If it walks like an Aflac duck, and talks like an Aflac duck, it must be Gilbert Gottfried, right? Actually, no.
The comedian was famously fired from his job as the voice of the waddling, aggravated insurance-selling bird in 2011, after making an insensitive joke about the Japan tsunami. We spoke to the controversial performer before he embarks on a series of stand-up shows across Southern Ontario about swapping wives, crossing lines and running a-fowl of a giant corporation.
When you’re not working, you don’t talk in your signature squawky voice. Where does that persona come from?
I’ve never really given any thought as to what my delivery is. It’s developed over the years. To me, it’s as if someone were to ask you, “Hey, the way you talk and pronounce things and move your head and walk down the street, where did that come from?” That’s the way I feel about myself. It just happens.
Regardless, it’s very identifiable, perhaps even trademarkable. To that end, how do you feel about Aflac using someone who sounds like you for their commercials? It would seem to be your intellectual property.
I do feel that it’s wrong what they’re doing. It’s also very hypocritical. If they really wanted to distance themselves from me, they shouldn’t be doing commercials where it sounds like me.
The guy is basically imitating your voice, right?
Yeah. They fired me, got a load of publicity and then hired a guy who can imitate my voice. Thus bringing closure to a horrible tragedy.
You’ve moved on from that. What can you say about the reality television you’ve done lately?
I’ve always hated any of those shows, the whole trend. For years, I was putting it off, thinking that I didn’t want to be the loser on a reality television show. I wanted to be in the category of Robert De Niro. But then I started to realize that the losers on reality TV have a much bigger audience than De Niro.
How did Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off go?
Well, I don’t know how to cook. So, I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and they quickly fired me. But then I had people coming up to me all the time, yelling at me in the street to make them a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. So, I realized how many people watched that.
What about Celebrity Wife Swap?
I really didn’t want to do that. They called me a bunch of times, but I kept saying no. Finally, in a weak moment, I said okay, I’ll do it. I ended up with Alan Thicke.
You two share a history, yes?
When he had his failed talk show [Thicke of the Night], I was one of the resident cast of zanies. It was me, Richard Belzer and a few others. So, that was odd, reconnecting on Celebrity Wife Swap. And it was odder still having to have sex with Alan Thicke the whole time. I didn’t read the fine print on the contract.
You could do worse. He describes himself as a “more affordable William Shatner.” How would you sell yourself?
I say “Gilbert Gottfried, because Screech from Saved by the Bell has his standards.”
You’ve said that your career walks the tightrope between early morning children’s programming and hard-core pornography. But you don’t really walk the tightrope. You pretty much say whatever you want, not worrying about the consequences, don’t you?
Obviously I do. George Carlin said that it was the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and deliberately cross it. I’ve always felt that way.
Carlin worked pre-Internet. Is it tougher to cross boundaries now, with everyone chirping online about being offended?
Every joke now has to come with an apology at the end. It makes me sentimental about old-time lynch mobs, when people actually had to get their hands dirty. Now, with the Internet, it’s a new technology that is basically ringing someone’s door bell and running away.
You’re well known for your outrageous versions of the classic filthy, improvised riff on incest and bestiality, the aristocrat gag. What’s it like being in the middle of that? Is it like the X-rated jazz of comedy?
It really is. You can do anything you want with it. Someone said, with the movie The Aristocrats and with the joke itself, that it’s not about the joke, it’s about the joker. I also think it’s not the destination, but the trip. I mean, once you get to the punchline, it’s as big a non-punchline as you’ll ever get. But the travelling there, that’s what it’s all about.
Gilbert Gottfried: Live Act Theatre, Whitby, Ont., Nov. 5; Park Theatre, Cobourg, Ont., Nov. 6; The Royal, Toronto, Nov. 7; Lincoln Alexander Theatre, Hamilton, Nov. 8.; London Music Hall, London, Ont., Nov. 9.
This interview has been edited and condensed.