Gilbert Gottfried treats every question like a surprise. He pauses before he half-murmurs answers amid sidelong glances. He seems, strangely, vulnerable. It’s not what you’d expect from the 55-year-old comedian who carved an identity out of nasal honking, uncomfortable squinting and awkward shifting. It isn’t until the conversation takes a self-deprecating turn—which it does, frequently—that he sounds at ease.
“Out here [my audience] is usually people who couldn’t get tickets to another show,” he says. “That’s the feeling I always get in Vegas.”
Gottfried is doing his second five-day stint at the Las Vegas Hilton’s Shimmer Cabaret on Feb. 23-27 for the Icons of Comedy series. The yearlong showcase will return with Mark Curry, followed by Hal Sparks.
Taping the Hugh Hefner roast three weeks after 9/11, Gottfried marched into the lion’s den with a joke about the attacks. The audience didn’t take, snapping back with “Too soon!” To save the show, he launched into the free-form filth of The Aristocrats. Four years later, Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza built a documentary around the joke.
He must be comfortable being first into the breach. Shortly after fellow roast veteran Greg Giraldo died, Gottfried sent out a Tweet, “If Greg Giraldo is cremated, will that be the ‘Greg Giraldo Roast’?”
TMZ.com picked up on it within an hour.
“I was over at The Tonight Show, and I was just wasting time until they were ready to film. I thought maybe I’ll be an actual human being and call Greg Giraldo’s agent and tell him to get well. Then five minutes later I’m out onstage and we’re rehearsing and some guy goes, ‘Hey, did you hear Greg Giraldo just died?’ I did two things. One, I called up his agent or manager I just spoke to and said, ‘Well, I’ve got really shit timing, I guess.’ Then I sent out a Tweet.”
It isn’t personal—he just moves faster than the speed of taste. If not exactly uncomfortable with the personal, Gottfried seems reluctant to engage in it. His first book, Rubber Balls and Liquor (St. Martin’s Press, $25), debuts April 26. Gottfried had a friend tell him any time the book took an introspective turn, it would veer off into a dirty joke—just like talking to him in person.
“I’m always one of those people, I go back and forth. Being a performer is one second thinking I’m the greatest thing in the world … everyone should bow down to me. And the other part of you turns in a second where you go, ‘Wow, I’m completely talentless and it’s amazing that I haven’t been found out so far. It’s all going to end now.’
“It’s like,” he said moving his hands up and down like scales. “You could just say, moving the palms of your hands up and down at the table. I’m such a great writer, all I could come up with was waving my hands up and down and I can’t even think of one word to describe it. Just write down, ‘He waved his palms up and down. Much like John Steinbeck.’”