Gilbert Gottfried, the wisecracking comedian with one of the most wonderfully unmistakable voices in Hollywood, has died. He was 67.
Gottfried’s family confirmed his death on social media, writing, “We are heartbroken to announce the passing of our beloved Gilbert Gottfried after a long illness. In addition to being the most iconic voice in comedy, Gilbert was a wonderful husband, brother, friend and father to his two young children. Although today is a sad day for all of us, please keep laughing as loud as possible in Gilbert’s honor.”
—Gilbert Gottfried (@RealGilbert) April 12, 2022
An additional statement from Gottfried’s longtime friend and publicist, Glenn Schwartz, said he suffered from recurrent ventricular tachycardia, a form of heart failure, due to myotonic dystrophy type II (a genetic disorder of progressive skeletal muscle weakness).
With his raspy, high-pitched voice and seemingly endless list of projects, Gottfried carved out an enduring career as a stand-up, actor, and voice-over performer. He did everything from kids’ movies like Aladdin to commercials (he famously voiced the duck mascot for Aflac Insurance), but also put his talents towards brilliantly twisted means. He lost that job as the Aflac duck after tweeting jokes about the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and he delivered an outrageously crude version of the infamous “Aristocrats” joke at a Hugh Hefner roast weeks just after 9/11 (he went into “ the Aristocrats,” by the way, after trying out some poorly received 9/11 jokes).
In a 2012 interview with RollingStone, Gottfried spoke about his penchant for pushing boundaries and said he never held back from joking about topics, no matter how inappropriate it might be. “The other thing that always got me is when they say, ‘Tragedy plus time equals comedy,’ or when they’ll yell, ‘Too soon!’ I always felt like, ‘OK, please show me where the office is where there’s a guy behind a desk who has it marked off in a calendar when something goes from bad taste to OK.’”
Tributes to Gottfried poured in after the comedian’s death. Jon Stewart wrote, “Opening for Gilbert Gottfried at Carolines and Princeton Catch was one of the great thrills of my early standup life. He could leave you gasping for breath…just indescribably unusually hilarious…Damn.” Conan O’Brien added, “I saw Gilbert perform in 1985 and when he entered to applause he said, ‘Thank you, thank you very much.’ He then continued to say ‘thank you’ repeatedly for ten full minutes. It was the nerviest, funniest thing I had seen. So sorry to lose this sweet and delightfully funny man.”
I saw Gilbert perform in 1985 and when he entered to applause he said, “Thank you, thank you very much.” He then continued to say “thank you” repeatedly for ten full minutes. It was the nerviest, funniest thing I had seen. So sorry to lose this sweet and delightfully funny man.
—Conan O’Brien (@ConanOBrien) April 12, 2022
“The thing about Gilbert is he could dish it out, but he could take it too,” friend and comedian Jeff Ross said. “He loved to get roasted back. His Aristocrats performance was a master class in improvisation. It really showed you the level that his mind worked at. It’s only been an hour and there’s already, dare I say, a tsunami of love out there.”
Born Feb. 28, 1955, Gottfried was raised in Brooklyn and dropped out of high school to pursue comedy in New York City at 15 years old. As he explained to RollingStone in 2005, he would often insist on performing last at clubs, then take the stage and mimic everyone who’d performed him. “Jerry Seinfeld would refuse to come into the room while I was doing him,” Gottfried quipped.
After a decade honing his craft, Gottfried was hired on Saturday Night Live, but had the misfortune of being cast in 1980, right after creator Lorne Michaels left and the show’s quality tanked (Gottfried only lasted 12 episodes; Michaels returned to the show in 1985). Still, Gottfried kept chipping away and landed an assortment of film and TV roles during the Eighties, including Beverly Hills Cop II. His profile also got a big boost as he became a frequent and favorite guest on Howard Stern’s radio show.
In 1991, Gottfried had his first big brush with mainstream infamy when appeared at the 43rd Emmy Awards and made an array of jokes about the arrest of Paul Reubens just a month after the Peewee’s Playhouse creator was caught masturbating in an adult movie theater. Fox, which broadcast the Emmys that year, had to issue an apology, calling Gottfried’s jokes “irresponsible and insulting.” While the incident could’ve easily ended Gottfried’s career, the following year saw the arrival of Disney’s Aladdin, in which he voiced the parrot Iago. Iago remains one of Gottfried’s most enduring and famous roles, and he’d continue to voice the character in other movies, TV shows, and even Disney’s Kingdom Hearts video game franchise.
By the end of the Nineties, Gottfried was one of the biggest and busiest comic actors in the the country. He was a frequent guest on Hollywood Squares when Tom Bergeron hosted and was at the center of one of the long-running game show’s most famous and surreal episodes. During the episode, the two contestants had to secure Gottfried’s square to win, but kept getting the questions wrong, prompting Gottfried to repeatedly berate them by screaming, “You fool!”