Comedian Gilbert Gottfried has been a part of the pop culture landscape for over 30 years. From early days as a spokesperson for M-TV (“Is it music? Is it television?”) to numerous talk show appearances, the comic carved out a career that eventually led to television and film work in everything from sitcoms to Eddie Murphy action-comedies to Disney animated fare. Depending on what each person may know him for, Gottfried is probably one of the best known entertainers in the country.
But for all that notoriety across a wide range of demographics, no one seemed to really know who Gilbert Gottfried really is. Was he the same manic, squinty, nasally voiced comic off stage as he was on stage? By most accounts, no. According to those who do know him, Gottfried has always been a rather shy man who kept to himself when he wasn’t at a comedy club. Even Howard Stern – who has a knack for getting guarded guests to open up about their lives – could never really get the comic to open up in an honest way. Such queries were often master classes in the art of deflection. There is a point very early on in Neil Berkeley’s new documentary Gilbert where we see Stern try to ask Gottfried if the rumors that he had heard were true that the comic was getting married. Gottfried appears visibly uneasy talking about himself in even such broad generalities.
But where Stern only managed to peel back a few of Gottfried’s surface layers, Berkeley manages to take us much deeper into the life of the notoriously shy comic. It is a look that is both funny and heartfelt and one that can and often does alternate between the two in a heartbeat. Berkeley walks a fine line in balancing the two and does so with aplomb.
In his previous documentary, Harmontown, Berkeley embedded himself with Community creator Dan Harmon as the writer took his popular Harmontown podcast on tour across the country. That was a film that looked at the connections people forged around through Harmon’s comedy which often championed the outsider. Here, we see a portrait of a person who, despite being surrounded by a loving wife and two adoring children and visiting with his sisters on a nearly daily basis, still manages to come off as closed off.
In a way, Gottfried is being as courageous here as he might have ever been on stage, and that includes the time a few scant weeks after the 9/11 attacks he made a joke on stage about taking a flight that has a stop at the Empire State Building. “It doesn’t seem real to me,” he states at one point. Not many men would so publicly confess their fears about marriage and fatherhood in quite this manner. For Gottfried, his entire life is a Twilight Zone episode where he fears an upcoming story twist that will take it all away.
That is not to say that those fears lead Gottfried to be emotionally withdrawn from those around him. He may look taciturn in his off stage dealings with others, but look at his face when his children answer the question if they find his dad funny. And while longtime friends of his from the comedy community still seem to scratch their heads over the fact that he even is married, Gottfried and his wife Dara look like they are a perfect fit for each other. They may be the only couple in existence where “Fuck you” is an expression of love and affection and seeing it play out in the film can make one hope for something similar in their own life.
Granted, life as Gilbert’s wife can’t be easy. The comic is something of a hoarder, never one to turn down something being offered for free. Stories of him absconding with all the food in a green room after talk show appearances and the like have have circulated to chuckles for years. But one doesn’t really get the scope of it until Dara takes the audience on a tour of their Manhattan apartment, revealing storage container after storage container filled with hotel toiletries, free promotional t-shirts and hotel slippers stashed under beds.
Let’s not forget that this film is gutbustingly hilarious, though. How could it not be considering its subject is known as a comedian’s comedian? There are several clips of Gottfried doing standup over the years, and while off stage he may turn his performance persona off, the underlying wit is always on. At one point while Gottfried is out on the road, he is staying at hotel hosting a military re-enactment convention. If the only moment that Berkeley caught during his six months of filming was Gottfried coming face to face with a group of Nazi re-enactors, the whole enterprise would have been worth it. But Berkeley has captured so much more, and the result is a sweet, moving and, yes, funny portrait of a comedy icon.