It feels like Gilbert Gottfried has been with us forever. He’s like that uncle who’s always been old and never goes away.
You just can’t forget that voice, that grating, gruff, garbage disposal of a voice that could shred a potato if it had fingernails but would probably rather sit back and let you do the cooking. It’s both lazy and aggressive, terrifying and familiar. And like his criminally short but impossibly masterful set Thursday night at Helium Comedy Club, he doesn’t need to explain himself.
He – now possibly the reigning king of that still-revered, hard-to-find vaudeville brand of stand-up, where punch line jokes are still funny because they’re funny to begin with and clichés don’t offend because they invented what everyone else imitated – he, this underappreciated comedic friar, might still have needed to explain why, exactly, he didn’t tell the greatest joke he’s been associated with.
That joke, the famously raunchy “Aristocrats,” which Gottfried by no means invented but is nonetheless responsible for resurrecting (in a 2001 roast of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner; a 2005 documentary about the joke followed), was suspiciously missing from his set.
Gottfried’s stage act takes a great big bite out of this joke’s deconstructed premise, that you can’t possibly surprise your audience, your rivals, your professional forefathers, or your own legacy, enough. It can always be dirtier.
While his material was short in volume, it delivered in quality. The first third of his set was topically about him, starting with an apology to the people of Japan for a joke he told in March 2011. His tweet about the earthquake and tsunami in that country got him fired from Aflac, whose duck mascot he voiced, and probably other jobs as well.
And lest you think he’s bitter about it, he’s not. Just still half-apologizing for it, in his sarcastic, nonapologetic way, at the top of his act, 2½ years later. No, not bitter — hilariously over it, but not bitter. “This guy is the worst thing to happen to Japan since…,” he mocked his tweet’s Japanese critics as saying about his remarks.
That’s about as personal as he gets, we can only assume, since the rest of his act was written from the same place of debaucherous filth that your seemingly cute grandfather secretly, proudly loves.
These are jokes – which, again, aren’t repeatable here – that the oldest person in your family would whisper to you in the corner at Thanksgiving just to get a rise out of your mom or dad. The kind of joke that you can’t imagine anyone over the age of your peers either getting or being able to tell with authority, because, naturally, sex, drugs and rock and roll weren’t invented when they were kids, right?
His bit about little people, diminutive in size only, perhaps, when standing next to Gottfried’s downright butchering of their very being, could be construed as nothing other than malicious and cruel. Which begs you to wonder: Is this yet another devilishly demeaning smackdown, or another deconstruction of what a mean joke looks and sounds like?
It is in the loud, obnoxious and most absolutely obscene moments like this that we see what’s made Gottfried so respected among his rivals and fans. He knows the easiest thing he could do would be to recite the phone book, that voice alone providing all the material one needs for an act. But he knows that skilled delivery needs smart material, and even better, if it can make you second-guess what you’re laughing at, then you’re sure to come back for more.
Thursday night and 8 and 10:30 p.m. today and Saturday in Helium Comedy Club, 30 Mississippi St. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 853-1211 or visit www.heliumcomedy.com.