Gilbert Gottfried Told Me How "The Aristocrats" Changed His Career
From left: Hugh Hefner, Gilbert Gottfried, Jimmy Kimmel, and Rob Schneider during the Friars Club Roast of Hugh Hefner, at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York City, Sept. 29, 2001.
Gilbert Gottfried didn’t know the meaning of the words “too soon,” although they seem to have been designed just to reply to his jokes.
But it wasn’t always that way.
As I discovered watching the brilliant 2017 documentary, Gilbert, Gottfried used to work relatively clean as a stand-up comedian. That all changed after he told the filthiest, crudest joke he could think of to rile up the crowd at the Friar’s Club Roast of Hugh Hefner, which had just rebuked his 9/11 joke as being “too soon” for making it on Sept. 29, 18 days after the terrorist attacks. So Gottfried launched into a joke called “The Aristocrats.” That joke not only spawned a documentary about that joke four years later, but also spun Gottfried’s career into an entirely different orbit for the remaining 20 years of his life.
A few days after watching the Gilbert premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and getting to meet his two sisters and his wife, Gottfried invited me to his Manhattan apartment, where he filled me in on how he traded in his clean jokes for Dirty Jokes, how one bit changed everything, and even how he felt seeing his life play out onscreen in a documentary. It’s even more bittersweet now that he’s gone.
Gottfried died Tuesday from recurrent ventricular tachycardia, complicated by type II myotonic dystrophy. He was 67.
I’ll have more to say about Gottfried on other platforms, and will update with those links. For now, though, I wanted to unearth the audio interview I had with him five years ago — otherwise lost, because I’d originally conducted it for an exclusive podcast series for a streaming subscription platform that no longer exists. Finally I can be grateful for saving/hoarding pretty much everything.
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You can find the Apple Podcast audio above. It’s obviously NSFW as it opens with the version of “The Aristocrats” that Gottfried recorded for his Dirty Jokes special. If you’re not already subscribed to my podcast, seek it out and subscribe to Last Things First on the podcast platform of your choice! Among them: Apple Podcasts; Spotify; Stitcher; Amazon Music/Audible; iHeartRadio; Player.FM; and my original hosting platform, Libsyn.
Here’s a condensed transcript of our conversation from 2017:
You know, you're now famous for The Aristocrats, for bringing that joke out of secrecy.
But when I was watching the documentary film, your wife Dara mentioned that you were not a dirty comic before that. And I'm trying to think back and I don't remember.
It’s a funny thing. I mean, for most of the years of my career, doing stand-up, I would go out of my way to avoid dirty jokes or dirty words, even. Because, see, it was one of these things — I wanted to see if what I said was funny, without it being dirty, because I would find this a lot. I’d see a comedian on TV, and the punchline would be like, whatever. ‘I wore a cowboy hat.’ And you go, it's not funny. I wore a cowboy hat. And then I would think about it, and think the producers of this TV show saw him at a club, saying ‘And I wore a fucking cowboy hat.’ And the audience started laughing. And they said, Well, it's a great joke. We can't use the fucking, but that's still a great joke. And it's like, no, it's not. That’s the joke right there. And there's even these comedians who will say a line clean first, and when it bombs, they'll say a dirtier version of it. Like they'll go ‘And you could roller skate there.’ And then that won’t get a laugh and then they'll push their mouth right over the mic and go, ‘And you can fuckin’ roller skate there.’
See, it even got me to just laugh.
See! It just works.
So what had you originally planned for The Roast of Hugh Hefner? There was that first joke about 9/11…(yeah)…what did you have planned after that?
I didn't have too much planned. There was stuff I was thinking about. One thing that I did, was, I remembered — I opened with this. Because before me, Ice-T tea was on. And he was doing this thing like, ‘I'm gonna kill some of you white motherfuckers and I'm going to rape you white bitches’ and he kept doing this whole thing. So I went on, I said ‘Ice-T stole my whole bit. But it's such a good bit. I'm gonna do it anyway.’ And I said ‘I'm gonna kill you white motherfuckers and then I'm gonna rape you white bitches. And then I'm gonna kill some more of you white motherfuckers and rape some more of you white bitches.’ And that went well, but it was funny. It was like, this was really a few days after Sept. 11. And I remember in New York, there were black clouds for weeks after that in the sky and everyone was walking around…
But no, there were ashes and, now we know, toxic clouds.
So around the world, people were in shock and especially New York people. And I don't know. I guess I wanted to be the first one to address the elephant in the room. And I mean literally, there was an elephant in the room, dressed in a suit jacket. And sipping a Mai Tai. But no, so I wanted to address the elephant in the room. And I go, ‘I have to leave early tonight. I have to fly to L.A. I couldn't get a direct flight. We have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.’ So this got people booing and hissing and you can hear the chairs screech back. And murmuring. And one guy yelled ‘TOO SOON.’
You can actually hear that.
Oh yeah. And I thought, well, that means I didn't take a long-enough pause between the setup and the punchline. I should have done like a 1-2-3, wait on it. So then, you know, and I felt like I been you know, after I bombed with that thing. It felt like if you said to me well, you were standing there for 2,000 years before you went into The Aristocrats, I would believe you. That's what it felt like. And then I remember, I wasn't planning on doing The Aristocrats. I already lost them as far as I could lose ‘em. What the hell? Go to the bottom level of hell? And I started into The Aristocrats. And and it was like the place started laughing. And then it was like explosive laughter, and I remember there were two different critics who wrote articles about it. At least two, and one of them said it was like a cathartic experience. And the other said it was as if I performed a mass tracheotomy on the crowd. And so that was
Which one of those reviews did you think was the better review? The cathartic one or the tracheotomy?
I thought the one where he said it was like I gave a prostate exam to the crowd because I did. I literally stuck my finger in everyone's asshole. I’ve had that done a few times.
Right, once you turn 40.
Oh, I don't mean from a doctor. I just meant in general on the subway.
How soon after that did Paul Provenza approach you about making that into a documentary?
Yeah. Well, at this point I forget which came first, the chicken or the egg. But I remember it was Paul Provenza and…Penn Jillette.
But did you ever think that that would completely change the way that you approach the audience or how the audience thinks of you?
It’s weird, and now it's funny. Because the whole company. If I knew this was going to happen, I would have asked for like 5,000 copies of The Aristocrats while it was still taking place, because now the company that produced it is out of business. It was TH!NKFilm, they're out of business. You know, prevention. Prevenjin. I'm sorry, I'm having a stroke. Pretend you understand. No. Provenza and Penn both asked about acquiring the rights. So who knows this is going to be one of those last films that film historians will talk about.
But then you made a whole album of dirty jokes.
And then now, when audiences come to see you, whether it's here in New York City at Carolines, or out on the road, that's what they expect.
It’s so weird that it's gotten to a point where like, I think I've gotten at times way too gross and I would have the audience come up to me to say, ‘Eh, it wasn't dirty enough.’
Do you miss the younger clean Gilbert?
Not necessarily. You know what I miss? I used to — when I first started doing stand-up. And for a couple of years after that. Like, just at these places you didn't get any money, like Catch (A Rising Star) and the Improv, and a million others that would open and close on a date. And it's like there were times there was snowstorms going on. Transit strikes. Thunderstorms. And I would have to go to the comedy club to perform. And I don't know what it was. It was some weird addiction. Now, I could be booked. Especially when I'm booked. OK. In the past few years here’s been that the dream I have, right before I'm about to go onstage. I always think like, oooh, imagine if the manager of the club came back here right now and said, ‘Look, we had a fire or a flood in the club and so the show’s been canceled for tonight. But here’s your check. We’ve got you booked on the next flight out.’ And that to me, would be the greatest thing in the world.
Well, I guess having a podcast kind of helps, then.
Yeah, I guess so.
You don't have to leave.
You can get advertisers to pay you.
Yeah, although podcasts, I'm still trying to figure out. There are about four people who make actual noticeable money. It's kind of like when comedians write books, they name about four comedians whose books were bestsellers. And it's like Cosby, Seinfeld. Like it's about four people. And then the rest these books come out, and no one even knows they're out. But my podcast is Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing, Colossal Podcast.
I'm glad we got that plug in. So you don't regret doing The Aristocrats?
Oh, no, no. I mean, I remember when they approached me, and said they're going to make it into a movie, the whole joke The Aristocrats, and I remember thinking: Eh. Alright. This is gonna be like, you know, it'll be lucky if it shows in his living room. You know, it's like, eh, alright. And I didn't think it was going anywhere. And then the idea that not only does it get made, but released to theaters. I mean, that's amazing. Because, I mean, the idea of documentaries released to theaters is weird, but it got released to theaters. It got loads of great reviews. It was Yeah, amazing.
Well, I don't know how to tell you this, but the documentary of you is going to be in theaters.
Ah, yeah. That one is called Gilbert. And you have to see the film to understand what the title means.
No, it's a great movie. And we get to see more of the young you.
Oh, God. Yeah.
Great to see what what you were like before The Aristocrats.
Gee. Yeah, it's scary. It was like, I remember the filmmaker, Neil Berkeley. He approached me, and he said, he always wanted to do a Gilbert Gottfried documentary. And I said, you should really set your aspirations a lot higher than that. Because I thought you should at least be dead for 20 years before they do a documentary, or discover penicillin. And I discovered penicillin when a doctor gave it to me, but no, but thank you, remember to tip your waitresses. No. And then when I saw the film, that to me that was like, that was sitting in hell. I’ve seen it about four times and each time I get that impression, like, that when you die, the first thing they make you do for part of the eternity is to sit there and there'd be a big screen in front of you, where you have to watch your entire life.
Well, it's a joy for the rest of us to watch. So thank you, Gilbert for sitting with me and talking. I appreciate it.
Well, anyone sitting with you. I'm sure it's a thrill because, yeah. Yeah.