The news of his death came as a shock, to say the least: that such a quick, crazy mind can be so suddenly and irrevocably stilled somehow strains the human imagination.
I miss him as if I knew him. I can’t imagine what a loss this is for his wife and children, whom he obviously adored and who obviously adored him. The death announcement posted on his Twitter account by Dara says it all: “Although today is a sad day for all of us, please keep laughing as loud as possible in Gilbert’s honor.” After all, what’s comedy about? It’s about providing all of us with a distracting laugh or two on the road to the graveyard.