As a longtime comedy writer and lifelong comedy fan, I am very sad to report that Gilbert Gottfried died Tuesday at 67 after a long illness known as Recurrent Ventricular Tachycardia due to Myotonic Dystrophy type II. His family issued a statement reading, “In addition to being the most iconic voice in comedy, Gilbert was a wonderful husband, brother, friend and father to his two young children” and urging people “to please keep laughing as loud as possible in Gilbert’s honor.”
There’s a saying in show business that a comic says funny things, but a real comedian says things funny. Some people have a voice and delivery that make people laugh, no matter what they say. Gilbert Gottfried came out of an era of very distinctive comics (Sam Kinison, Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman, etc.) and was perhaps the most unmistakable comic voice of all. Conan O’Brien recalled the first time he saw him: the audience applauded, and Gilbert said, “Thank you!” Then he kept repeating “Thank you!” for five minutes with different inflections, and it just got funnier and funnier.
In later years, he would do entire sets of nothing but old dirty jokes that everyone knew, but you’d still laugh your head off at the way he said them.
Social media was quickly flooded with tributes from fellow comics and former co-stars hailing Gilbert as both a brilliant "comedian's comedian" and one of the nicest, sweetest guys in the industry. His sweetness and living cartoon character image enabled him to get away with doing raunchy material for adult audiences while also delighting children by voicing many cartoon characters, including the Aflac duck and Iago the parrot in Disney’s “Aladdin.” At least, up until he lost the Aflac gig for being too politically incorrect.
Gilbert was fearless in doing jokes others found distasteful, like being the first to do jokes about 9/11 (giving rise to the concept of “Too soon,” a question he often asked his own audiences after a joke.) Friends said that if he could, he would already be tweeting jokes about his own death.
As for my usual trivia nobody else shares: Gilbert began performing standup at 15 and got his first big break when he was cast on “Saturday Night Live.” But it was the terrible 6th season, when the OG cast left and producer Jean Doumanian took over from Lorne Michaels. Gilbert seldom got on screen, and when he did, he had no lines. In one sketch, he played a dead body in a coffin. (Doumanian was so lacking in comedy instincts that her staff had to talk her into hiring Eddie Murphy over her objections.) Gilbert left after 12 episodes.
Gilbert recently defended his friend Chris Rock’s right to tell a joke without being assaulted, just as he always fought against cancel culture. In an article for Vulture in 2016, he wrote that Twitter outrage mobs make “me feel sentimental about old-time angry mobs. In a mob, you actually had to throw on your jacket, go outside, use your hands. Now you can join a mob sitting on your couch in your underwear. I feel like people who get outraged like that are patting themselves on the back. ‘You see, I was offended.’”
And in an eerie coincidence, one of Gilbert’s recent tweets was in honor of the loss of two of his good friends. It was a selfie of him with Bob Saget and Louie Anderson. RIP to all three. Thanks for all the laughs, guys.