Gilbert Gottfried Was More Than Just a Funny Voice

The late comedian helped move stand-up beyond the realm of the merely observational and create space for the absurd.

Gilbert Gottfried
Henny Garfunkel / Redux

Gilbert Gottfried, who died yesterday at 67 of complications from muscular dystrophy, was probably best known as the voice of Iago the parrot in Disney’s Aladdin, as the Aflac-commercial duck, or for any number of projects that put his brazen, just-shy-of-whiny voice front and center. As a comedian, he was often characterized as “offensive,” given that a lot of his most high-profile (and, at times, infamous) work involved insulting celebrities on TV. But his legacy is more complicated than these two aspects. He was a comic who bridged the “roast” style of comedians such as Don Rickles and the wave of alternative comedy that began emerging in the ’80s and ’90s.

Gottfried began doing stand-up at the age of 15 and eventually established himself as an absurdist, conceptual comedian whose act split the difference between Andy Kaufman and the observational wit of Gottfried’s peers such as Jerry Seinfeld. In the early ’80s, when he was a cast member on Season 6 of Saturday Night Live, Gottfried tended to speak with a deeper, more melodic voice. He made the most of a subdued, near-deadpan way of talking as he stared out into the audience from beneath a pile of curly hair. In sketches from this era, he was always funny, but he never seemed quite comfortable or certain.

During that decade, he started putting on the loud affectation that he would become known for, using it to maximize a joke’s comedic potential. At a 1988 Just for Laughs festival appearance in Canada, he took the stage wearing a red blazer and tie, and, with the energy of an overexcited animal, opened his set by teasing the country:

They make maple syrup here 24 hours a day. Just, it’s a good maple-syrup country. You know, you get off the plane here, they go, ah, “Welcome to Canada! Would you like some maple syrup?” No, I’d like a hotel, if I can get one. “How do you like your maple syrup? Do you want a big vat of maple syrup?” No, do you have any place I could sit down? “Just on these vats of maple syrup.”

Gottfried understood precisely how to heighten an observation until it was pure nonsense, and keep the audience laughing along. That absurdity was on full display in his taped specials and half hours. In a bit from his Comedy Central Presents special in 2002, Gottfried introduced a body-conscious, Power Ranger–loving, silly version of Jesus who likes to go by “Jees”—so much so that the name on his driver's license is a bunch of Gs in a row. Gottfried goes on to do goofy impressions, and then tells an incredible joke about entering a land of celebrities with three names who want to kill him for having two names. Throughout the special, Gottfried keeps covering his eyes with his hand as if in disbelief, as if he can’t believe how lucky he is to still be onstage.

Though he claimed never to have consciously adopted the voice, it came to be his trademark with the wider public, given his work in films such as Problem Child and Aladdin (as well as in the massively popular Kingdom Hearts video games). In addition to being funny, the voice at times seemed like a tool Gottfried employed to help himself be confident, whether he was telling a joke about 9/11 just weeks after the tragedy at Hugh Hefner’s roast; sharing a filthy version of the “Aristocrats” routine to win the same audience back after the 9/11 bit failed; or telling the strange stories that were part of the actual core of his comedic DNA.

Gottfried’s work as a stand-up shaped many comics today, whether they would say as much or not. He was a figure who, along with Robin Williams, Jim David, and others, pushed stand-up to move beyond the realm of the merely observational and create space for the absurd. Gottfried’s comedy helped make way for the rise of Solomon Georgio, Eugene Mirman, Kumail Nanjiani, Ali Wong, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, and Tig Notaro—comics unafraid of risk, who challenge the audience to get on board or keep up with the joke. He was important, and underneath his screech exists the voice of a comic who was hilarious, brave, and generous.