Gilbert Gottfried sounds pretty normal on the phone, a far cry from the screechy on-screen persona cultivated by the comedian, who moonlights as the voice of the parrot Iago in Aladdin and countless other animated creatures. We spoke earlier this week about his appearance tomorrow night at the 92Y Tribeca Friday Night Dinner (tickets here), his new book, and, of course, Jews.
“I wasn’t bar mitzvahed or anything like that,” he told me. “To me, being Jewish meant whatever group is coming to round up the Jews, you’ll be one of them.” He doesn’t understand celebrities who say they’re not Jewish because they don’t practice Judaism (“What do you have to practice?” he squawks, getting into character, “Do you wake up looking for sales?”). “If you’re born into a Jewish household, you’re a Jew,” he explains. “You’ll be rounded up with the rest of them.”
Gottfried doesn’t have a smartphone—“It’s a phone that the Flintstones would have,” he explains of his device. “It’s just one that makes calls and receives calls”. He has a website, but he had to buy the domain name from some guy (what’s worse, he asks, having to buy his name, or how cheap he got it for). He’s on Twitter, though he says a four year old could do what he’s doing on there. All in all, he’s a pretty old-school dude.
“Hurray for Daylight Saving Time. I’m a Jew. I enjoy any type of savings,” he posted on Twitter earlier this month. More than 50 of his 163,728 Twitter followers retweeted it. “#Free Tebow is trending. I don’t know anything about it, but if it’s free I’ll take a carton,” he tweeted this week. Though he claims he can barely operate a computer, the 57-year-old has embraced Twitter, sending out jokes and retweeting messages from fans. But tweeting, which he describes as “sending stuff out in mid-air,” is vastly different from performing on stage, where a comedian is keenly aware of his environment and whether a joke is going well.
Of course, he’s learned the hard way that the intimacy lost in the Internet era is replaced with an immediacy in which jokes can go viral, for better or worse. The best discussion of Gottfried’s ‘too soon’ moments is with his old friend Richard Belzer—better known these days as Detective Munch on Law & Order: SVU—during a January episode of the video series Richard Belzer’s Conversation. Ever the social commentator, Gottfried also tells Belzer about seeing Elie Wiesel as a guest on a news program, where Wiesel was explaining how genocide and tragedy can occur when people stand by. “And the host puts his hand on Elie Wiesel’s knee,” Gottfried explains slowly, “and turns to the camera and says, ‘and we’re going to ask you to stand by while we break for commercial!’” sending Belzer into a wheezing fit of laughter over the sheer absurdity of the scene.
Gottfried’s new book, Rubber Balls and Liquor—the title of which is based on one of the first dirty jokes he heard as a kid (“balls then meant breasts”)—never gets too deep. People have told him that just as the book starts to get personal, he quickly switches to dirty jokes. “They said it’s like talking to me,” he says proudly.
(photo credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)