Crossing the Line

By Carlton Reese

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried brings his fearless comedy show to Ocala

On every street corner, there seems to be lurking a nosy Karen searching for something to offend her, and all over the internet virtue-signaling millennials trolling for their next prey to be burned at the stake of political correctness. In the crosshairs, you find the most vulnerable in this current era of insufferable outward piety and self-aggrandizement: the comic.

The comic, whose job has forever been to make people laugh at human foibles and cast a cynical eye toward people and institutions of power, is fast becoming an endangered species … at least the funny ones, that is.

To tell a good joke is to risk offending, and today, offending someone can be a capital offense. 

Enter Gilbert Gottfried – appearing at The Reilly Arts Center for a stand-up performance on Nov. 6 – who takes the ultimate risk every time he speaks into the microphone with his trademark voice that is at the same time shrill, gravelly and grating, yet rhythmic in its delivery. His act goes into the realm of blue, and long ago he quit trying to tame it for the sake of insecure audiences.

“George Carlin once said, ‘it’s the duty of every comedian to find out where the line is crossed and deliberately cross over it,’” said Gottfried, whose prolific career has taken him from stand-up stages to Saturday Night Live, to Comedy Central Celebrity Roast star, to voice actor perhaps known best for his roles as Iago in the movie “Aladdin” and as the Aflac duck of commercial fame.

He once poked fun at Pam Anderson’s southerly private region during a roast of David Hasselhoff, saying that it “moved around like those inflatable men at the car lots,” but the only repercussion to that was Anderson whispering in his ear, “I hate you.” Other times, his “deliberate crossing of the line” cost him his job, and that doesn’t even include his firing at the hands of Donald Trump on “Celebrity Apprentice.” His jokes following the 2011 tsunami in Japan started a Twitter firestorm that eventually led to his firing from Aflac.

“I didn’t know it at the time that Aflac did about 80 percent of their business in Japan,” said Gottfried, who claims he read about his firing on the internet. “I’ve gotten in trouble and lost so many jobs over the years.”

Such is the life of a comedian who eschews the PC zeitgeist and barrels ahead full steam. A good comic can’t resist a good line, no matter the ill-timing, such as his famous remark during a celebrity roast just several weeks after the 9/11 attacks: “I had to catch a flight to California. I couldn’t get a direct flight – they said they had to stop at the Empire State Building first.”

“Now, it’s like before I say anything, I think twice,” Gottfried explains. “Then I wind up saying it anyway.

“It’s a very peculiar time period.”

Gottfried recalls an appearance on the Stephen Colbert show where he was filmed in a blonde wig and people took offense.

“Comics have been dressing up as women since before Shakespeare. I got a couple of angry tweets saying this was a vicious attack on the transgender community. Didn’t they see “Tootsie” or “Some Like it Hot?”

On “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, Gottfried once dressed as Yoda but so far no word on whether the Tridactyls community on Dagobah has pushed for Gottfried’s cancellation.

Gottfried admits he “crosses the line” from time to time, but that it’s part of the job.

“You don’t want to go on a roller coaster where they advertise, ‘well, it moves very slowly, and there aren’t any sudden drops or turns.’ You want to feel like you’re going to die on a roller coaster. And when you watch a scary movie, you want to watch someone’s head get chopped off, jump up and scream and then laugh when you realize it’s okay.”

Gottfried’s brand of humor will be at full throttle when he comes to Ocala. His comedy ventures into the topical, the blue, the poignant, and, naturally, the vulgar. It’s all part of his quest to challenge boundaries and provide shock value that is increasingly in short supply, even for audiences who still crave it.

And he promises it will be timely.

“There’s original material and there’s plenty of old stuff,” Gottfried said. “Sometimes I’m up there and I’ll realize it’s time to write something new, like when I ask the audience, ‘Hey, how many of you watch ‘Bonanza’?”

For Gottfried, who has been flayed and fired in the past for jokes deemed insensitive, there is no other way to be a real comedian than to provide shock value. For him, the line that shouldn’t be crossed is a line that simply does not exist.

“I’m sure there will be (blue material) – I can’t avoid it after a while. Do I cross the line? I’ll find out when I realize there’s some lawsuit or I lose my job, but I feel like there are no more jobs to lose.”

He says at an early age he knew he wanted to be in show business, thus began his comedic career as a teenager growing up in Brooklyn. His sister took the 15-year-old Gottfried to a Manhattan club on an open-mic night … and he’s never stopped. “I may have bombed and not known it – I’m too stupid to know,” Gottfried says. “I think I must have done okay because I wasn’t traumatized the first time.”

A rising star of the nightclubs of the 1970s, Gottfried landed a spot on the SNL cast in 1980 and since has logged 60 movie credits, hundreds of television credits, numerous commercial gigs and has been a fixture of video game voice-overs. In 2014, he added to his repertoire “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast” that can be heard on Sirius XM Channel 94 or at gilbertpodcast.com.

Gottfried is even selling personal messages online at cameo.com/gilbertgottfried. There, one can solicit Gottfried to send a personal happy birthday shout, wedding greeting, or a chops-busting message to a friend.

Such work is in stark contrast to some of the earlier moments in his career. He keeps as a reminder of the oft-humbling world that is show business, a frame of a royalty check he once received for one cent.

“It was for the movie ‘Mom and Dad Save the World,’ and I don’t even think they used me in the picture,” Gottfried recalled. “I put (the residual check) in a frame with a fortune from a Chinese restaurant that said, ‘Your talents will be recognized and suitably rewarded.’ Absolutely true.

“A few months later, I get a notice from them that they don’t have it in their records that that check was cashed. So they had to re-issue another penny check.”

“I could have been in Ocala two days ago – I could be there right now.”

Now in his 60’s and still at the top of his game, Gottfried says the anxieties that haunt most comedians and live performers remain. The fear of bombing on stage has never subsided.

“Whenever I’m backstage and about to go on, I always have this fantasy that the club owner will say, ‘Hey, we had a fire or a flood; the show’s canceled, here’s your check, go home.’”

It’s all part of the comic’s insecurity and need to take in the laughter, as essential as the air one breathes.

“Certain things you do, if it’s a success, then your God’s gift to mankind,” Gottfried said. “Then, if the next thing you do is not a success, you feel like ‘OK, I’ve fooled them long enough – I have no talent.’

“I always feel like if one person in the audience isn’t laughing, that’s the person they seat up front. You always think everybody is laughing, then there’s this one guy with his arms crossed, staring angrily at you.”

Gottfried lists his comic heroes growing up as Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis and the Marx Brothers. But today, who makes him laugh?

“As a comic, I have a hard time laughing at other comics,” Gottfried says. “I’ll hear a joke and at best I’ll nod my head and go, ‘Oh, that was clever.’

“I remember once doing some movie or TV show and everyone met at this bar and there was some crappy cop movie on and there was a car chase. It looked like any other car chase, but the stunt men were sitting around going, ‘Oh, you see what he did there, you see that cut? You see that move?’ They knew all the tricks to how it was put together. When you’re a comic, that happens – you listen and you acknowledge it as being funny more so than laughing at it.”

Gottfried’s appearance at The Reilly purports to be his first trip to the Horse Capital, but even that seems a bit hazy to him. He says he knows “absolutely nothing” about Ocala, but that “out of all the big Ocala conversations I’ve had, I’ve never heard anything bad.”

Says Gottfried: “Sometimes I don’t know where I am when I work in a place. There have been entire states where I swear I’ve never been to, and then I show up there at the club and see that I’ve signed the wall.

“I could have been in Ocala two days ago – I could be there right now.”

And what of that trademark voice and squinty eyes? Is it a bit, or part of his real persona? Some fans may be surprised or even disappointed to know that when not performing, Gottfried’s voice sounds more like a quirky grandfather, certainly more subdued and at a lower volume. Still, he says it comes naturally and is not a product of endless rehearsal.

“People ask, ‘Is it based on relatives you’ve had?’ but I don’t spend time working on it,” Gottfried says of his distinctive delivery. “Your regular personality in real life, you don’t really have any way of knowing where it came from and that’s the way I feel with my delivery. One day I wake up and go, ‘Oh, this is my delivery.’

“I think it’s gotten to the point where it’s kind of a Jekyll and Hyde thing where both (voices) are real.”

Gottfried continues to survive, even in the murky waters of today’s PC and cancel culture. Still afloat, still offending and still hearing the laughter around him, Gilbert Gottfried won’t be caving in any time soon – his voice will be heard loud and clear, whether you like it or not.

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