Gilbert Gottfried, whose foul-mouthed comic persona concealed a content Jewish dad

by | Apr 21, 2022 | Obituaries

(JTA)—Gilbert Gottfried, the comic with a grating persona whose boundary testing got him canceled more than once, has died.

His family announced Gottfried’s passing “after a long illness” on Tuesday, April 12 on Twitter. He was 67. Various outlets reported he suffered from a heart condition related to myotonic dystrophy.

A 2017 documentary revealed that contra his foul-mouthed routine, Gottfried was a sweet and loving Jewish dad.

Gottfried was reluctant to let that truth get out. “I was too much of a wimp to say no” to the filmmaker, Neil Berkeley, he told the JTA.

Gottfried, who affected a high nasal voice for his comic appearances, was a boundary crosser, and it got him into trouble at times. In 1991, Fox apologized after Gilbert, hosting the Emmy awards, kept joking about fellow comic Pee-wee Herman’s recent arrest for masturbating in an adult movie theater.

That dampened Gottfried’s career—for a while. He continued to score gigs in movies, on talk radio (frequently with Howard Stern), on sketch shows and sitcoms, and as a voice on cartoons. He was the funny animal sidekick, Iago the parrot, in Disney’s Aladdin.

Then he famously told perhaps the first joke about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, just a few days after terrorists piloted airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. (At a roast for Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner, Gottfried said he had to catch an early flight for Los Angeles because the only one he could find had “to make a stop at the Empire State Building.”)

He lost the audience—for a moment. He recovered with one of the raunchiest-ever tellings of the notoriously raunchy joke that has The Aristocrats as its punchline.

“I’ve always said tragedy and comedy are roommates,” Gottfried told Vulture in 2019. “Wherever tragedy’s around, comedy’s a few feet behind them sticking his tongue out and making obscene gestures.”

Aflac, the insurer whose trademark duck Gottfried voiced and which was his most lucrative gig, dropped him in 2011 after he made jokes on Twitter about the tsunami in Japan. (Gottfried’s self-inflicted wounds seemed to be timed by decades.) “I don’t regret the joke,” he told JTA. “I regret losing the money.”

Sometimes the raunch found Gottfried. In 2020, during his daughter’s bat mitzvah, held on Zoom because of the pandemic, a 70-year-old woman unwittingly removed her bathing suit and took a shower in full view of the other participants.

Gottfried credited his wife for turning him around from a notoriously parsimonious bachelor into an attentive dad who walked his two kids to Hebrew school. He met Dara Kravitz, a music executive, in the late 1990s at a Grammys party he was attending because of the free food. She dropped food on the table and he picked it up and put it on his plate.

Gottfried grew up in secular Jewish home in Brooklyn—he told JTA his Jewish knowledge was limited to “I know that if we’re ever rounded up again, I’ll be on the train.” When he and Dara married in 2007, she insisted on a wedding under a huppah and raising their children with a Jewish education.

Dara Gottfried adored her “gentle genius” and was bemusedly frustrated by his shyness when not performing. “Open up a little, Gil!” she chided him during a 2013 New York Times interview.

But Gottfried’s kindness was his own: The documentary tracks Gottfried accompanying his sister, street photographer Arlene Gottfried, to chemo sessions. She died of cancer in 2017.

In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, Gottfried, perhaps unwittingly, revealed his own gifts in explaining why he admired his sister so much.

“Someone else couldn’t see the funny or odd or touching thing, and capture it,” he said.

 –Ron Kampeas