Quiet, shy, sensitive, sweet, and caring; a dedicated husband and father, devoted sibling and son… these are exactly the terms you’d think to use to describe Gilbert Gottfried, right?
If you laughed (as I would have) thinking this to be a joke about the ubiquitous, loud, often grating comedian known to audiences of film, television and commercials, then clearly you don’t know the man. Thankfully, the touching, poignant and deeply funny new documentary “Gilbert”, in competition at the Tribeca Film Festival, which premiered tonight before a sold out crowd at the SVA Theater in NYC, allows us into Gottfried’s personal life and demonstrates just how wrong that surface impression really is.
Very much by design, Gottfried has long shielded his personal life from view, amidst fears that allowing the audience to see his human side might diminish his ability to play for laughs. Shot over a period of six months, Director Neil Berkeley (“Harmontown”) carefully slips under this fortified barrier, following Gottfried at home, in Brooklyn with his siblings, and on the road, doing standup around the U.S. The documentary deftly charts how an awkward, shy child and teenager, the only son of a Jewish handyman growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn who wanted his son to learn a trade, eventually became the brash, obnoxious star of “The Aristocrats”, “Beverly Hills Cop II”, the voice of Iago in “Aladdin” and of the Aflac duck. He is now a man who cannot walk down a street in America without being recognized and asked to pose for photos, yet his father never lived long enough to see his son’s success.
Despite this, Gottfried insists there was no defining tragic event or long nursed grudge that is to blame for both his feelings of inadequacy and his successes as a raunchy standup. Rather his act developed organically, carefully honed by years and years of fruitless evenings spent desperately eking out laughs in the clubs of the grim New York City comedy scene of the 1970s. It was this brutal and yet fertile landscape that birthed the Gottfried we think of today. And he remains a performer who still dreads the last twenty minutes before going on stage more than anything else in the world.
Chock full of interviews with a panoply of familiar faces, comedians like Jay Leno, Joy Behar, Lewis Black, Arsenio Hall, Jim Gaffigan, and Susie Essman all deliver wry, pained stories about Gottfried and his eccentricities, (notably his cheapness and obsession with scoring freebies like hotel toiletries). However, the surprise co-star of the film is his attractive, bright, sweet, patient wife Dara. It is almost jarring at first to see the homouculus-like figure of Gottfried perched on the couch next to his much taller, blonde wife. It seems wrong in fact, something Howard Stern alum Artie Lange frustratedly points out early in the film, asking “How the hell has he made this work for twenty years when I can’t? ” Yet, like the raucous humor which floats through nearly every moment of the documentary, it just does.
Ultimately the film succeeds best by refusing to veer into sentimentality. It carefully balances scenes of Gottfried’s caustic stand up work, (showing his meticulous craft and gift for genius improvisation) with delicate looks at Gottfried’s home life as an engaged husband and doting father of two, and the warm, caring relationship he has with his two aging, unmarried sisters (whom he visits almost daily). It does not try to excuse or gloss over several contentious and very well publicized incidences of jokes made in poor taste — at a roast for Hugh Hefner just weeks after the attacks on 9/11; and several tweets posted in the aftermath of the Tsunami which struck Japan in 2011. Rather, it provides context, and allows us to better judge for ourselves his true intent.
Gottfried himself is not one to dwell on sentimentality either. Late in the film, sitting on a park bench, watching their children play nearby, his wife Dara leans in and wishes him a happy birthday.
“I love you.” she murmurs, planting a gentle kiss on his temple.
Gottfried, without missing a beat, replies dryly, “That’s YOUR problem.”