Gilbert Gottfried has always been an anomaly in the world of comedy. He’s not the only one whose entire act seems to be built around screaming tasteless yet hilarious jokes at his audience, but he’s somehow turned his style into an art form. He’s certainly not the first stand-up comic to make a living doing tasteless jokes, but there’s something about his bold-faced delivery that makes it acceptable (most of the time—this film does a remarkable job chronicling the instances when he was called out for crossing the invisible line of bad taste). And without even realizing it himself, perhaps, Gottfried has transitioned into an comedic icon, because he never stops working, never stops pushing the boundaries of humor, and never ceases looking for the funny in every situation.
And as the new documentary Gilbert reveals, he’s also a fairly private husband and father of two who lives in an upscale New York apartment and will always steal the hotel soaps and shampoos if they are available. From director Neil Berkeley (Beauty Is Embarrassing and Harmontown, both also about unconventional artists), the film appears to be an all-access tour of Gottfried’s personal and professional worlds. We get to hear his normal, non-stage voice and watch him move awkwardly through the world, while remaining a loving spouse and doting dad.
Of course, he’s also watching the world around him, seeking out any opportunity to shock and cross every line during his stand-up act. I’m fairly certain the expression “Too soon!” was first uttered (or at least popularized) after Gottfried made a 9/11 joke during a Friar’s Club roast of Hugh Hefner [on September 29, 2011]. He was almost booed out of the room until he rebounded by telling one of the most famous and dirtiest jokes in history, known as “The Aristocrats,” which was the subject of its own documentary in 2005. More recently, he made a joke on Twitter after a devastating tsunami leveled parts of Japan, and the results in Gilbert’s career were more lasting.
As one might expect, there is a parade of famous, funny names featured in Gilbert who sing his praises, such as Dave Attell, Lewis Black, Judy Gold, Susie Essman, Bill Burr, Richard Belzer, Joy Behar, Jim Gaffigan, Whoopi Goldberg, Penn Jillette, Artie Lange, Jeff Ross, and Anthony Jeselnik, to name a few. Plus, there’s a wealth of archival footage of Gottfried’s appearances on virtually every talk show to ever have featured comedians, plus there’s a fascinating examination of his movie roles over the years (beyond his most famous role as the voice of the parrot Iago in Aladdin).
But it’s the off-stage moments that stick with you. Gottfried is clearly uncomfortable having cameras, or other human beings, in his home, but for reasons that are never quite explained, he’s allowed Berkeley into his life, giving him access to his wife and kids, and the entire experience becomes unexpectedly sweet in its awkwardness. Even his pre-show rituals are put in the spotlight. Prior to doing a charity gig in front of very wealthy potential donors for a children’s hospital, he frets going full-on dirty and decides to throw caution to the wind (naturally) and go for it. The results are…unexpected.
In the end, Gilbert accomplishes what it sets out to do: tell Gottfried’s story in its entirely. We see the funny man we’ve known for decades and the private person we’ve likely never seen before. I found myself truly moved by the movie and by the artistry of the man’s work. He makes it look brash and vulgar, but it’s a finely tuned, boundary-pushing performance piece. The film is one of the most unexpected and finest docs of the year.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. On Sunday Nov. 26, Gilbert Gottfried is scheduled to appear via Skype after the 5pm screening for audience discussion, moderated by yours truly.