Gilbert is a beautifully made, touching portrait of the life and career of comedian Gilbert Gottfried. Gottfried came to prominence as a comedian in the 1980s with his unique, over-the-top stage persona and off-beat, even gruff, brand of comedy. The documentary depicts Gottfried’s day-to-day life juggling a career on the road with a family life. The documentary also delves further into that family life, exploring his relationship with his parents and two sisters.
Directed by Neil Berkeley, the man who brought us 2014’s Harmontown, this film is interspersed with interviews with other comedians as they relate their memories of Gottfried. This includes the awkward joke he made at the Hugh Hefner roast shortly after the September 11 attacks, and how he rebounded by then jumping immediately into telling The Aristocrats joke (considered the world’s dirtiest joke, usually reserved for comedians to tell other comedians in private). The film also looks into the controversy surrounding Gottfried’s tweets made after the earthquake disaster in Japan that ultimately led to his termination as the spokesman portraying the popular Aflac duck, and how that backlash almost crushed his spirit.
The documentary shows us the man behind the on-stage persona, exploring the dichotomy between Gottfried the abrasive comic and Gottfried the shy husband, father, and family man. Other comedians express their bewilderment that such a shy man would ever end up with a wife and two children. After a short while, it is apparent that Gottfried, despite his fearlessness on stage, is a man uncomfortable speaking on camera in his normal speaking voice. In fact, having the camera document his off-stage personality makes him apprehensive. He is a man who feels safe being known only as his stage persona, and is uneasy when people see behind the curtain, if you will. He is uneasy showing genuine emotion, even with his wife. This is reinforced when his wife, Dara, pulls out a stack of greeting cards and reads a touching inscription printed on one only to be signed at the end by her husband with “F---- you.”
This appears to be his signature response whenever his wife tenders a touching, “I love you.” However, you can see in his eyes that this comes not from a place of cruelty, but rather from a place of insecurity; comedy in the face of seriousness. This is further shown in a touching moment when Dara leans in, kissing Gottfried on his forehead, and whispers, “I love you.” His quick reply, “…that’s your problem.” They are just words. It is very evident by watching his actions, and how he interacts with his children, that Gottfried is a man who truly loves his family. We also get to witness his almost daily interactions with his two sisters, including Arlene, who passed away recently from cancer. We get to follow them as Gottfried accompanies her on a visit to the oncologist. The film conveys how truly close he is with his sisters.
We also get to see that although Gottfried lives in a multi-million dollar apartment, he is notoriously frugal. As told in interviews with other comedians and then witnessed by camera crews following Gottfried from gig to gig, we see that he is absolutely content to travel by Megabus, shying away from planes, limos, or private cars. Absolutely approachable, readily posing for photos and signing autographs, he is comfortable boarding the bus and sitting quietly as he travels from place to place. Most fans are beside themselves when they realize who is traveling with them. To the unassuming Gottfried, this is just another day of travel.
In the end, whether you were a fan or not, this stirring documentary will help you better understand the private man behind the loud, foul-mouthed comic. Actually, if you weren’t a fan before, you’ll come as one. I promise.
Randy's Grade: A
Directed by Neil Berkeley
Starring: Gilbert Gottfried, Dave Attell, Bill Burr, Jim Gaffigan, Whoopie Goldberg, Dara Gottfried, Arlene Gottfried