Chances are you’ve heard the abrasive and divisive Gilbert Gottfried in one form or another over the years. His nasally form of scream-talking has remained a pervasive presence in the pop-cultural landscape for over three decades now, even if most people recognize him only as the voice of Iago in Aladdin and the Aflac duck. Yet Gottfried has long been the lovable loser of the stand-up comedy world, a so-called comic’s comic whose career has persisted through numerous controversies, particularly his less-than-tactful jokes about national and global tragedies. Gottfried’s tendency to ignore the temporal part of the “humor is tragedy plus time” equation has often landed him in hot water with his sponsors and the press. And whether it’s his 9/11 joke at Hugh Hefner’s comedy roast just weeks after the terrorist attacks or his tweets following Japan’s earthquake in 2008, it’s understandable why his brand of anti-PC humor would rub a lot of people the wrong way.
Since Gottfried has been careful to keep his personal life a secret over the years, remaining in character during even the most innocuous talk-show appearances, there has been little evidence of a pulsating heart beneath the beady little eyes and gruff voice that define his public persona. Neil Berkeley’s intimate and unassuming Gilbert pulls back the curtain on the comedian to reveal a man who’s surprisingly sensitive, deftly highlighting the enigmatic rift between the inimitable comic’s confrontational public appearances and his shy yet thoughtful and compassionate temperament off stage.
Much of Gilbert is decidedly low-key, remaining rather direct in its approach to its subject. The film is stuffed with talking heads discussing the uniqueness of Gottfried’s approach to comedy, as well as his wide array of idiosyncrasies and surprising sweetness when the cameras are off. But Berkeley also rounds out his portrait by capturing Gottfried at his most vulnerable—lovingly interacting with his wife, Dara, their children, and his sisters as well as reflecting on his difficult relationship with his deceased father. His personal quirks are also on full display, particularly his extreme frugality, which is verified and mercilessly ridiculed by several other comics. Not only does Gottfried take public buses to his stand up gigs where he still sells his own merchandise, but he’s a compulsive collector of hotel toiletries, as evidenced by the lifetime supply of soaps and shampoos his wife thoughtfully stores underneath every bed in the house to appease Gottfried’s strange compulsions.
As the final portion of the film shifts more toward his sister’s battle with cancer and his benefit performance for a children’s hospital, Gilbert exposes a wealth of unsuspected pain and tenderness beneath the comic’s often thorny exterior. And although the Gilbert Gottfried on display here is alternately contemplative and caring or outrageously filthy, Berkeley’s film adeptly sheds light on the complicated inner working of both sides. Its ability to mine the comic from the tragic and vice versa is as fitting a testament to Gottfried that one could imagine, revealing a man whose comedic transgressions most often serve to protect the scared little boy that still lives within him.