Review: ‘Gilbert’

Hot Docs 2017

5 mins read

(USA, 96 min.)
Dir. Neil Berkeley
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)


Gilbert Gottfried has been compared to Lenny Bruce because like Lenny, he is a taboo-breaking, absurdity puncturing stand-up comic, whose most outrageous gags have landed him in deep shit. There was the 9/11 joke that prompted someone in the audience at a Friar’s Club Hugh Hefner roast to shout, “Too soon!” More recently his Japanese Tsunami tweets lost him a lucrative gig voicing the Aflac Insurance company duck mascot. After that catastrophe, his manager told him, “I don’t think you should be asking about pay rates anymore.”

As Berkeley’s doc points out, it’s incredible that Disney signed him up to voice the bird Iago in the Aladdin series. Gottfried’s numerous affronts to propriety include his gleeful version of the deliriously filthy and hilarious Aristocrats joke, which has its own doc.

Unlike Lenny, Gilbert is not a crusader for any cause. His persona is of an awkward child-man who delights in, to use a literary term, breaking decorum. At the same time, Gottfried’s straight-from-the-id dynamiting of propriety can skewer stupidity. And the guy does fund raising for benevolent institutions like St. Jude’s Hospital. When Stephen Colbert wanted to know about Gottfried’s interest in autism, the comic giggled that he knows everything about it from actress Jenny McCarthy, notorious for lobbying against vaccines for children on the grounds they bring on the condition.

With his trademark rasp and jester’s grin, Gottfried explained to Colbert that he didn’t vaccinate his own children. The good news, he continued, is that they’re not autistic. The bad news is that they both have polio. “There is no joke you wont tell,” Colbert cackled.

At the heart of this doc is Berkeley’s presentation of the comedian’s private life. It’s obvious that he adores the kids he made that joke about, and they adore him. And it’s clear that he has a beautiful link, partly based on shared humour, with his serenely attractive wife–even though they’re constantly telling each other to fuck off.

Dara gets Gilbert. She cracks up at outrages like his mad rant on Michael Douglas’ proclamation that he picked up cancer by going down on his wife. A small price to pay for licking Catherine Zeta-Jones’s private parts, Gottfried insists, and then relentlessly itemizes every hideous disease he would put up with for the privilege, including the worst possible case of muscular dystrophy, even if it was SO bad, Jerry Lewis popped out, squawking in Yiddish.

Comedy looks over tragedy’s shoulder, argues Gottfried who we see making people with sick children laugh. His wife tells him about how bad she feels about not being able to call her deceased mother. “You can call her,” he says. “She just won’t answer.” Dara laughs and tells her husband she feels better.

The R. Crumb of stand-up also has a lovingly protective relationship with an ill sister, who turns out to a photographer who documented their mother’s dying in brilliant, disturbing but tragically beautiful images.

I love this mood-swinging doc for the love and respect it offers to people who defy categories and share their unique, liberating energy with the world. And where else will you see a maniacal comic do a perfect impression of 50’s and 60’s character actor John McGiver for a little boy who has no idea what Gottfried is talking about?

Gilbert screens:
-Monday, May 1 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema at 9:30 PM
-Tuesday, May 2 at Hart House at 12: 45 PM
-Sunday, May 7 at Hart House at 9:00 PM

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