J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Tribeca ’17: Gilbert

It’s like the turning of leaves or the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano. Periodically, somebody in the outrage business gets apoplectic over something Gilbert Gottfried said. Normally, the joke is on them, but when admittedly tasteless tsunami jokes cost the comedian his lucrative Aflac commercial gig, many assumed the speech police had finally claimed his scalp. Yet, the manically nebbish stand-up is still standing. Viewers get a peek behind his outrageous facade in Neil Berkeley’s documentary profile Gilbert, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Gottfried was always a comic’s comic in part because of his gleeful willingness to skewer sacred cows. His career kicked into high gear after his characteristically frenzied cameo in Beverly Hills Cop 2, but probably his biggest paydays were as the voice of the parrot in Aladdin and the Aflac duck. Berkeley duly covers Gottfried career high/low lights, such as his notorious appearance at the Hugh Hefner roast, which started with poorly received 9-11 jokes and ended with essentially the public debut of the filthy-as-the-day-is-long “Aristocrats” joke that has always been reserved for private one-upmanship among fellow comics.

The very same Gottfried also happens to be married to a woman who seems to be emotionally healthy and well-adjusted. Even Gottfried isn’t sure how that worked. Berkeley worms his way into their private lives pretty deeply, giving us some insight into their relationship. Clearly, Gottfried is a guarded person by nature, but he opens up—probably more than he expected. We also learn how close he was to his mother and his sisters. Granted, Gilbert is nowhere as revealing as Weiner—and thank goodness for that—but it humanizes the eccentric comedian to a shocking extent.

In many ways, Gilbert compares with Neil Barsky’s thoroughly entertaining Ed Koch documentary, aptly titled Koch. Both were very private individuals, yet they rather unrepentantly ignited public controversies with their outspokenness. However, Berkeley hardly explores the free speech implications of the Gilbert Gottfried experience, beyond some hat-tips to Lenny Bruce. For that kind of analysis, check out Ted Balaker’s funny and frightening Can We Take a Joke?, featuring the post-Aflac Gottfried.

The portrait of Gottfried that emerges through Berkeley’s lens is quite complex, but fans need not worry. He is still happy to meet their expectations for crudeness and crassness. Funny yet weirdly endearing, Gilbert is highly recommended for everyone except Puritanical Social Justice Warriors when it screens again tonight (4/21), Tuesday (4/25), and next Friday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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