The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Gilbert Gottfried

Gilbert Gottfried's high-pitched, abrasive voice and accompanying squint made him unmistakable throughout his 42-year-long comedy career, which came to an end when he passed away on April 12, 2022. He began his career on "SNL" and later appeared in the "Problem Child" movies in the 1990s, but in later years, he was mostly known for his Comedy Central roasting abilities and for voicing the parrot in "Aladdin," per his IMDb. He saved his best work for his stand-up shows and received both flack and praise for his no-holds-barred style in which nothing was too sacred for lampooning. For the past decade, he also hosted "Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast" where he was able to pick the minds of his colleagues in comedy, according to CNN.

Peeking behind the curtain of fame, though, Gottfried was a quiet character to those who knew him most, and a talented comic who struggled to conform for mainstream success. Although he often got in trouble for his jokes, he never changed. He was also a notorious cheapskate who didn't have thorough career ambitions and whose on-stage oddness was authentic, according to Rolling Stone. Although admirable, his personality quirks and dedication to raw and offensive comedy led to some self-inflicted career crises. And in other times, those crises came to him. Let's take a look at some of the tough moments Gottfried had to endure in his 67 years of life.

Gilbert Gottfried was neglected on SNL

Gilbert Gottfried joined the cast of Saturday Night Live for its sixth season when he was just 25. The show was in the midst of upheaval, as all the original cast members were recast and Lorne Michaels was replaced by a new producer, Jean Doumanian. Joining a wave of fresh faces, Gottfried had an opportunity to make a career statement, but his career at "SNL" ended up falling short. He lasted for only one season, which was marked by little airtime, according to Vulture.

Gottfried reportedly didn't share his best material with "SNL" writers, either, which left him with little to work with on-air. Gottfried told the Joe Rogan Podcast that he felt he and the writers held a mutual dislike for each other. The relationship reached a low point when the writers wrote a funeral sketch and casted Gottfried as a corpse. In spite of this, he managed to get two impressions in: that of disgraced filmmaker Roman Polanski and former U.S. Congressman David A. Stockman. He also had a recurring character as "What It's All About" talk show co-host Leo Waxman, alongside castmate Denny Dillon, per Vulture.

He was fired after 12 episodes

Gilbert Gottfried believed he never had a chance on "SNL," according to his interview on the Joe Rogan podcast. As he was hired, the original and beloved cast of the first season of "SNL" were leaving. Those included legendary names like Gilda Radner, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Jane Curtin, per History. Gottfried, along with other new comics, was hired to effectively replace them, which didn't exactly endear him to the public and to the fans of the original cast. On the "WTF with Marc Maron" podcast (via Vulture), Gottfried likened the cast overhaul to replacing members of the Beatles.

He appeared in only 12 episodes in what became widely known as the worse ever season of "SNL," according to the AV Club. Producer Jean Doumanian was replaced by Dick Ebersol by the end of the season, which saw a slew of other firings. Gottfried was among them. He learned of his dismissal in a particularly undignified way — through fan mail. After Doumanian's firing, Ebersol announced upcoming changes to the show and began calling employees individually to his office. As he was waiting to be called, Gottfried spotted a fan letter addressed to him with a dismally written note, which seemed to predict Gottfried's firing. It was then that he realized his time at "SNL" had come to an end, per the Joe Rogan podcast. He left with a few other cast members, but one comic who debuted that season managed to stay and find success on the show: Eddie Murphy (per the AV Club).

He didn't listen to advice

Many thought Gilbert Gottfried had a uniquely talented gift for comedy, and it was one that a number of people, including Howard Stern, saw as ripe for honing. Gottfried appeared on "The Howard Stern Show" a whopping 122 times and was one of Stern's most favorite guests because Gottfried could always deliver. After Gottfried's death, Stern illustrated examples of his genius (via "The Howard Stern Show"). Just one example of that: Unlike most comedians who made young Groucho Marx impressions, Gottfried brilliantly decided to capture an old and senile Marx, instead.

"I thought ... I could turn him into the world's most successful comic," Stern said, believing Gottfried was capable of it, but Gottfried resisted (via The New York Daily News). Stern admitted to projecting his high hopes onto Gottfried, who didn't share the same sentiment. For better or worse, Gottfried preferred to remain unorthodox. When Gottfried once landed a gig at a country club — which would have led to other opportunities — he refused to tone down his comedic shtick and conform to expectations, and he instead went on to deliver a routine that was too risqué. A similar circumstance occurred when Gottfried was given the opening act for The Go-Go's. According to Stern, Gottfried proceeded to tell what Stern called the "most vile jokes" (per The New York Daily News).

He courted controversy

Gilbert Gottfried's unabashed and deliberately offensive comedic style unsurprisingly vexed a lot of people and often landed him in hot water. He was known for saying, "I think twice, but I do it anyway," per Consequence. In what might be one of the first times Gottfried was dropped as a spokesperson after making an off-color joke, Gottfried "lost an account" with Kraft's Miracle Whip after he made an Andrew "Dice" Clay impression on "The Howard Stern Show" in 1990, per Vulture. The joke involved Gottfried impersonating the comedian as if he were attending the funeral of Ryan White — a boy who caught fame in the late 1980s for being diagnosed with AIDS and leading a campaign to destigmatize it, per PBS.

Gottfried was set on doing voice-overs for the mayonnaise brand but dropped the partnership after they found his comic bit distasteful. He recalled joking about the incident in the aftermath while revisiting "The Howard Stern Show," in which Stern brought a jar of Miracle Whip. They proceeded to bash the product. In his interview with Vulture, Gottfried also said Hellman's was preferable.

He nearly lost his audience

No joke was off-limits for Gilbert Gottfried. Only a few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attack, Gottfried entered the New York Friars Club to roast Hugh Hefner and proceeded to tell a joke about the tragedy, per Vulture. In the joke, Gottfried said he couldn't get a direct flight to California from New York, because the plane would have to stop at the Empire State Building first. It was received with silence and boos. One man in the audience became the first to proclaim the enduring critique on jokes of that nature: "Too soon!" In an essay he wrote for Vulture, Gottfried claimed he lost the audience unlike any comic before.

But Gottfried immediately made a comeback within the same set; in order to save his performance, he told the comic's classic Aristocrats joke, making it his own. It won over the audience and was wildly popular, and the clip of his joke was immortalized in the 2005 documentary "The Aristocrats."

In his essay, Gottfried explained his reasoning behind poking fun at tragedies, premature-ness be damned: He wanted to address the elephant in the room and found jokes made long after they're relevant more offensive than those that immediately address a tragedy.

Gilbert Gottfried was blacklisted from the Emmys

When Gilbert Gottfried took the stage at the 43rd annual Emmys broadcast in 1991, he fatefully made a series of ill-advised masturbation jokes. They were aimed at Paul Reubens (also known as Pee-wee Herman) who had recently been arrested on an indecent exposure charge, per AP. Interestingly, Reubens had once auditioned for Saturday Night Live, only to be bested by Gilbert Gottfried, who landed the role instead, per Yahoo!.

Only a portion of the country was able to catch Gottfried's raunchy jokes, as his monologue was cut out in time zone-delayed broadcasts. The jokes left the Emmys disgusted and forced to do damage control, with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences mulling over hiring their own ambassador for the next show in order to "represent the Academy's interests" and ensure the same type of incident didn't happen again, per AP. According to Variety, the producers then blacklisted Gottfried.

Regardless, the broadcast was a success. It was a ratings victory for Fox, and the show was the most-watched TV program that day, with 7 million households tuning in.

He was fired from Aflac

Gilbert Gottfried's 10-year reign as the voice of the Aflac duck came to an end when he made a series of insensitive jokes about Japan's 2011 tsunami disaster, per The Hollywood Reporter. He posted them to Twitter, where he often made jokes, with one of them being: "Japan is really advanced. They don't go to the beach. The beach comes to them" (via The Hollywood Reporter). In a statement, the insurance company said Gottfried's jokes were "lacking in humor," per The Hollywood Reporter. Aflac quickly put out a nationwide casting call to replace Gottfried, attracting the likes of Weird Al Yankovic (reportedly, though Yankovic denies that rumor) and a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals in auditions to voice the duck, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Soon after releasing a public apology, Gottfried admitted on "The Howard Stern Show" that it was scripted and insincere. In order to illustrate how uninvolved he was in the apology, he compared himself to Mike Tyson, whose "eloquent" public statements are likely devised by someone else.

He was banned from The Howard Stern Show

Although Gilbert Gottfried had more guest appearances on "The Howard Stern Show" than most stars can boast, he was eventually banned. One of the rumored reasons behind the fallen relationship was a 2010 incident in which he spit on cupcakes at the studio meant for staff members, per Mel Magazine. Comedian Artie Lange seemed to confirm rumors of Gottfried's ban on Twitter, joking that both he and Gottfried couldn't use the show for marketing purposes anymore.

Around the same time, Gottfried made one of his last appearances in Comedy Central's Roast series, in which Donald Trump was the target, per Vulture. Although he was once considered a mainstay of celebrity roasts, Gottfried said Comedy Central stopped inviting him when they decided to go in a different direction. They wanted to invite personal friends of celebrities instead of in-house comedians for the roasting. In an interview with Vulture, Gottfried said that, regardless, he harbors no ill-will toward either Comedy Central or Howard Stern.

He was fired from The Celebrity Apprentice

Gilbert Gottfried was once subject to the immortal words of Donald Trump: "You're fired!" He was a contestant on the seventh season of "The Celebrity Apprentice," which aired in 2015, per Showbiz Junkies. He appeared alongside 15 other celebrities, including Kevin Jonas, Shawn Johnson, and Geraldo Rivera, but was just the third contestant fired, per Entertainment Weekly. On the show, Gottfried was depicted as entertaining and helpful, but distracting, per "The Celebrity Apprentice." On one occasion, when Trump told Gottfried he was proud of him, Gottfried wittily responded, "Thank you, mein Führer," per The New York Times.

In his last episode, Gottfried nearly sabotaged his team's project by making inappropriate sex jokes, which led to his firing, per "The Celebrity Apprentice." Gottfried had roasted Trump just a few years before in 2011 on Comedy Central, joking that Trump had enough money to buy "the best Eastern European" sex workers in New York City. It's unclear if that little quip had any bearing on his firing, but Gottfried did say Trump was always nice to him, according to Vulture.

He died from a rare illness

Gilbert Gottfried died on April 12 due to type 2 myotonic dystrophy, a rare genetic muscle disorder, which led to heart complications, per NBC News. Gottfried may have long known of his diagnosis, since the condition usually starts to appear when patients are in their 20s and 30s, although since it's a progressive disorder, it's often misdiagnosed. More complications — both breathing and heart-related — can occur in later years. Gottfried suffered from "recurrent ventricular tachycardia" which is an abnormal rhythm in the heart. Recurrent ventricular tachycardia can be treated with pacemakers and defibrillators, but type 2 myotonic dystrophy has no known cure.

Gottfried is considered the quintessential comic's comic, and not long after his passing, the tributes started rolling in. He received acknowledgements from comedians Dane Cook, Jon Stewart, and Judd Apatow, as well as actors Jason Alexander, Marlee Matlin, and George Takei, per Variety. His funeral was attended by celebrities and jokes, with his eulogy delivered by fellow roast legend Jeffrey Ross, per People.

His sister died from cancer

A few years before his own death, Gilbert Gottfried witnessed the passing of his sister, Arlene. She was his older sister, both were natives of Coney Island, New York, and it appears their family was a special clan since Arlene Gottfried was accomplished in her own right; she was a preeminent street photographer whose work graced galleries. She was inspired to take photos of all the types of strange people who visited Coney Island, armed with a 35mm camera gifted to her by their father, per The Guardian. Gilbert remembered her as someone who was inspired by what most people found aversive, according to The New Yorker.

Gilbert credits his sister with his start in stand-up. She noticed his penchant for celebrity impressions and jokes, so she referred him to an open-mic opportunity in Manhattan. With his sisters, Gilbert attended the event, which turned out to be an off-beat talent show, but Gilbert always remembered her support. Once Gilbert was a star, she attended his shows, and he made sure to put her on the guest list. Gilbert visited Arlene often after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she died in 2017 at 66 years old, having taken 15,000 pictures in her lifetime, per The New Yorker.

Some of his work has gone unnoticed

To the average person, Gilbert Gottfried is the voice of the loud-mouthed parrot from "Aladdin," Iago. But Gottfried has contributed a lot more work that has sometimes gone under-appreciated and unnoticed. For example, Gottfried voiced the world's most famous paper clip, Clippy, for Microsoft's Windows XP ad campaign in 2001, according to Vice. In an ad titled "Clippy Gets Clipped," Gottfried's Clippy tragically realizes he's been made dispensable in the new Microsoft Office OS. It was Microsoft's clever and self-aware attempt to address what was once considered the most irritating anthropomorphic computer feature.

In general, Gottfried was an in-demand voice for ads and commercials in the 1980s and 1990s, boasting nearly 200 entertainment credits, according to Ad Week. He had a strong presence in commercials aimed at young consumers, appearing in ads for Baby Ruth, Pop Tarts, Frosted Cheerios, Pepsi, and Cinemax. Besides voice work, he would occasionally offer an improvised bit, appearing in the flesh, as he once did for MTV. In an ad campaign titled, "Your Favorite Music," Gottfried joked that MTV executives wanted to play "all of the music everybody hates" (via Ad Week).