Comedian Gilbert Gottfried is a Brooklyn original. Beginning his career in stand-up in 1964 and developing a grating on-stage persona, he’s taken shock comedy to undreamt of new levels, and gotten himself in plenty of trouble along the way. He drew boos in the 2001 Comedy Central roast of Hugh Hefner by making a 9-11 joke; became the first person ever censored on satellite radio in 2007; and lost a lucrative job as the voice of the Aflac Duck in 2011 for Tweeting a series of cracks about the Japan tsunami. At the same time, he’s had an impressive career in children’s animation, lending his unmistakable voice to the parrot Iago in Disney’s “Aladdin” and to the robotic bird Digit on the math-themed PBS show “Cyberchase.”
Now he’s coming to the Bell House in Gowanus on Oct. 30.
He talked to reporter Will Bredderman about growing up in Brooklyn and getting his start in the world of comedy.
Will Bredderman: So you’re a Brooklyn native, right? Which neighborhood?
Gilbert Gottfried: Coney Island, that was where I was born. Then we moved to Crown Heights, then Borough Park. So I did the Brooklyn tour. Everywhere we lived was really awful, though.
Ebbets Field wasn’t a ballpark, it was the projects.
WB: Do you think living near one of the world’s famous amusement districts at all influenced your decision to make a career out of being amusing?
GG: I’m sure Coney Island was a part of it, but mostly I was influence by television. I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid. And in those days, they showed all these old movies on TV, all the time. It was definitely an escape for me. I escaped into just, you know, this fantasy world. Especially with old horror films, the old monster movies. There used to be, I remember, this one station on TV that had all the old monster movies, and another station had all the gangster movies. And I started imitating celebrities and old time actors in those movies with my friends, and that’s how I got started.
WB: So were you a class clown in school? Were you getting in trouble back then for saying inappropriate things?
GG: I was never a class clown. I always felt like the class clown was the guy who grew up to say, “I’m the funniest guy at my job.” I was more in trouble in school for just being a horrible student. It’s funny to me, now that I’m playing Digit on “Cyberchase,” because people tell me “My kids love that show, they learn so much from it.” And I think it’s funny, because they’re learning from someone who has a hard time spelling and adding one and one.
WB: But you started doing comedy at young age, nine I think, right? How did that happen?
GG: After I started doing voices, one of the friends of my sister said there was this place in the Greenwich Village called the Bitter End and they had an open-mic night. I went there and got up on stage and did Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorrie and Bela Lugosi. So even then my act was pretty dated. I don’t know if I did well or if I was too stupid to know I bombed, but I kept doing it.
WB: So how did you end up doing edgier stuff and developing your stage persona?
GG: It’s funny, I never really worked on developing any stage persona. People ask me “How did you develop your delivery?” But I never really worked on it. It just came from working in the clubs. I’m actually scared to think of what my delivery was like back then. I started getting in trouble because I’d get bored with my usual act, and I’d start doing something more edgy or filthy. This one time I was doing a show opening for Belinda Carlisle. And a stage manager told me “There’s a lot of little girls here with their mothers, so watch what you say.” So I tried doing my regular act for about five minutes, then I just launched into the filthiest stuff I could think of. And the next day, I got a call from my agent saying “Everybody there loved you.” Which is show business talk for, “You’re fired.”
WB: Have you performed in Brooklyn before? At the Bell House?
GG: You’ll have to ask the agency. There were clubs that I performed in in Brooklyn, but I don’t really remember where over the years. In those days, you’d look for all these places that didn’t pay. That used to be a big thing for a comic, “Oh, hey, I found some new place that won’t pay but they have an open mic.” Except some of these places didn’t even have a microphone, they’d just say, “Go stand over there, that’s where the show is.” Nowadays, I’ll go to places where I’ll say I’ve never been before, then I’ll go inside and I’ll have autographed pictures on the wall.
WB: Why do you think you keep getting cast as birds?
BB: [Laughs] I always thought I’d like to write an autobiography called “For the Birds.” I do do a lot of bird voices. But many, many years ago I did a commercial where I was the voice of a roach. Or I think it was actually an ant. And I did an episode of “Family Guy” where I was the voice of a horse. And I was the voice of a toaster in a Pop Tarts commercial. So it shows range.
Gilbert Gottfried at the Bell House [149 Seventh St. between Second and Third Avenues, (718) 643–6510, www.thebellhouseny.com]. Oct. 30, 8 pm. $15.