Film Review: Gilbert

A wonderful and surprisingly intimate portrait of maybe the loudest and most foul-mouthed comedian who ever lived. You will laugh your ass off and maybe even cry your eyes out.
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For anyone like me who was only familiar with Gilbert Gottfried’s beyond-abrasive personality—that ear-shattering, cantankerous Jewish grandpa voice!—and erstwhile commercial persona as the Aflac Insurance duck, Gilbert will be a true revelation. The man revealed in Neil Berkeley's sensitive, respectful and very touching bio-doc is all three of those very qualities. And shy…really, really shy.

Gottfried is also frugal to the point of only traveling to his gigs via the twenty-dollar-and-under Megabus route. He also hoards hotel toiletries and soap—and I can attest to this, because when I recently interviewed him he asked the publicist for a plastic bag in which to stash his latest soapy plunder, probably taken from his hotel that morning with the expectation of everything being replaced by hospitality that afternoon.

This deeply eccentric, dementedly brilliant comic wiz started life as a misfit in Brooklyn with a father who died young and two sisters who never married. Vintage horror movies provided a refuge for Gottfried, who dropped out of high school, and that escape hatch was replaced by the comedy clubs which were plentiful in the Manhattan of the 1970s.  The ultimate ambition then, according him, was to do so well with your standup act that you didn’t have to wait in line and could go right onstage to “perform for free.”

The comedian paid his dues, gigging in obscure clubs in improbable cities, honing his craft which, it must be admitted, is pretty filthy. His take-no-prisoners brand of humor is not for the faint of heart, as the numerous uproarious performance clips here attest. But, as obscene as it is, it is also easy to discern the mastery with which he can seize upon a subject, like Michael Douglas’ infamous announcement that he contracted oral cancer from performing cunnilingus on his wife, Catherine Zeta Jones. Gottfried calls that a small price to pay (in very blunt terms), and then it gets progressively worse—and funnier—as he relentlessly builds on that first sick joke, listing every other horrendous disease he can think of—including that comedic favorite, leprosy—as similar ordeals he’d gladly undergo for that aforementioned privilege.

Gottfried’s considerable reputation among his fellow comedians is based on his utter fearlessness, and he has said that all he needs is someone to say, “Don’t go there, that’s not appropriate—in fact, it’s offensive,” for him to barge right in, with highly  questionable comic gusto. Although there have been surprisingly fruitful payoffs, like his being signed to voice a bird character in the movie Aladdin, ironically a Disney film for a man who represents everything that squeaky-clean studio does not, as well as the Aflac Insurance duck on those ubiquitous TV commercials, Gottfried incurred universal wrath when he tweeted jokes about the terrible 2011 earthquake in Japan. The general consensus was that it was too soon, and he was canned from the Aflac job. He also made a 9/11 joke at a celebrity roast of Hugh Hefner that was met with stunned silence. But he did instant damage control by launching into the notorious “Aristocrats” joke, an insider favorite for decades among comedians, with its outrageous and horrendously graphic detailings of incestous sexual commingling among the members of one very twisted family. The world of standup sometimes has its Roman Coliseum aspect, and Gottfried’s tinny foghorn delivery and severely demented mind won the entire audience back.

Although quite surprisingly beautiful of faun-like of face when he was very young, when Gottfried squints his eyes and hunches his shoulders to deliver some comic diatribe, there’s not much handsomeness left. This, coupled with his shyness, those aforementioned toiletries and other out-of-the-ordinary predilections, would seem to preclude him having much of a love life. Au contraire: At a Grammy party he met music-industry executive Dara Kravitz, and after the requisite very weird first date in which he mostly told her turtle jokes, he courted her for eight years, married her, and they now have two adorable children, Lily and Max. No one could be more surprised at this shockingly normal turn of events for an avowed lifelong geek-freak than Gottfried himself, who seems to have barely adjusted to the fact that, with Dara’s supervision, his Chelsea apartment finally looks like a normal, if quite elegantly simple, actual home. The wife and kids appear prominently in the documentary, and one can easily see how blessed the man is, for they are all beautiful.

Cozy home and hearth aside, money must be made and the comic fire stoked. So Gottfried, who it turns out is a born and very loving father, reluctantly has to hit the lonely, cheap motel and dressing room road with his popular act, Berkeley dogging him with camera at the ready. They hit paydirt when they go to a war-reenactment fair and, while perusing the bloody memorial on display in a rented hall, Gottfried encounters a cadre of war-happy men, all dressed in Nazi officer uniforms. This somehow tickles rather than horrifies him no end, although one of their number does have the sense to apologize to him for the way they’re dressed. It turns out they’re all fans, especially of his movie work, prompting him to winkingly observe, “You know, I think the Third Reich might have gotten a bad rap!”

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