TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Comic Gilbert Gottfried died Tuesday of a form of muscular dystrophy that affected his heart. He was 67. Gottfried typically performed in persona as an annoying, cranky, sometimes crude guy with a raspy, irritating voice that he sometimes exploited to say things considered inappropriate or in bad taste. With that voice, he played the evil, devious parrot in the Disney animated film "Aladdin." But Gottfried's sense of humor sometimes got him into trouble, like when he tweeted jokes about the 2011 tsunami in Japan and was then dropped as the voice of the duck in the Aflac insurance TV commercials.
I spoke with him in 1992. I was in our Philadelphia studio. He was at NPR's New York bureau. When he arrived there, I learned he was only doing interviews in his on-stage persona. I couldn't talk Gottfried into just being himself. So what could I do? I went ahead with the interview. It led to a hilarious moment in the interview that's always stuck with me. We started with a clip from "Aladdin" with Gottfried as Iago, the evil pet parrot of the evil ruler, Jafar. Here's the two of them plotting together.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALADDIN")
GILBERT GOTTFRIED: (As Iago) Oh, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Jafar, why if you were the chump husband?
JONATHAN FREEMAN: (As Jafar) What?
GOTTFRIED: (As Iago) OK. OK. You marry the princess, right? And you - then you become the sultan.
FREEMAN: (As Jafar) Marry the shrew, I become the sultan - the idea has merit.
GOTTFRIED: (As Iago) Yes, merit, yes. And then we drop papa-in-law and the little woman off a cliff. (Screaming) Kersplat (ph).
FREEMAN: (As Jafar) I love the way your foul, little mind works.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Who were the comics that you heard growing up?
GOTTFRIED: Let's see - all of them. I liked Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy because I loved a ventriloquist who could get away with being on the radio. I thought he had the biggest scam in show business. I always admired him for that. Like, he was a ventriloquist on the radio. It's like being a magician on the radio.
GROSS: Did you hear Jackie Mason when you were growing up?
GOTTFRIED: Yes. (Imitating Jackie Mason) You know, a person like you, this is not against you personally, I think you're a terrific, you know what I mean?
GROSS: That's perfect. That's really - you would have had me fooled.
GROSS: What did you think of him?
GOTTFRIED: I always liked Jackie Mason. (Imitating Jackie Mason) But what he thinks to me personally, this I can't tell you.
GROSS: (Laughter) You do a really funny impression of two other comics, of David Brenner and Jerry Seinfeld in deep conversation.
GROSS: Can you do that?
GOTTFRIED: Well, I always thought David Brenner in a conversation with Jerry Seinfeld would be (imitating David Brenner) hey, Jerry, Jerry, you ever eat pizza? You ever eat pizza? (Imitating Jerry Seinfeld) Why do people eat pizza? Hey, Jerry, you ever drink a cup of coffee? Everybody likes coffee, huh? (Imitating Jerry Seinfeld) Why do people drink coffee? Who are these people?
GROSS: (Laughter) Do you think that Brenner and Seinfeld have heard this?
GOTTFRIED: Yes. Yes, they both heard it. And in fact, a few times, Jerry Seinfeld has said to people (imitating Jerry Seinfeld) I don't think that sounds anything like me.
GOTTFRIED: (Imitating Jerry Seinfeld) Where does he get the idea that I talk like that? I don't have a funny way of speaking.
GROSS: How did you start doing other comics?
GOTTFRIED: Just basically to annoy people. Like, I started out annoying people, and I want to take it to the nth degree.
GROSS: (Laughter) Probably your comics - other comics are your closest friends, so I'm sure this is also a technique for ensuring you have no friends left.
GROSS: Is it effective?
GROSS: (Laughter) I was listening to Howard Stern a couple of weeks ago and got the impression you were in the hospital for a while.
GOTTFRIED: Yes, I had a burst appendix. It was a burst appendix. I was actually rushed in to the operating room. I was about an hour away - they said I had about an hour ago - an hour to go before I would just be out of it altogether, before I made most of America happy. And if I was any sicker, I would have been on the cover of People magazines - "Gottfried's Courageous Fight."
GROSS: (Laughter) Well, what were your symptoms? Did you call an ambulance or something?
GOTTFRIED: Yeah, I went into the hospital. They didn't even know what was wrong. I was there for about three days. And I could have actually died actually on the operating - they were amazed I made it. And if I died, then I would have been on "Entertainment Tonight." And "Entertainment Tonight" would be playing their maudlin theme music. That's when all of a sudden they say, so-and-so died today (vocalizing) and they drag it out.
GROSS: The world of comedy mourns one of its own tonight.
GOTTFRIED: Yes, (vocalizing). It's like they play their regular theme music but on a slow speed.
GROSS: (Laughter) Have you been on "ET" yet?
GOTTFRIED: Yes. Yes. And I never actually speak to the people who are the hosts. It's - when they do that show, they send out, like, just any flunky they can get to interview you and then they splice it together to make it look like you're talking to Mary Hart.
GROSS: So (laughter)...
GOTTFRIED: So they usually give you the wrong question, and you totally make a fool out of yourself on that show.
GROSS: So I guess being in the hospital didn't make you change your mind about staying in persona all the time?
GOTTFRIED: No, no, I'm staying this way. In fact, when I was in the hospital, I thought maybe I'll be more obnoxious. So I tried being Buddy Hackett for a while, but it just didn't work.
GROSS: (Laughter) Now, I know I am not able to get Gilbert Gottfried out of persona. But what about the surgeons? I bet you didn't talk to them this way.
GOTTFRIED: No, they knocked me out during surgery, so they wouldn't have to listen to me.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, but when the anesthesiologists were coming - you know how the anesthesiologists interview you beforehand?
GROSS: They do...
GOTTFRIED: As a matter of fact, the anesthesiologist interviewed me and also showed a clip from some shows that I'd been on. It was a very professional hospital. The anesthesiologist sat in a chair. I lied on the couch. And she said, here's a very funny guy. But let's first watch his - a clip from his latest special.
GOTTFRIED: And then she even took a break for commercial.
GROSS: (Laughter) Did she know who you were?
GOTTFRIED: Yes, yes. And then after they wheeled me out, they brought on Charo.
GROSS: (Laughter) Did you ever go to the Catskills and hear any of the Borscht Belt comics there?
GOTTFRIED: Yeah. Let's see. I've seen some. I always liked Borscht Belt. There would always be the comic going, and the Jews and the Italians and my kids in their room and the Jews who talk to the Italians - the Italians and the Irish, and the Jews and the kids.
GROSS: That's it.
GROSS: (Laughter) They didn't have persona comics in those days, did they? You think, like, Jackie Mason is - or Myron Cohen were in persona? Would you call it that?
GOTTFRIED: It's hard to tell what Myron Cohen was. Myron Cohen was like a Jew trying to sound like he's British. It's like - when Myron Cohen would talk, it was always like, (imitating Myron Cohen) an adorable old Jewish woman just walking along the boardwalk when all of a sudden, an elderly man comes along.
It was like British Yiddish.
GROSS: That's true, isn't it? That's true.
GOTTFRIED: He was always trying desperately to sound like he's actually a refined Englishman.
GROSS: Except the punchline would always be in Yiddish.
GOTTFRIED: Yes, it would be, (imitating Myron Cohen) an adorable old Jewish woman is walking along the boardwalk when an elderly Jewish man approaches her. He says to her, can I take you out on a date? The Jewish woman says, well, I'm busy Thursday, to which the Jewish man replies, (speaking Yiddish).
GROSS: Would you get the joke when...
GOTTFRIED: Yes, yes. Well, I just could laugh along with everyone else and go (laughter). Yeah, (speaking Yiddish), yeah. That was - oh, I could see that coming from a mile away.
GROSS: (Laughter) What's the first thing you ever said in front of a microphone?
GOTTFRIED: Oh, I don't remember. That's a good question, though.
GROSS: You don't remember your first time out?
GOTTFRIED: I do, but I - vaguely.
GROSS: Tell me what you remember about it.
GOTTFRIED: It was - I was about 16 years old, and it was, like, open mic night in Greenwich Village. Like, not even - they didn't even call it open mic. This was before the comedy boom, so it was, like, called hootenanny night.
GOTTFRIED: So you had about a hundred and fifty people who was, like, doing folk songs - like, 2,000 people sounding like Bob Dylan. Even the waiter sounded like Bob Dylan. Everyone sounded - it was like - the waiters would come over - (imitating Bob Dylan) can I take your order, sir? Can I bring some more bread to your table?
GROSS: (Laughter) So everybody was doing folk stuff, and you were doing comedy?
GOTTFRIED: Yes. And so it was unusual. Then the comedy boom came later on. Now it's like every single cable station and network station has a comedy show 24 hours a day, practically, where there's a comic standing in front of a brick wall going, hey, do you ever notice these late-night TV commercials, and you watch it late at night and then you clap your hands together and they got the lady with the clapper? Hey, I've fallen and I can't get up. And you know when you get on a plane and they give you those little bags of peanuts, and then you get in one of these cabs - hey, what kind of language are they speaking? Do they speak the same language as the people in the 7-Eleven? What is that?
GROSS: (Laughter) Can we make a deal?
GROSS: When you decide to come out of persona...
GROSS: ...And start doing interviews out of persona, are you going to give me a call?
GROSS: All right.
GOTTFRIED: But first I'll do Barbara Walters.
GROSS: Oh, sure. That's what they all do.
GOTTFRIED: (Laughter) That has to be...
GROSS: And you're going to cry.
GROSS: You're going to - and you're going to talk about how - that you were abused, and that's why you're in persona...
GROSS: ...Because the world was too insensitive to you.
GOTTFRIED: All of my relatives were alcoholics, and they all beat me, Barbara.
GROSS: And so after you tell her all of that, then you're going to come on and talk with me.
GROSS: Well, thanks. Thanks a lot.
GOTTFRIED: (Laughter) Thank you.
My interview with Gilbert Gottfried was recorded in 1992. He died Tuesday. He was 67.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "MANGOES")
GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's interview with actor Molly Shannon or writer Delia Ephron or the author of Pandemic, Inc., about the people who came up with schemes to exploit the pandemic for profit - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "MANGOES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.