Behind the Scenes with Gilbert Gottfried

Gilbert Gottfried is a singular voice – literally, everyone can agree there’s no voice like his – and a legend in the comedy industry, having worked in stand-up since 1970. With nearly 150 credits to his name, he’s taken on a new role as the subject of “Gilbert,” a wildly entertaining documentary that explores a side of the comedian we haven’t seen before. A guest at this year’s TCFF, we caught up with him to ask about his career, his role in the film, and, of course, “Hollywood Squares.”

Catch “Gilbert” on Thursday, July 27, 6 pm at the State Theatre and Friday, July 28, 12 noon at the City Opera House.

Traverse City Film Festival: You’re attending the festival with the film “Gilbert.” How did the film come about? Was it your idea or were you approached by [the film’s director] Neil Berkeley?

Gilbert Gottfried: I was approached by Neil Berekeley, I’d never met him before and he said to me he’s always wanted to do a Gilbert Gottfried documentary and I told him “I think you should set your dreams a little higher than that.” And then without me agreeing to it — because I was against it from the start — he just started following me around and I was too much of a wimp to say “get away from me.” He would follow me to clubs, even a couple of out of town ones, and then show up at the house and be filming me walking around my bathrobe. So no, it wasn’t my idea.

TCFF: he was following you around, what were the similarities and differences of being the subject of this feature length documentary compared to other reality work you’ve done like “Celebrity Wife Swap” or “Celebrity Apprentice?”

GG: It’s one of those things I still haven’t gotten used to. For the longest time I was turning down offers for reality TV shows. And I was kind of thinking you know, I don’t want to be on a level with the Kardashians, I want to be on a level with Robert De Niro. And then you realize that the Kardashians have a much bigger following than Robert De Niro. And after a while of saying “no,” I started to realize this is where the business is now, like it or not, and I started to feel like one of those old Shakespearean stage actors saying “I won’t lower myself to do film.” And then when I stated to do these shows… “Celebrity Apprentice” was one of the earlier ones I did… I started to see how many people actually watch these reality shows. I mean, I prefer when I’m cast as you know, Joe the Plumber in a movie or TV show, but it’s changing.

TCFF: Considering the film is called “Gilbert” and it’s about you, your life, I imagine you would’ve had some say in it. Did the film turn out how you expected, or as you were watching it back, were there things you saw that you didn’t realize about yourself?

GG: I didn’t have too much say in it, I kind of just let him do it. I’ve said this a couple of times, I’ve seen the film about three or four times already at screenings and I envision it as what Hell is. Like, you die and go to Hell and you’re forced to watch your life.

TCFF: Does your wife, who is in the film, feel the same way?

GG: I don’t know really. I guess not to the extent that I do, I really am underneath the seat peeking up.

TCFF: In regards to your career, it has to be strange that two of the roles you’re best known for are Iago, a brash talking parrot in “Aladdin,” a Disney movie, and the most foul-mouth of foul-mouthed comedians in “The Aristocrats.” As a professional, does the disparity come as a shock to you?

GG: Well I’ve always said my career walks a tight rope between early morning children’s programming and hardcore porn.

TCFF: You’ve worn plenty of hats over the years – stand-up comic, sketch comic on Saturday Night Live, on-screen acting, author, podcaster, and now film subject. Do you find yourself having to juggle these on-and-off-screen personas to accommodate the unique nature of all of these different projects?

GG: I guess it is kind of schizophrenic. The weird thing about it is the way I talk on and off stage now has become the same to me. I don’t feel like there’s any character anymore… like one is more real than the other.

TCFF: How do you decide which projects you’re taking on at any given time?

GG: Usually whosever waving a check in my face.

TCFF: It’s worked out for you thus far! Could you tell us a little bit about your podcast?

GG: I’m very interested in old Hollywood — old movies and old TV shows, so I wanted it to be focused on that. When it was first starting I thought there’s no way anyone would listen to this, because there are going to be people on who nobody remembers and they’re going to be talking about people who no one has heard of in the first place. And then I found out I was getting more and more of these tweets and emails from people where they’d say “I didn’t know who that was but I really loved them, and I didn’t know who you were talking about but I’ve been looking them up.” So it’s kind of like a fun homework assignment for them.

It’s also like, when you were growing up, there used to be shows like “Fantasy Island” and “Love Boat” that would have all of these people who you thought were dead popping up. I think we’ve become the new “Fantasy Island.” And the people that have agreed to do it still amaze me. Norman Lear, Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke, Bruce Dern.

TCFF: I have a burning question – I have to ask you about “Hollywood Squares,” and whether or not there were preferred square positions and if you had to fight for them or if they were assigned to you?

GG: I never really cared. Other people had theories about it. Sometimes I would be put in a square that I thought no one would be calling me and then I’d be called constantly. One of my favorite things was when the only one left to answer a question was me, and they just kept calling on me practically the whole show and I just kept giving them the wrong answer and yelling “you fool.” You can look it up on YouTube – “Gilbert Gottfried You Fool.” That should be the name of my autobiography.

TCFF: Finally, what is next for you?

GG: I don’t know, more and more live performing and then wherever. Some people answer the phone “hello,” I answer the phone “I’ll take it.”