Gilbert Gottfried, the legendary stand-up comedian known for his ear-splitting voice and old-school material that was often as offensive or shocking as it was hilarious, has died after a long illness, his family announced today. He was 67, and is survived by his wife Dara Kravitz and their two children.
Gottfried starting performing stand-up in New York City at the age of 15. A decade later he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live right after the original cast and creator Lorne Michaels had all left; his short stint during SNL’s most ill-fated season lasted for only 12 episodes. His star rose as a comedian during the stand-up boom of the 1980s, with his unmistakable voice and raunchy, Borscht Belt-style comedy helping him stand out in a cluttered business, and his film career took off with an appearance in Beverly Hills Cop II in 1987. He appeared in a variety of comedies over the next few years, including the Problem Child movies and the Andrew Dice Clay vehicle The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and started hosting USA’s long-running USA Up All Night late-night block of B-movies in 1989.
His biggest movie role, though, came in 1992, when he voiced the parrot Iago in Disney’s Aladdin. He would voice Iago often over the next decade, across a series of direct-to-video sequels, TV spinoffs, and videogames, and moved increasingly into voice acting throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, including a long stint as the AFLAC duck. He was a regular guest star on TV sitcoms and game shows, and a frequent roaster on Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts.
Gottfried occasionally caused controversy with his humor. In early October 2001 he made what might have been the first public joke about the 9/11 attacks during a roast of Hugh Hefner, and was met with a chorus of boos. Almost a decade later he tweeted a series of jokes about the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and as a result was fired by AFLAC. Gottfried was able to get away with jokes that could potentially disgrace other comedians because of how inherently silly he and his material were. Gottfried never felt pointed or mean-spirited, and was pretty clearly playing a character that was part parody and part loving homage to the kind of old-school Catskills comics that were popular with his parents’ generation.
His love of that era of comedy was evident during a live performance of Dr. Katz that we saw at Just For Laughs in 2015. Not every guest was able to build a good rapport with Katz, but with Gottfried it was like two old friends were catching up at the table next to us and we were able to listen in. The two would tell stories about their lives as if they were talking to a therapist, but they would all ultimately turn into hoary, hackneyed Borscht Belt bits, with the other basically trying to guess where they were going before they got to the reveal. It was two comedy vets in their 60s just riffing, and it was easily the funniest of the dozens of sets I saw at that festival. Gottfried wasn’t just a hilarious comic in his own rite, but a connection to a disappearing past. Rest in peace.