Gilbert Gottfried says he's still “kind of heartbroken” that he was kicked off this season's Celebrity Apprentice after only three rounds. “I really thought if I sold enough pies and frozen dinners that he would have me running his empire,” he told NUVO this week from his Brooklyn apartment — which happens to doubles as the studio for a recently launched podcast series, Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast!, that finds the 59-year-old comedian interviewing pop culture figures from his TV-mad childhood.
Guys like Larry Storch from F Troop, who declined to talk about the size of co-star Forrest Tucker's package (comparable to Milton Berle's), despite Gottfried's prompting. And Gianni Russo, who played Carlo in The Godfather films and admitted to killing two people on the show. Gottfried, who performs Friday at Morty's Comedy Club, talked about the podcast, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, The Aristocrats and erotic fiction, among other topics.
NUVO: Why would you volunteer to spend time with such an awful, awful man?
Gilbert Gottfried: That's something I ask myself about everything I do in my career. Some people answer the phone: “Hello?” I answer the phone: “I'll take it!” The show gets a tremendous amount of exposure, and when they fired me, it wasn't like I was begging to stay. I think of Donald Trump has a less warm and cuddly Hitler.
NUVO: What are some of your favorite interviews thus far from the podcast series you're doing?
Gottfried: Oh god, there's a bunch. I interviewed Roger Corman, the old B-movie director who put out these zero-budget films of biker chicks and girls from prison and monsters from space. He told this story that one time he was supposed to go out and play tennis, and it turned out it was raining that day. So because he couldn't go out and play tennis, he decided to make a movie. So they made a movie that day with Boris Karloff and a young, unknown actor named Jack Nicholson. It was called The Terror and to this day, no one knows what the plot of the movie is.
NUVO: Just a haunted house on the beach, right?
Gottfried: Ask anybody who's worked on it; no one knows what the movie is about. I guess they had access to a haunted house at one of the studios, so they said, 'Eh, what the hell.' Then we interviewed Bob Saget, Weird Al Yankovic, Danny Aiello; a whole bunch of people.
NUVO: How do you decide who to have on?
Gottfried: I try to stick to these old actors and people familiar with those old actors. I like these actors that I grew up watching, I would see them on TV all the time when I was a kid, hear stories about them. The best part about it is I get a lot of people sending me messages which say, 'I had no idea who you were talking to and I had no idea about the people you were talking about, so I had to keep looking them up.' To me, that's like giving a fun homework assignment.
NUVO: Who are some of the guests that people say they didn't know before they heard the show.
Gottfried: There was Larry Storch from F Troop, who's 91 or 92. He was telling stories about being on the TV show, being friends with Tony Curtis. I tried to get him to talk about his co-star Forrest Tucker, because I heard Tucker had what Milton Berle was most famous for — that he was well-endowed. And he wouldn't bite the worm, so to speak. And I interviewed the guy who played Carlo in The Godfather, who was always beating up Talia Shire. He claims to have killed two people in real life, and he says, 'Those are two people I can admit to.' I guess there must be some kind of law where you're allowed two people, and then after that murder is illegal.
NUVO: He actually admitted that on the show?
Gottfried: Oh, yes. And we had this old talk show host, Joe Franklin, telling us that on one of his shows, he had both James Dean and Al Pacino, together. I did the math and Al Pacino would have had to have been 10. And we interviewed Adam West and he said that he and Frank Gorshin, who played The Ridder, were once kicked out of an orgy.
NUVO: What'd they do?
Gottfried: I don't know! They snuck into an orgy and maybe they weren't taking it all that seriously. I heard stories that they started acting out, yelling at each other as Batman and The Riddler.
NUVO: What's the setup like? Is it really on the couch in your apartment?
Gottfried: Sometimes it's in my apartment. If it has to be on the phone, it's on the phone. Sometimes we'll pick different places to go to. Sometimes we'll go to their apartment.
NUVO: Some of the guys you have on are a little before your time — or you would have been watching them at a very young age.
Gottfried: When I was growing up, the greatest film school in the country was in your living room. TV sets would have movies all the time, these old movies. I got familiar with all these different people. And then there were variety shows. I interviewed Marty Allen from the old comedy team Allen & Rossi, who followed The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
NUVO: What were your favorite movies back then?
Gottfried: I got to experience everything back then. My favorite were the old monster movies. I can't interview those guys because they're all gone, but I interviewed Bela Lugosi's daughter and Boris Karloff's son. But back then there were also the old gangster movies with Bogart and Cagney and Robinson.
NUVO: Any good stories about Karloff or Lugosi?
Gottfried: With Karloff's daughter we started talking about how Karloff once ran into Frank Sinatra at a restaurant and told him, 'You know how to sing with your voice. You have to learn how to act with your voice.' And Boris Karloff was kind of giving lessons to Frank Sinatra. And Boris Karloff was one of the founders of the modern-day acting unions like SAG and AFTRA. They used to have to sneak around because they could get in trouble; they would park their cars at separate locations.
NUVO: People forget, or never knew, that he was a British gentleman and a very versatile, well-versed actor.
Gottfried: Oh, yeah, and she talked about how he made a crazy amount of films before he did Frankenstein. That's the one that made him famous but he had been kicking around in stage and movies before.
NUVO: To shift gears a little, I was thinking about how the staff of Charlie Hebdo joked about the attacks on their offices a week after the event, whereas people gave you shit for joking about 9/11 three weeks after the attacks. I wonder if you have respect for that French style of humor, which seems comparable to what you do and what some other standups do, where there aren't any sacred cows.
Gottfried: I totally have respect for that. What happened to them is the extreme of the idea of people who just can't take a joke, who feel like they're going to be in charge of their own personal morality. That has to exist. People talk about The Great Dictator, where Charlie Chaplin mocked Hitler when the American studios were afraid to go near that subject. But before that was The Three Stooges, who did a film called You Nazty Spy!, where Moe was Hitler. What I respect about movies like that is that they made the whole idea of Hitler so much weaker than what he was by mocking it. Stuff like that has to be made fun of.
NUVO: What happened seems so unbelievable, even though Charlie Hebdo's offices were firebombed before. Have you ever feared for your personal safety, given that you do controversial material? Maybe it's on another level, where the violence might be getting punched at a roast.
Gottfried: Yeah. I'm very lucky, in that there'll just be a couple idiots on the Internet who get up in arms. On the Internet, there's always a new villain. So I've been the new villain a couple times; and the next week, someone else is. It just shows what can happen. These are extreme examples, certainly.
NUVO: As people dig into Charlie Hebdo's work, they find stuff they don't like, racist or bigoted material. It's one thing to make fun of something right after it happens and another to make fun of it in a racist way. Do you think about that when you're working up material, about whether or not something is racist or might legitimately offend?
Gottfried: Usually, I don't think about it and I try not to think about it, because then it starts to effect everything. With this bombing of the French magazine, it got me when people started saying stuff like they shouldn't have been shot, but they were going a little bit over the line. It kind of seems like if you cross that line, then it's okay to be shot.
NUVO: It's the death penalty for the joke!
Gottfried: That topic was off limits, so you can shoot him.
NUVO: And what's implicit to what you're saying is that we have to defend free speech, regardless of what's said.
Gottfried: Yeah. My favorite line of George Carlin's was 'It's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and deliberately cross over it.'
NUVO: And you're still doing that. I'm just reading up on this incident where Shecky Greene left one of your shows. You've been around for a while — and so has he. He should know what you're up to!
Gottfried: It was a Friar's event where Shecky Greene got up and walked out, which was a double surprise: Number one, that Shecky Greene can stand up, and two, that he can walk. Imagine what I could do to Stephen Hawking!
NUVO: It seems like such a throwback. You can imagine Shecky Greene doing that to Lenny Bruce, if that lines up historically. You can still offend.
Gottfried: The craziest thing is when people get offended by something I'll say on TV or in a Tweet, and you go, 'I've appeared in enough things that you have to have seen me before.' And if someone's so sensitive, it's kind of like if you picked up an issue of Playboy, and go, 'I had no idea they had nudity in this magazine.'
NUVO: I'm reading a Tweet that seems characteristic of a reaction to you: 'I thought you were grating and annoying before, but you're actually charming and funny.' I don't know if it's because of the voice or the material, but I'll bet that you hear that a lot.
Gottfried: Yes! I got that a lot on Celebrity Apprentice and when I did Wife Swap. During Aladdin, I was getting a lot of great reviews for the voice of the parrot, and they'd start off by saying, 'I normally hate Gilbert Gottfried with a passion, but...' My favorite review was when The Aristocrats came out and one reviewer wrote, 'No one is more offensive and disgusting than Gilbert Gottfried.' I thought, 'For this movie, this is the biggest compliment.' And I forget what it was about, but one reviewer once wrote, 'Gilbert Gottfried is the most unpleasant thing to happen to show business since the snuff film.' [Gottfried is thinking of a review of Night Court in Variety.]
NUVO: That's a hell of a line.
Gottfried: I was kind of flattered!
NUVO: The Aristocrats, that routine, is kind of the late-night jazz jam of comedy, the stuff comedians bring out when all the dilettantes have gone home. Do you do that on stage all the time now or is that kind of the nuclear option when things aren't going well.
Gottfried: Well, now people expect it. It happened that time at the Hugh Hefner roast because I did a 9/11 joke and I totally lost the crowd. They were yelling and hissing and one guy yelled out, 'Too soon!,' which I thought meant I didn't take a long enough pause between the setup and punchline. Then I go on to The Aristocrats, which is incest and bestiality, and the audience goes crazy, laughing and pounding the tables. So terrorism is in bad taste and incest and bestiality are in good taste. It always reminds me that it's like going to a smorgasbord; people love to pick and choose what they'll get offended by.
NUVO: And that joke is about escapism, where you're not making fun of anything that affects them too personally, unless they're into incest or bestiality.
Gottfried: Yes, and I'm not doing a judgement call on people who are into incest. I don't want to offend that community.
NUVO: Just having fun with it.
Gottfried: Yes! Fun with incest!
NUVO: And the other thing people like about that joke is it is like a jazz solo. It's really a display of virtuosity, you have to have the chops for that joke.
Gottfried: Usually with a joke, the strongest part is the punchline if it's in any way good. With this, the weakest part of the joke is the punchline. It's kind of a very long trip to get nowhere.
NUVO: What was it like playing Abraham Lincoln in that film that at least 10 people saw?
Gottfried: Yes, A Million Ways to Die in the West. I think most people felt I was much better than Daniel Day-Lewis. Few people realize that Abraham Lincoln was a short, annoying Jew, and this film finally tells the truth. I'm flattered that Seth McFarland felt that a movie starring Liam Neeson and Charlize Theron couldn't make it unless Gilbert Gottfried was there. He felt I would give it that respectability that they didn't have. I had already done a voice on Family Guy — I was the voice of a horse. And he also did something just for the Internet, for Comedy Cavalcade, where one of the quick bits was a cartoon called “Gilbert Gottfried Having Sex,” where I got to play myself.
NUVO: I also see that you've been called upon to read a lot of erotic fiction lately. Why are you a go-to voice actor for that?
Gottfried: I did Gilbert Gottfried Reading Fifty Shades of Grey — it's on my website and the Internet — where I just read passages of it because I think the majority of women who have read that just have orgasms imagining it in my voice.