If the sound of finely manicured fingernails scratching against the proverbial chalkboard could be formed into words and sentences, it would sound like Gilbert Gottfried. So, let’s dispense with the first thing everyone wants to know:
No, that’s not his real voice.
When the 59-year-old comic is talking off the air – as was the case during our conversation earlier this month while he prepared to do a stand-up show in Calgary – his scratchy, squinty tones are replaced by deep, clear, deliberate words. Gottfried is in the business of being funny, and from a lengthy résumé of TV and movie work to his ill-fated role as the voice of the Aflac duck, it’s a business that’s been good to him.
Even, as was true with Aflac, when things end in controversy.
But talk to Gottfried about the state of the entertainment industry, and he sounds more like a college professor — authoritative, analytical and opinionated. He’s slightly wistful for the way things were, and wondering what’s next.
And he has no jokes. (Well, maybe one. Read on.)
“The minute I started to understand what show business was, it completely changed,” said Gottfried, who is bringing his stand-up routine to Helium Comedy Club from Thursday through Saturday. “Before it was just movies and TV. I understood that. Now, it’s the computer. I don’t know how much longer networks will be around. I have a feeling movie theaters may disappear.”
Gottfried recently attended a movie where all the patrons had to hand over their cellphones until the show was over, a preventive strategy to stop people from shooting and pirating the entire film. Those same cellphones have transformed the setting inside comedy clubs, too, especially for comics who are as edgy and R-rated as Gottfried.
“It used to be you could go to a club and it was fair game,” Gottfried said. “Now, even in clubs, it gets recorded and put out there for everyone to have an opinion on. That’s a scary thing.”
While Gottfried has avoided comedy-club controversy and claims he’s done little self-editing (“I think twice but do it anyway,” he said), he’s experienced the explosive effects of social media. In March 2011, he tweeted jokes about the Japanese tsunami, prompting Aflac to fire him as the voice of its duck mascot.
Hollywood pundits latched on to the firestorm with headlines like, “Our top story tonight: Gilbert Gottfried’s career is over.”
Of course, the career-ending proclamations were untrue.
“If my career was over, it wouldn’t be their top story,” Gottfried said. “When someone’s career is over, they’re just not mentioned. If they’re talking about you, that means you’re still relevant.”
To that point, the Aflac ordeal taught Gottfried an important lesson about media, marketing and public perception. The controversy actually helped reaffirm the comic’s standing as a notable pop-culture figure. The attention, he said, “slapped a ‘new and improved’ one on me. Like I’m more relevant, more in the public eye.”
His schedule certainly hasn’t slowed. Gottfried has a steady calendar of comedy club dates, is still a regular on late-night shows (he recently joined Seth Meyer for a segment), and fields offers for on-camera work.
Although nowadays, much of those opportunities are for reality TV, a genre Gottfried largely resisted until 2013, when he relented and appeared on Food Network’s “Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off” (he was on Team Rachael) and ABC’s “Celebrity Wife Swap.” (Gottfried traded spouses with actor Alan Thicke.)
So in this new world of show business, Gottfried is doing fine. But thanks to computers and smartphones, he needs to pair the screechy voice with a thick skin.
“I guess everyone has to be more thick-skinned,” he said. “Originally it was [George Orwell’s] ‘1984’ and Big Brother was watching you. Then more toward the ’60s it was the CIA and the government was watching us. Now every idiot and their brother is watching us. It’s like everybody is watching us and everyone is watching each other.”
Finally, he dropped in a joke.
“The idea of Big Brother or the CIA seems kind of quaint and preferable,” he said.
At least it seemed like a joke.
Who: Gilbert Gottfried
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, 9:30 and 10:45 p.m. Friday and 7:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Helium Comedy Club, 30 Mississippi St