Tragic Details About Gilbert Gottfried

If cancel culture had been invented when Gilbert Gottfried was starting out, the controversial comedian would likely have found a way to circumvent virtue signalers. It helped that Gottfried, who died April 12 of Recurrent Ventricular Tachycardia from Myotonic Dystrophy type II, had a few secret weapons in his survival pack. His dorky appearance (think of a shorter Jon Cryer with a larger gullet) and a raspy, wooden delivery made it easy for audiences to underestimate him, unwittingly providing him with a clear lane to launch his comedic ballistic attacks. When it looked like public blowback had destroyed him, Gottfried would cyclically unload another round and endure even more punishment. 

Long before social media, a thrashing in the press would have been a career-ender for Gottfried, who initially angered the scribes with his graphic comments about Pee-Wee Herman at the 1991 Emmy Awards. Inexplicably, he survived to fight another day. When asked about all those tempestuous moments that have punctuated his livelihood, Gottfried responded, "Well, never take career advice from me." 

For all those shocking anecdotes, he's fondly remembered for voicing Iago the parrot in Disney's animated "Aladdin" outing. And by all accounts, that masochistic turn at the mic never wafted into his home life. The day Gottfried died, the family issued a statement saying that he was "a wonderful husband, brother, friend and father to his two young children." But even when he was still alive, much of his life was mired in particularly sad moments.

Gilbert Gottfried lasted only one season on SNL

When Gilbert Gottfried started out doing standup in clubs around New York City, he got the chance to join the cast of "Saturday Night Live," which has since become a launching pad for topline celebs from Eddie Murphy and Bill Murray to Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig. But in 1980, joining the ensemble was seen as the kiss of death. "Well, [producer] Lorne Michaels left and the original cast left, so people hated the show before it even got on the air," said Gottfried on The Joe Rogan Experience. "It would be like saying like in the middle of Beatlemania that 'Oh, we're getting four other guys to be The Beatles," or when 'Friends' was on, "We're recasting 'Friends,' but just watch it the same way."

Gottfried added that he never had a good time at "SNL," with a young cast and a group of writers desperate to match the magic of a time when predecessors like Dan Ackroyd and Gilda Radner had late-night audiences in the palm of their hands. But he still received a lot of airtime, playing everything from a Yiddish buffoon named Leo Waxman to an urban bullfighter. However, by the end of "SNL"'s disastrous sixth season, NBC fired the entire cast and producer. 

The comedian offended a crowd with a 9/11 joke

Ask any standup about timing, and they'll likely tell you it's everything, from the pace of telling a joke to the amount of dead air before delivering the punchline. But how soon can a comic tell a joke about a recent tragic event? That seems to be a question that Gilbert Gottfried likely never bothered to ask. Case in point was a Friars Club Roast in New York that put Playboy founder Hugh Hefner in the hot seat roughly two weeks after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Gottfried naturally started out by taking shots at Hefner's love life before he launched into his infamous one-liner that stunned the room. "I have to catch a flight to California," he said at the podium. "I can't get a direct flight. They said they had to stop at the Empire State Building first." The laughs shrunk to a murmur, until a spectator yelled out "Too soon!" Hefner nervously turned away to rub at something on his face. Gottfried had lost the crowd.

Five months later, the comedian wrote a first-person account about the incident in Vulture, still quizzical about the protocol over lampooning a tragedy. "I knew there were times where people wait to make jokes about something, but I always thought that concept was ridiculous," Gottfried wrote. "Is there an office with a guy behind a desk who decides when it's not too soon anymore?"

He lost a major gig after joking about a tragedy in Japan

If Gilbert Gottfried had ever had the opportunity to run a deli, count on the daily special to be a bowl of vulgarity served with crassness on the side. In 2011, he added crassness to the menu when he tweeted several offhand comments about a deadly earthquake and tsunami in Japan that in 2011 that killed thousands of people and caused a meltdown in a nuclear reactor. One tweet he posted (and eventually deleted) read: "Japan is really advanced. They don't go to the beach. The beach comes to them" (via TMZ), which opened the floodgates for an angry response from social media users. 

Also unimpressed was Georgia-based insurance corporation Aflac, which had Gottfried under contract to provide the voice for its iconic duck. Michael Zuna, Aflac's senior vice president and chief marketing officer, announced it had fired the comedian and was searching for a replacement in a release that also said, "Gilbert's recent comments about the crisis in Japan were lacking in humor and certainly do not represent the thoughts and feelings of anyone at Aflac" (per CNN). Reassessing what he had done on Twitter, it wasn't long before Gottfried issued a statement of apology that read: "I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my attempt at humor regarding the tragedy in Japan. I meant no disrespect, and my thoughts are with the victims and their families" (via The Hollywood Reporter).

Gilbert Gottfried's sister died in 2017

Gilbert Gottfried never said very much about his parents who raised him when the family lived in Brooklyn. His father, Max, owned and operated a hardware store, while his mother Lillian kept house. Interestingly, Max and Lilly are what Gilbert and wife Dara also named their kids, so evidently they had some positive effect on his upbringing. Additionally, Gilbert claimed both his parents supported his venture into comedy. But he had a great deal in common with his sister Arlene, with whom he shared a unique outlook on the world: he with his comedic insight, and she with how she pictured life through a camera lens. She developed an eye that caught the attention of the city's arts community and eventually enjoyed a number of gallery exhibitions.

When their mother became sick, Arlene took photographs of her decline as a coping mechanism, saying in the documentary "Gilbert" of the photo essay she titled "Mommie:" "That's how I knew how to cope with it, by taking pictures ... that's how I dealt with the pain" (per The New Yorker). Gilbert said, "I would help my mother off the bus, because she was very weak. And my sister was taking pictures. I was horrified by the idea of the photos, and confused. But I also understood." Then Arlene was diagnosed with cancer soon after she published her photo essay. Gilbert accompanied his sister to cancer treatments, but she died from the disease at age 66.

He and Norm Macdonald were kindred spirits

One of Gilbert Gottfried's closest friends was fellow comedian Norm Macdonald, who shared the same affinity for offensive humor delivered with a dumb-guy approach. They were both fired from "Saturday Night Live" and were also in heavy demand on the roast circuit. So, when Macdonald died of leukemia in September 2021, Gottfried expressed his sadness at the loss, as did many other people in and out of the comedic world. Soon after the comedian died, Gottfried wrote a tribute on Instagram, accompanied by a throwback image of the two alongside Bob Saget and Jeff Ross. His caption read, "This photo was taken after I was a guest on Norm's show. At dinner the laughs just continued nonstop. He will be missed. RIP Norm Macdonald."

But in true Gottfried fashion, in one video he posted, he recalled the good times the two had together. "Every time I had lunch with norm, I would let him pay," he recalled. "I wouldn't put in a dime and then one time we went out to lunch, and he waited for me to put at least a dollar in. I said 'Come on, why ruin the tradition?' And so he put the money in again. I remember one time doing Norm's podcast and it was like the two of us were just going crazy and laughing, and it was like insane."

He lost a good friend when Bob Saget died

When comedian Bob Saget passed away while on tour earlier in 2022, Gilbert Gottfried took a while to come to grips with the bad news surrounding one of his best friends. A mutual friend broke the news to Gottfried, who later said on Sirius XM's Jim and Sam Show, "I was, like, waiting for the punchline. And I thought, 'That's like a sick joke.' I was up for a punchline like that. And nothing came" (via Los Angeles Magazine). But being best buds didn't prevent Gottfried from going ballistic on Saget during a 2008 Comedy Central celebrity roast of the funnyman and star of "Full House." 

Gottfried's profanity during that roast had Saget doubling over with laughter. And it was that twisted and nuanced aspect of his humor which Gottfried said fit his friend to a tee. "I remember Bob as being very funny, very quick," recalled Gottfried on what turned out would be his final appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America." "He could be a sensitive guy, but like both of us, he would rather be tasteless and outrageous."

Gilbert Gottfried was ill for a while before his death

Gilbert Gottfried was apparently suffering from myotonic dystrophy type 11, a form of muscular dystrophy, for some time. It's not surprising to doctors, who say the disease progresses very slowly in the body. "People can have symptoms for quite a while even before they notice it," said Dr. Elizabeth McNally, a director at the Northwestern University Center for Genetic Medicine, to MSNBC. The disease is not only rare and incurable, it may not even be diagnosed until victims are in their middle years. Symptoms like breathing problems and chest pains are likely to be confused with more age-related ailments.

It's possible that the deaths of Macdonald and Sagat also played havoc with the ailing comedian's spirits. "If I had known they would die as young as they did, I would have really taken notes," he said in a video shortly after their deaths. "I still miss Norm and I still miss Bob." No stranger to being attacked in one form or another, Gottfried died shortly after sticking up for his friend and comic Chris Rock, who was on the receiving end of a Will Smith slap after telling a joke about the actor's wife at the 2022 Oscars. In a final tweet showing Gilbert and Rock posing together for a photo, the dying comedian poignantly asked, "Which is the worst crime? Chris Rock being physically assaulted, or Chris Rock telling a joke?"