Liked more than a bissel: “Gilbert” (2017)

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By Scott Ross

Neil Berkeley’s 2017 documentary is a surprisingly sweet, even moving, portrait of the blazingly idiosyncratic and often excruciatingly funny comedian Gilbert Gottfried — although long-time listeners of Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Pocast will be more prepared than others for the softer side of the famously abrasive comic. It isn’t a particularly deep etching (we never discover why the actual man, as opposed to his brash stage persona, is so pathologically shy, for example, although a few observations by Gottfried about his emotionally abusive father are likely a clue) but Gilbert offers a far more fully-rounded depiction of the man than we’re used to from the prattle of the surface-oriented corporate media types who’ve interviewed him in the past. (Kathie Lee Gifford and Elisabeth Hasselbeck make particular asses of themselves in the footage included here.) It helps too that we get to know his beloved sister Arlene, a photographer of an under-explored New York who was undergoing cancer treatment at the time of filming and to whom the movie is dedicated, and, especially, his wife. Dara Kravitz seems to be the anchor he needed, and that she (along with their young son and daughter) well and truly completes his life… although he, characteristically, sees his home-life as a Twilight Zone fantasy. The only time you feel the filmmaker behaves in an intrusive manner in Gilbert is when he films an intimate goodbye between them and you sense all genuine expression of feeling is being killed off by Gottfried’s knowing that he and Dara are being filmed. Considering how well, and touchingly, the family’s own home-movies document Gilbert’s camera-shyness, you’d think Berkeley might have shut his down for a few minutes.

I admit to having found Gottfried, in his early 1980s movie roles, unbearably obnoxious and to being slow to warm to him. (As with many, it was his participation in the Disney Aladdin, and his voicing of the Aflac duck that first earned my affection.) Looking back now at his early video output, especially his 1986 Cinemax special Greetings from Gilbert Gottfried I realize that, had I seen his act first, and then his movie performances, I might have responded very differently. Certainly he was unique, and I can’t imagine any other stand-up comedian of his generation doing a bit in which Tony Curtis and Gavin McLeod share coffee and a doughnut, or another in which he famously juggled the names of Ted Bessell and Georgie Jessel, along with those of Jacqueline Bisset, Whit Bissell and Joe Besser, and carrying it off with such alliterative aplomb (Punchline: “The Jewish Press says, ‘We like Bessell as Jessel, but only a bissel.'”) It’s why the podcast he hosts with Frank Santopadre is such a pleasure; Gottfried loves the old show business, is steeped in it, and treats his guests with a respect sometimes verging on reverence. People who know him only from his second, “dirty,” phase of stand-up are invariably shocked when I suggest they listen. (I was skeptical too, until I heard the show.)

Gilbert and Dara Gottfried

Dara: “I love you.”                Gilbert: “That’s your problem.”

Gottfried has spoken more than once about the ludicrous over-sensitivity with which two of his more infamous jokes were received: The first was his response to 9-11, and which led, ultimately, to the production of Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza’s 2005 comic documentary The Aristocrats; the second, after the tsunami hit Fukushima, resulted in Gilbert’s losing his Aflac sinecure and being branded a pariah for somehow, according to corporate media pundits, “making it worse”… with a joke. Berkeley includes, but wisely does not dwell on, these incidents, preferring to focus on the comedian’s travels (he goes to his gigs by bus) and his sustaining familial relationships. The occasional talking-heads in Gilbert (Jillette, Provenza, Richard Belzer, Lewis Black, Bill Burr, Judy Gold, Artie Lange, Jay Leno, Howie Mandel, Jeffrey Ross, Bob Saget) are variable, and not especially insightful, although Richard Kind in his inimitable and endearingly over-excited fashion probably makes the best case in Gottfried’s favor. Far more effecting, and pertinent, are the lovely home-movies of his aged mother Lily and his wonderful old grandmother.

There are moments in Gilbert when Gottfried seems like the saddest, most lost little boy in the world, and others, such as those of him joking or playing with his son Max, when you think the ease with which he does so has to do with his retaining that child, damaged though he may be, at the forefront of his personality, and with having figured out, by accident or circumstance, how to both protect and to make that boy work for him. If you’re the child of a father lamentable in his interactions with his offspring as Max Gottfried was with his, you may be especially predisposed to salute this movie, and its subject — although all you really need are a relatively open mind and an unfettered appreciation of the ridiculous.

Gottfried - Ol' Squint Eyes is Back by Kyle Burles

Copyright 2015 by Kyle Burles

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

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