This week sees the release of the funniest film of 2005, The Aristocrats. It’s a movie about a joke – the dirtiest joke ever, in fact – and it features over 100 comedians telling it. This may sound like a boring concept, but it works, as director Paul Provenza (who worked along with Penn Jillette – and look for an interview with these two tomorrow, where they go off about how AMC movie theaters won’t show their film) weaves something that’s part history lesson, part rumination on what comedy is and how it works. But it’s all funny.
One of the best iterations of the titular joke is Gilbert Gottfried’s. He told it at the Hugh Hefner Friar’s Club Roast – after his previous joke had pissed off the audience. It was a few months after 9/11 and Gottfried’s joke about planes hitting the Empire State Building caused members of the audience to blurt out "Too soon!", so he launched into an impressively filthy telling of the Aristocrats.
I had a chance to sit down with Gilbert yesterday, and he talked about ducks, the state of comedy, and told a cuss-word free version of the Aristocrats.
Q: When you talk to comics in a one on one atmosphere, a lot of them tend to be subdued, almost depressive. You know everybody in comedy – has that been your experience?
Gottfried: With me it depends what medication they have me on. Basically it’s suicidal or just manic-depressive.
Q: Robin Williams seems to be the only one who’s on all the time. You run into them and their personality doesn’t really evoke the term “comedian.”
Gottfried: With me, on or offstage, they say “He doesn’t evoke the term ‘comedian.’” At least that way I’m consistent – I’m not funny onstage or off.
Q: Is the subdued, depressive quality of comedians offstage have to do with mustering energy onstage?
Gottfried: I don’t really know. I mean, I guess there are some that are energetic, like Robin Williams. I don’t even know that it takes that much energy – I hate talking about taking energy because you’re up there telling jokes. Give me a break.
It’s bad sometimes when you get offstage and it’s like people are there, expecting you to continue the show. Coming back to your dressing room and expecting you to continue the show.
Q: What was your thinking on the night shown in the film, at the Hugh Hefner Friar’s Club Roast, when you made the 9/11 joke and people were calling out “Too soon?”
Gottfried: When they said “Too soon,” I thought they meant I should have taken a longer pause between the set up and the punchline. I said, Damn, I knew I should have taken one extra beat!
But yeah, it was right after September 11th – and this was September 11th 1999, which was years before it actually happened, which is how sensitive a topic this actually is. People don’t realize! Just that date, years before, people used to be sensitive and upset. The Marx Brothers did a joke about September 11th and it pretty much ended their career.
I just wanted to be the first one to come out with the really bad taste joke for the current tragic event. It was a weird time because people were like, “Ooh show business is over, nobody can sing or tell jokes.” It was around that time it was the Emmy Awards, and they had this thing like, Maybe we won’t hold the Emmy Awards or maybe we will hold it but we’ll dress down. So basically in honor of the thousands of people who died in the World Trade Center, women weren’t showing any cleavage on the Emmys, which meant a lot to the families who lost someone. They said, “Oh, Pam Anderson is wearing a turtleneck! I feel so much better about my husband dying.”
So I told that and that shocked the audience because everyone was treading lightly on it. But actually I had been doing dirty jokes before, and that was a break from the regular dirty jokes to other forms of bad taste. So then I just went right back to the dirty jokes and I followed it with the Aristocrats and the audience exploded.
Q: Were you surprised at the reaction from the Roast crowd? Do you think your joke would have been better handled before the whole event became a televised thing?
Gottfried: You can never tell. This was more open to a whole group of people. The Friars is more open now. I don’t know what would have happened before.
Q: Someone in the film says that the Aristocrats joke holds up a mirror to the comedian telling it. What does your version say about you?
Gottfried: That I’m sick and perverted. And incest runs in the family, plus bestiality. And obsession with bodily fluids. Although that’s true. But I don’t know, I think there are only so many perversions you can hit, and I think I hit them all in the movie. There are reviews singling me out – as a rave review they say, “No one is more perverted or disgusting than Gilbert Gottfried.” I go, thank you very much!
Q: Are there places that you can’t go? Are there things that are too dirty?
Gottfried: It depends on the audience. I think still AIDS is a touchy thing. You can die of any other disease. You can do cancer jokes, but AIDS jokes, people will go, “Oh, he shouldn’t have said that.” You can say, My whole family died of cancer and that’s funny. But say, I know someone who has AIDS and they go, “Ooooh.”
Q: Where did you first hear the joke?
Gottfried: I heard it years ago, someone told me it, but I don’t remember it all that well. But here’s something that he denies, but I will tell you – many years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop with Penn Jillette and I told him the joke.
Q: And that was the first time Penn heard the joke?
Gottfried: I think so. I don’t buy into the thing that it’s a secret handshake and you say the joke to someone and they take you to the Secret Lair. Anyone else who tells the joke outside that will be shot.
Q: But the movie does present it as a secretive joke, and being the guy who outed it on the Friars Roast, what did other comics have to say to you?
Gottfried: To me it’s kind of like when the host of the Gong Show was revealing that he was really a killer for the CIA and the CIA will kill him if he tells about it. Yet somehow he manages to elude them, even though he pops up on talk shows and everything. Somehow the CIA hasn’t caught up with him yet.
Q: How do you account for the fact that many people get upset yet you talk about sexual deviance, but violence in movies is OK? The sex is taboo but people getting their heads blown off is OK.
Gottfried: I personally get an erection when I see a head blown off in a movie, so I might not been the perfect person to ask. But yeah, that’s always been the case, so you never know. You can say ass, but not asshole. You can say dirtbag but you can’t say scumbag. There are these differentiations they make that I never understood.
Q: When you’re onstage do you ever worry about people in the audience getting offended?
Gottfried: I figure that if they’re there to see Gilbert Gottfried, they have no taste to begin with.
Q: Are there parts of the country where you don’t play as well as others? Do you play the Midwest and the South?
Gottfried: Yeah. In fact I played, I think it was in Carolina, where they said it was in the same town where the Klan has its headquarters. I guess I do well with the Klan too! I know the American Nazi party loves me.
Q: Are there other jokes out there that are so-called “secret jokes?”
Gottfried: I feel like it’s like, you can say any kind of remark to someone, any quote, slogan or phrase, and end it with whatever your ethnic group is, say, “That’s an old Italian thing you never heard.” Or something Chinese or something Jewish. There are a billion jokes, so no matter how many jokes you know there are still jokes you never heard, so no matter what it is you can always follow it with the idea that it’s something secretive. I don’t even think all stand-ups know this joke.
Q: There was a point where you could turn on the TV and flip the channels and you had a good chance of finding someone standing in front of a brick wall telling jokes. You don’t have that as much any more. What’s the current state of comedy?
Gottfried: I don’t know as well – I work clubs and everything. There was a point where every other doorway was a comedy club. That’s changed. It goes in spurts. Who knows, it might come back even worse. There will just be like one comedian on stage and the audience is just comedians.
Q: What comics excite you today?
Gottfried: I’m one of those people who are never interested in what other people are doing. I can’t watch comics because to me it’s like working on your day off. If a comic comes on TV, the very best reaction he can get from me is, “Oh, that was kind of clever.”
Q: Can you tell the Aristocrats joke and not be filthy but still be funny?
Gottfried: Maybe not. Well, you can explain it. You can say – I’ll try it:
A family walks into a talent agent’s office, a father, son, daughter, wife and a little fluffy dog. He goes, let’s see your act. They undress, start having sex together. The sex escalates into homosexual sex between the father and son. Bestiality happens betweens all family members and the dog. Fecal matter appears and it is consumed. Anal and oral sex takes place. Semen is discharged over all the family members. Blood comes out of the anuses who just had anal sex. And the talent agent says, That’s wonderful, what do you call yourselves? The Aristocrats.
Q: Have you seen the film?
Gottfried: Unfortunately. That’s having to sit through other comics. Basically I am sitting there twiddling my thumbs until I hear my voice and I look up.
Q: How much time do you spend in the course of the year doing stand-up?
Gottfried: It varies. It seems like sometimes I’ll work a lot more. I’ve never been one to go out on the road for months on end. Jay Leno is one of those people where if he’s got a five minute coffee break, he’ll fly somewhere and do a show.
Q: Were you surprised that when you did a commercial with a duck that says “Aflac” that it would become such a huge thing?
Gottfried: Very strange. I actually had to audition for it, which is the most insane part. They called me and I’m standing in front of a mic yelling “Aflac” into it and I remember leaving there thinking this is a totally idiotic commercial and it will never work. So never ask me for advice on anything. So yeah, it’s years later and people yell “Aflac” at me on the street.
Q: Do most people know it’s you?
Gottfried: It varies. Maybe Aflac is trying to hide it.
Q: What do you get recognized for the most – Aflac, your stand up or Aladdin?
Gottfried: I’ve always said my career is walking a tight rope between early morning children’s programming and hardcore porn. It all just adds up. I do seem to be the voice of every bird. The duck in Aflac, the parrot in Aladdin, I’m a bird in this cartoon Cyberchase, which is teaching little kids. I did one scene as the voice of a dog in Dr. Doolittle, so I showed my range.
Q: When you were starting out, who were your comedic inspirations? How did you decide to make a living at this?
Gottfried: I think it was one of those things where I was too stupid to take any other profession. What always sort of attracted to me to this business was that I felt you could be a total idiot and totally not in control of your own life but somehow it would be respected here. Not only accepted, but respected. People would go “Ooh that just shows what a genius this guy is, he doesn’t know anything!”