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Gilbert Gottfried, the high-strung comedian with the shrill voice known for his performances equal parts chaotic, clever and crude, died Tuesday, his family revealed. He was 67.
“We are heartbroken to announce the passing of our beloved Gilbert Gottfried after a long illness,” his family said in a statement. “In addition to being the most iconic voice in comedy, Gilbert was a wonderful husband, brother, friend and father to his two young children. Although today is a sad day for us, please keep laughing as loud as possible in Gilbert’s honor.”
Publicist Glenn Schwartz said Gottfried died in Manhattan from recurrent ventricular tachycardia due to type II myotonic dystrophy. The rare disease can trigger a dangerously abnormal heartbeat.
In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, his manager, Tommy Nichi, called Gottfried “a bridge in stand-up comedy connecting six decades, from the 1970s through the 2020s.”
The Brooklyn native, son of a hardware store owner and high school dropout began telling jokes onstage when he was 15. He broke out as a castmember on the retooled Saturday Night Live in 1980 but was given little to do and lasted just 12 installments. (He said a low point was playing the body in a funeral sketch.)
On the big screen, Gottfried demonstrated impressive improvisational skills with his turn as the business manager Sidney Bernstein in Beverly Hills Cop II (1987). He played the shock jock Johnny Crunch in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990) and was hilarious as the voice of the wisecracking parrot Iago in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) — “I’m so ticked off that I’m molting” — and various offshoots.
“I prepare like De Niro. I lived with a family of parrots for a year,” he said in 2018.
He also portrayed the adoption agent Igor Peabody in Problem Child (1990) and its sequels released in 1991 and 1995.
Gottfried had intended to work on the indie feature Hassle at the Castle at Uptone Pictures. The film, which has Jon Lovitz and other comics attached, is in the script phase. Said Uptone head Michael Davis, “We are so saddened by his passing, as we loved him and his talent so much.”
He put that high-pitched voice — not his natural speaking voice, by the way — to good use in The Fairly OddParents, Ren and Stimpy, Bobby’s World, The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat, Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man and Cyberchase. (For that last one, PBS says he will be heard as Digit on the remaining six episodes of season 13.)
He served as the host of the USA late night movie series Up All Night for its entire 1989-98 run and was a regular on the Hollywood Squares and Howard Stern’s radio program, where he did impersonations of Groucho Marx, Bela Lugosi and Andrew “Dice” Clay.
Since 2014, he co-hosted Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast.
He stood out in the comedy documentary The Aristocrats (2005), with Entertainment Weekly noting that “out of the 101 comedians who appear onscreen, no one is funnier — or more disgusting — than Gilbert Gottfried.”
On DVD and CD in 2005, he released Gilbert Gottfried Dirty Jokes, on which he told “the funniest and filthiest jokes” for 50 minutes from the Gotham Comedy Club in New York City.
And at the 1991 Emmy Awards, he made a bunch of masturbation jokes after Paul Reubens was arrested for masturbating in an adult movie theater in Florida. (One report said the gags “clearly left the audience in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium ill at ease.”)
In the 1980s, People reported that his stand-up routine included a bit about his first “meeting” with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: “I went up to Jackie O, and I wanted to break the ice. So I said, ‘Do you remember where you were when you heard JFK was shot?'”
“The worst thing you could say to me is, ‘Don’t joke about that!'” he said in a 2017 documentary about him.
Said his podcast co-host, Frank Santopadre: “Gilbert’s brand of humor was brash, shocking and frequently offensive, but the man behind the jokes was anything but. Those who loved him and were fortunate enough to share his orbit knew a person who was sweet, sensitive, surprisingly shy and filled with a childlike sense of playfulness and wonder. He’ll be dearly missed by family, friends, fans and comedy lovers the world over. To quote Gilbert himself, ‘Too soon!'”
Gottfried often put aside political correctness and paid for it.
“A few days after September 11, 2001, I was doing a Friars’ Roast of Hugh Hefner in New York City,” he wrote in a 2012 piece for CNN. “Outside, smoke was still in the air. People seemed very reserved and were not totally laughing at any of the comics that night. I wanted to be the first one to slap them out of it. I said, ‘I have to leave early tonight. I’m flying to L.A. I couldn’t get a direct flight. We have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.’
“No one in the history of comedy ever lost an audience more completely. You could hear chairs move back and murmuring throughout the crowd. Gasping, groaning.”
He tried to recover by telling the “Dirtiest Joke of All Time” that is captured in The Aristocrats. The audience loved it. “So: Terrorism is shocking and in bad taste, but a joke about incest and bestiality is totally fine,” he wrote.
After he tweeted a series of one-liners about the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, he lost his job as the voice of the duck in the Aflac commercials. (He was replaced by Daniel McKeague, who impersonated Gottfried’s voice in the spots.)
“I have always felt comedy and tragedy are roommates,” he wrote. “If you look up comedy and tragedy, you will find a very old picture of two masks. One mask is tragedy. It looks like it’s crying. The other mask is comedy. It looks like it’s laughing. Nowadays, we would say, ‘How tasteless and insensitive.’ A comedy mask is laughing at a tragedy mask.”
Survivors include his wife, Dara, whom he married in 2007; their children Lily, 14, and Max, 12; his sister, Karen; and his nephew, Graham. His other sister, photographer Arlene Gottfried, died in 2017.
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