The Untold Truth Of Gilbert Gottfried

The recent death of comedian Gilbert Gottfried has sparked mourning across the American entertainment landscape. The comedian was well-known for his crude, scorched-earth style of humor that made many laugh and offended others. But he also had another side of him that came out in his interviews.

Gottfried was other things apart from an entertainer. He was a New Yorker through and through, growing up on the grungy streets of Brooklyn and working his way into New York's wealthy high society. During his life, he crossed paths with celebrities, editors, and former president Donald Trump. Least known, however, was how he got his start in the first place. It is generally known that he started performing at 15, per the New Yorker. But it was his sisters, one of whom was a bit of a bohemian rebel herself, that encouraged Gottfried, who did not quite have the confidence to go at it alone, to become the comedian he is today. Here is the untold truth of Gilbert Gottfried.

He was born in Coney Island

Gilbert Gottfried's stage accent and over-the-top raspy voice are indicative of his birthplace — the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Although he grew up in Crown Heights, according to an interview with the New Yorker, Gottfried noted that he and his siblings were actually born in Coney Island, a neighborhood that has seen ups and downs throughout the 20th century.

As CNBC noted in 2018, Coney Island today has been the center of a multi-million dollar real estate boom due to its prime location on Brooklyn's waterfront. It is also famous for its Boardwalk and Beach, which has allowed New Yorkers to escape the oppressive summer heat for a cool dip in the Atlantic Ocean. But in Gottfried's youth, the place looked very different. According to My Jewish Learning, European Jews settled the area and created the amusement mecca of the first half of the 20th century. But by the time Gottfried was born, Robert Moses' urban renewal had replaced the amusement parks with housing projects.

The building of housing projects triggered a collapse of the tight-knit Jewish middle class neighborhood. As SUNY notes, the boardwalk was soon infested with crime, particularly drugs and gang violence. Families now had cars and could drive to Long Island. Gottfried's own family eventually left for Crown Heights, where his sister began her own famous career as a photographer.

His sister was a photographer

Per the New Yorker, Gilbert Gottfried looked up to his sister Arlene, who was five years his senior. Gottfried described Arlene as a bit of a character. She was a curious child, who always was wanting to find out more — even in places that perhaps were better off avoided — such as decaying Coney Island, sketchy nightclubs, or non-white neighborhoods (Brooklyn was split along racial and ethnic lines at the time). Her curiosity led her to explore Brooklyn's neighborhoods, in particular Crown Heights' Puerto Rican community, where she documented daily life among ordinary people.

Gottfried claimed that growing up in Coney Island, which was full of "weirdos," gave her the ability to walk up to literally anyone to ask to take their photo. So Arlene dedicated her life to "cruising the urban inferno," as Susan Sontag (who ridiculed such work) put it.

His sister's greatest strength was the ability to bring alive places that people only saw in pictures — and as a result, partake in experiences that would otherwise have been off limits to outsiders in the neighborhoods she traversed. Among her greatest exploits was joining a Harlem Pentecostal Church choir in the '90s. Few Jewish girls could claim to have accomplished this, but with her uniqueness and openness, she clearly managed it.

Arlene encouraged him to start his comedy career

Arlene Gottfried was clearly quite the character (in a good way), and definitely fearless when it came to new and unfamiliar experiences. Gilbert Gottfried was a little different. He enjoyed being a comedian and imitating celebrities, per his own words, but he also implied in the New Yorker that he did not have the confidence to turn it into a career, fearing that it could end badly.

His sister's attitude convinced him to give it a try anyway. At the tender age of 15, a young Gottfried and his two sisters took the subway to a Manhattan comedy club for an open mic night. Funnily, Gilbert and Arlene had conflicting memories of the night, as neither could agree even to which club they had gone. Regardless of whether the night was a disaster, it showed Gottfried his calling.

The rest is history. Per Deadline, what began on that night in 1970s Manhattan eventually catapulted him to "Saturday Night Live" in 1980 and national stardom. But he never forgot the debt to his sister, and even after he became famous, he always ensured that Arlene was on the guest list for any performance. And if she wasn't they would make room for her. Sadly she died of breast cancer in late 2017.

He clashed with the hipsters?

In 2013, Gilbert Gottfried wrote a humorous piece in the Wall Street Journal about life in 1970s New York. The main point his piece seems to make was that New York of the 1970s — the dangerous, seedy, decaying city he grew up in – is dead, only to be seen in old movies such as taxi driver. Whether they were living in a cramped Brooklyn apartment or in an Alphabet City housing project, it was always a good idea to "write your will" because chances were the police were not going to help you if you got in trouble.

Some took issue with the article, however. Writing in the Brooklyn Borough blog, artist and media founder Nicole Brydson took issue with Gottfried's seeming juxtaposition of his New York and the New York of the 2010s. Although the word "hipster" does not appear in the piece, Brydson bemoaned what she saw as Gottfried's seeming criticism of the artistic community, accused of making the area a squeaky-clean but unaffordable place to live.

Brydson argues that if "hipsters" have always been in Brooklyn, herself included. The urban decay provided opportunities for artists — including Gottfried and his sister Arlene — to find a cultural niche and enrich their undesirable neighborhoods, not gentrify them. The true culprit for the gentrification and overpricing of New York is Wall Street, whose rampant development has pushed creative types out — not artists. In the meantime, the real problems of the 1970s, from poverty, drugs, and crime, still exist. They are ignored to give the impression of a clean, shiny global city.

His Judaism was cultural

As has already been mentioned multiple times, Gilbert Gottfried was born in a Jewish neighborhood and lived in Jewish neighborhoods for much of his youth. But despite being surrounded by Jews, he never considered himself religiously Jewish. And when discussing his background, he has done so in his typical irreverent but funny manner.

Speaking to the Times of Israel, Gottfried claimed that he never consciously rejected Judaism. The practice of Judaism was simply not part of his family life growing up. He only attended synagogue for friends' Bar Mitzvahs or funerals, did not celebrate any holidays — high or otherwise — and never became a Bar Mitzvah himself. He joked that he was Jewish insofar as it he believed that if Jews were rounded up, he would be among those on the deportation trains.

Gottfried's relationship with Judaism actually provided him with joke material. Never one to avoid poking fun at himself and at his cultural and religious background, he joked in a separate ToI interview that he was afraid to visit Israel because he hated traveling, let alone to a place where the "Jewish conspiracy" could get him. Jokes aside, however, it seems that after marrying his wife Dara Kravitz and having children, Gottfried began taking his Jewish identity a bit more seriously. He had a Jewish wedding ceremony — at his wife's insistence — and was raising his children as Jews in Hebrew school, where presumably they would prepare to become Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

He had a run-in with Neo-Nazis

Sometimes, Gottfried's life got him into stranger than fiction situations. One of the them an interesting encounter with neo-Nazis. According to the Times of Israel, the comedian ended up on a list of influential Jews that was meant to prove disproportionate Jewish influence on American life. Gottfried, as usual, was not only unoffended, he relished it. He claimed that it was a compliment to his accomplishments as a comedian and offered to send them a thank you letter.

He also referred to an interesting show he did in Illinois. Apparently, Gottfried had a new Nazi enthusiasts show up in uniform to watch him. So Gottfried gave them a "heil five" instead of a "high five" and proceeded to take selfies with them. Truly a strange and unorthodox moment, but it seems that they loved him at the end of the day — or at least didn't want to kill him.

He 'imitated' Jared Kushner

In its assessment of Jared Kushner, the Jewish Forward wrote that the presidential son-in-law had gained the reputation as being a sort of power behind the throne. In many ways, this is true, as Kushner helped ram through the Abraham Accords in the Middle East and bipartisan criminal justice reform back at home.

Because Kushner usually appeared stoically standing behind the president, people noted that most Americans had never actually heard him speak. Gilbert Gottfried could not help himself so he went onto John Oliver's show Last Week Tonight to "imitate" Kushner. So they took a clip of Kushner speaking in 2009 and dubbed Gottfried over it. The joke was that it could technically have been his voice since no one had heard it before. 

When Kushner gave a short speech about the U.S. government's archaic technology, people finally got to hear it speak. President Donald Trump's critics could not help themselves. As Rolling Stone reported, the Twitterverse (including Gilbert Gottfried) mocked Kushner's voice. While Gottfried simply pointed and laughed, some Twitter users were less kind. One claimed that Kushner should not be allowed to talk publicly until he hit puberty while expressing relief that he didn't sound like Darth Vader. Another compared his voice to actor Michael Cera's pre-puberty voice, while Amy Siskind implied that he couldn't command the respect of her dog — let alone tech CEOs.

He roasted Donald Trump

Gilbert Gottfried's skewering of Kushner was not the first time the comedian had mocked the Trump family. In 2011, Comedy Central ran a roast of the billionaire who at the time was exploring challenging Barack Obama for the presidency in 2012.

At the roast, celebrities such as Larry King, Snoop Dogg, and Marlee Matlin all took part, but Gilbert Gottfried took center stage. In his characteristic exaggerated New York voice, the comedian claimed that Trump did not deserve to be called "the Donald." Instead, he called Donald Trump "the 20th hijacker" for "doing so much damage to the New York skyline." Gottfried appeared to have gone too far, particularly with the 9/11 reference, as he elicited some boos and gasps from the crowd. But the unapologetic comedian, whose crass political incorrectness would later be compared to Trump's, took it as a compliment, claiming he had not lost his ways.

Gottfried bumped into the future president in 2014. On the Seth Meyers Show, he noted that he had been on "The Apprentice," though he didn't last long on the show. Gottfried later claimed in a separate interview (via El Paso Times) that Trump was nice to him, but they did not interact much. This would contrast with comments made on Meyers' show in which Gottfried appeared to criticize the president during the 2016 campaign.

He broke with Trump over 2016

When Donald Trump declared his interest in running for president at his roast in 2011, the audience, full of New York high society, cheered him. Four years later, the situation had completely changed. Trump had decided to run as a Republican, and many of his old acquaintances in New York turned on him.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump was frequently compared to Hitler. As the Huffington Post noted, former Mexican president Vicente Fox and comedian Bill Maher expressed such sentiments. Gilbert Gottfried called him "Hitler without the warmth" on the Seth Meyers Show. He viewed the billionaire's campaign as a sort of joke that he thought would die out, not expecting his message to resonate among a large segment of the American public. Given this view, as well as Gottfried's place within liberal New York's high society, one can assume that he did not vote Republican.

In 2018, Gottfried again discussed Trump. In the El Paso Times, he said that he wished he had been nicer to Trump while he was on "The Apprentice." After all, had he known Trump was going to be president, he might have gotten a cabinet position. The part about a cabinet position was no doubt a joke, and Gottfried has rarely discussed his politics openly. But given his skewering of Jared Kushner and his comments on Trump, it seems safe to assume he wasn't a fan.

He sometimes went too far

Gottfried was known for his politically incorrect brand of shock humor, but sometimes he went too far even for his own audiences. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the comedian landed himself in hot water various times. A 1980s routine about meeting Jackie Kennedy asked the former first lady if she remembered where she was in Dallas on the day of the assassination. In 2001, a crowd booed him for saying that he could not find a direct flight because it "had to stop at the Empire State Building." This was a 9/11 reference a mere three months after the tragedy. He made a similar set of jokes about the 2008 tsunami in Japan, per the CS Monitor.

Now, while these jokes might have ended Gottfried's career today, the comedian never apologized for any of them, drawing comparisons to none other than former president Donald Trump. In an article in App Magazine, Gottfried argued that comedy is either funny, offensive or both. It simply doesn't work unless the comedian is willing to cross lines of social propriety, and a successful joke will make some laugh and others squirm. But in the case of 9/11, they had to completely abandon that line, suggesting that some topics are better left off limits.

He promoted the COVID-19 shots in Illinois

In 2021, the COVID-19 shots became available for various age groups and those who wanted one were soon able to get one. But according to Fox 2, places such as St. Clair County in Illinois, demand began to drop and injection centers began to shut down. So to try and revitalize uptake, the county hired a few celebrities to do cameos encouraging residents to take their shots.

The solution was to hire celebrities to market the shots. One of them was former St. Louis Cardinals' shortstop Ozzie Smith, a good messenger to a county that borders St. Louis. The other one was Gilbert Gottfried, whom the county paid $500 for his services. His cameo was nothing particularly special. He told residents to get their shots at the local fairground since it was "a matter of life and death."

Its message's effectiveness is unclear. The St. Clair EMA Herb Simmons claimed that it had created some interest, but the data suggest that overall, the message did not change much. According to the St. Clair vaccine uptake chart (via Statesman Journal), there was no spike in vaccine uptake after the two celebrities gave their message, but rather a modest increase over time as more age groups were eligible to receive it.

He was the unsexiest man of 2006

Moving on to more lighthearted facets of Gottfried's life, the comedian has never exactly been considered a prince charming in the entertainment world. In fact, the Chicago Tribune voted him the unsexiest man in America back in 2006.

So what earned him this dubious distinction? Chicago Tribune editors found that sex appeal of "the parrot-voiced, pickled-face comic" was about as much as Superman's love for kryptonite — that is, non-existent. Now, the editors cautioned that unsexy did not necessarily mean ugly, since Brad Pitt and a handful of other celebrities made the list too, as did Al-Qaeda terrorist Osama Bin Laden.

According to the Today Show, Gottfried reveled in his achievement — mostly. He was thrilled to have beaten out Osama Bin Laden, claiming that the Al-Qaeda leader probably smelled terrible but was still considered slightly sexier than he was. The only complaint was that he beat out fellow comedian Carrot Top. He took offense at that. Otherwise, he turned the list into a mini comedy routine as he stressed that he intended to keep the top spot against possible competition going forward.

He went out with a bang

According to KION 5/46 News, Gilbert Gottfried remained true to his character even as he was dying of heart problems. In his final Instagram post, he took a friendly potshot at his friend Chris Rock. Now, Rock had made national headlines after actor Will Smith slapped him onstage at the Oscars over a joke the former had made about his wife.

On the Instagram post in question, Gottfried invited his fans to give their opinions on the incident. But he also, with his characteristic humor, poked fun at Rock by asking the following: Was the incident worse than having to listen to Chris Rock telling a joke in the first place? The responses to the question, which was also posted on Twitter, varied from serious to whimsical. Given that Gottfried also posted a picture of himself with Chris Rock, it seems, per Fox News, that he was supporting the comedian rather than skewering him. Or perhaps doing both, as he so often tended to do. Either way, he went out with a bang.