Only Gilbert Gottfried Could Be So Dirty and So Heartbreaking

Some comedians unfurl yarns in the unhurried mode of a jam band, others display the taut rhythms of pop or hip-hop. Gilbert Gottfried, who came of age in a fraught New York City and died on Tuesday at 67, always felt like punk in the classic CBGB mold: nervy, artful, deceivingly intelligent, a tad unhinged, and blissfully — beautifully — obnoxious.

The juiciest moments of his decades onstage crackle with impish grandeur. Some bits are renowned, especially his appearance at a Friars Club roast in the weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, where he dared crack a 9/11 joke. Greeted with boos, the comic pivoted to a standard bit known as “The Aristocrats.” It proved so dementedly randy, in his giddy telling, that it seemed to levitate the crowd, Gottfried’s potty mouth momentarily washing away the tension and grief.

Other times, he brought opportune lightning bolts to dopey TV fare. In one notorious clip from “Celebrity Apprentice,” the silky host tells the comedian, “Gilbert, I’m proud of you.” Gottfried stares down his latest mark. “Thank you, mein Führer,” he responds, characteristically more concerned about landing his joke than his odds in that season’s competition.

Better still is the episode of “Celebrity Wife Swap” in which Gottfried — a notorious miser — parades around town with Alan Thicke’s horror-struck wife, treating the set more like a Marx Brothers film than a reality show. At one point, his date balks at being forced to eat a gratis meal in the Friars Club kitchen. “What are you, the queen of England?” Gottfried charges.

Along with his strangely endearing stand-up act, the comedian found his mightiest platform through his years as a guest on “The Howard Stern Show.” These are tapes that should be rocketed into space to alert the galaxy of the brassy attitudes that lurk in our neck of the woods — perhaps they will scare any hostile aliens away. With the simpatico host, Gottfried is Rodney Dangerfield on “Carson” or Andy Kaufman on “Letterman”; his every appearance offers a glimpse of a berserk, quick-to-boil New York of yore.

Remembering Gilbert Gottfried

The gravel-voiced comedian, whose credits ranged from the family-friendly “Aladdin” to the unfettered vulgarity of “The Aristocrats,” died on April 12.

  • Obituary: Gilbert Gottfried’s manic, loudmouthed stand-up routines mixed old-fashioned borscht-belt shtick with cringeworthy vulgarity.
  • The Dirtiest Joke Ever Told: A Times columnist recalled Mr. Gottfried’s notorious 2001 performance of “The Aristocrats” not long after 9/11.
  • Offstage Life: The world knew the comedian for his abrasive style. But to his wife, Dara, he was a “gentle genius.”
  • Looking Back: Mr. Gottfried’s first book, a reflection on his various career disasters, came out just weeks after he had lost his job as the voice of the Aflac duck in 2011.

Gottfried’s perhaps most fabled minutes on the show occurred one late-’90s morning when he wasn’t even scheduled to appear. A German-accented woman called in from Los Angeles. She explained that she worked as a babysitter for the filmmaker Amy Heckerling, who had dispatched her to pick up Gottfried from the airport. (He was too cheap for a cab.) The woman furiously recounted how, during the car ride, she had informed the comedian that her parents were Holocaust survivors. Is it any surprise that Gottfried immediately began cracking Holocaust jokes? Such was his superpower.

Stern got Gottfried on the line. The comic sounded as if he was still in bed — but, like a samurai who has been attacked in his sleep and leaps to battle, he gamely began peppering the poor woman with more Holocaust jokes. Eventually, horrifyingly, the comic invoked the child the caller was babysitting: “Can she sit on my lap while you tell her about the Holocaust?” he queried. Like his later “Aristocrats” recital, it is a brilliant double negative: Gottfried follows one ghastly subject with something even more distasteful. The world thus gets contorted into a joke, the punch lines batting away our deepest woes.

A few years ago, I wrote about these Stern show segments for my comedy zine, The Lowbrow Reader. The essay grew from a chance encounter I had with Gottfried at the home of Professor Irwin Corey, the anarchic comedian and the other subject of the piece. Corey was deep into his 90s but, like Gottfried, emitted riotous humor in his every step. It struck me that Gottfried provided the rare connection to the fabled funny men of a much earlier era: unrestrained, uproarious and often Jewish comics who were set on gaining a laugh at the expense of all else.

The Lowbrow Reader was moribund at this point — we had recently published a book anthology, neatly ending our little run. But I so yearned to write about Gottfried, Corey and Stern that I revamped the magazine and essentially assembled an issue around the essay. Most thrillingly, Gottfried consented to let us publish two of his wonderfully eccentric drawings, which brimmed with devilishly grinning ogres, Dracula, a tiny Hitler and penises.

I was fully aware that nobody cared about my stupid comedy zine’s rebirth, but it was a huge deal for me. I nervously picked up the issue from the printer, then went downtown to sell some copies to a record store, only to find it closed for the night. I headed to an event lugging a backpack full of zines — never a suave look — then walked home, depressed at having unloaded precisely zero copies.

It was late at night on a misty Memorial Day weekend, and the city had emptied out. At 13th and Sixth, I waited for the light to change, sharing the corner with the only other pedestrian in sight. I side-eyed the man to make sure that he was not preparing to stab me. Then, I did a double take. It was Gilbert Gottfried.

He didn’t know me from Adam, but I hurriedly thrust a copy of the publication in his confused face. “Great,” he said. “I long for somebody to write a big article about me, and then when it happens it’s in … this.”

We slowly walked up Sixth Avenue to our mutual Chelsea neighborhood. His famous stage bray was muted, replaced by the oddly calming cadence later familiar to listeners of “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast,” his whipsmart showbiz series with Frank Santopadre. The roaring jokes and generous laughter remained. I like to think I can be funny enough when talking to my family and friends; walking with Gottfried, I felt like a weekend guitarist trying to jam with Hendrix.

As we approached West 18th Street, a group of young women spotted the comedian and instinctively began laughing and, oddly, cheering. The comic gave a wave as he passed them. “Must be your article,” he said.

Years later, my daughter enrolled in the same public elementary school as Gottfried’s two indisputably charming children, briefly overlapping with his youngest. Gottfried’s wife, Dara, was a P.T.A. hero — at her last meeting, she received a standing ovation — and she oversaw an annual comedy show to raise money for the school. Naturally, Gottfried would always perform.

Although the show took place at a grown-up comedy club, the audience was essentially the crew from school: parents, some teachers, the principal. In a secular society, this can feel like one’s congregation. I had witnessed Gottfried’s club act. Surely, he would not be reciting his sex jokes for these gentle souls?

Yet that would be like asking Pavarotti not to sing, or perhaps a dog not to bark. And so, Gottfried stood before his community, proudly screaming his fiercely idiosyncratic material. There were surrealist rants, crooked bits that gazed at the world in childlike wonder, and bizarre jokes that answered to their own logic. And, of course, there was riotously filthy, inconceivably revolting humor. It was all so irreverent it could break your heart.

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