Never attended Hebrew school. Never had a bar mitzvah. Never fasted for a High Holiday. And if his mother ever made matzoh ball soup, it was probably the instant kind from a box.
“With all that (said), if they rounded up all the Jews again, I’d be pushed in, too,” Gilbert Gottfried said. “I know I’d be shoved into the train cars and gassed with the others.”
He may not be practicing, but the cranky-voiced comedian fully embraces his Jewish identity. Audiences can expect to see it on full display when Gottfried returns to Philadelphia. He’ll be performing 21+ stand-up at Helium Comedy Club at 8 p.m. on Jan. 9 and at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Jan. 10 and Jan. 11. Gottfried will also be in the area on Feb. 8 to perform at GameChangerWorld PA in Allentown.
Gottfried, 64, made a name for himself for his memorable appearances on late-night TV, his role in the 1990 film “Problem Child” and for voicing Iago the parrot in Disney’s animated “Aladdin.”
Gottfried has kept an open mind when it comes to his career, which has led him to do anything from reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” for a CollegeHumor sketch to playing a TV reporter in “Sharknado” 4, 5 and 6. He aims to put himself out there and see what comes his way, admitting he’s never had a good sense for preparing for the long term.
“I’ve been lucky that like a Jerry Lewis movie, stuff happens to me sometimes,” Gottfried said. “Every now and then, I’ll try something, other times stuff just happens.
“It’s funny, because I get really neurotic about traveling and working and being very busy, and then I think my problem is that I’m in demand. I’m like someone who has a lemonade stand going, ‘Oh dammit. People are buying too much lemonade from me.’”
Long before the fame, Gottfried was a 15-year-old performing stand-up at any open mic he could in New York City, “and I don’t think my material has grown since then.” Comedy for Gottfried wasn’t a want, but a need.
“When I first started doing it, it was like I was addicted to it. There could be a major snowstorm or earthquake going on, and I’d have to go to the comedy clubs.”
His first paying gig was at a cafe in the basement of a church. He got $7, but a return appearance a few months later only netted him $5.
Was it weird for a Jew to perform at a church?
“Yeah, but it’s weird doing anything in this business. Sometimes when I’m up on stage, all of a sudden my brain clicks on and I go, ‘Boy, this is pretty ridiculous what I’m doing for a living.’”
While his Jewish identity is brought up in jokes on stage, for Gottfried, his Jewish inheritance is more about the neuroses and attitudes as opposed to the cultural aspects — although there is one Jewish-related quirk he inherited from his upbringing.
Gottfried recalls how as a kid he would watch TV with his father, who would point out who was and wasn’t Jewish in the closing credits. If a celebrity had a Jewish relative, converted to Judaism or was rumored to be Jewish but wasn’t, you can bet Gottfried knows about it. It’s a conversation topic that pops up frequently on his podcast, “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast.”
“This is where my Jewish training comes in,” Gottfried said. “I don’t know what the holidays are about. I don’t know most of the legends, but I can find out who’s Jewish.”
A Jewish tradition Gottfried has taken part in is the time-honored art of playing Adolf Hitler. Last May, Gottfried played the fuhrer in “Historical Roasts” with Jeff Ross on Netflix. This was actually the second time Gottfried has played Hitler, the first being in the 1991 B-horror comedy “Highway to Hell.”
“That was a lot of fun,” Gottfried said on playing Hitler. “There was ‘The Great Dictator’ where Charlie Chaplin was Hitler, but even more important to me was The Three Stooges did two shorts where Moe was Hitler. Aside from being a Stooges fan, I really like the idea of making Hitler into a total joke, and it was a more important film than you realize. You’re taking someone who is like this God figure and making them look ridiculous. In that way, comedy can be strong.”
When discussing Jews and comedy, Gottfried noted the relation with the word Jew itself. He said other identities like Italian or Irish don’t carry the same negative connotation as calling someone a Jew. It’s something that’s always confused him.
“It’s like the one word that can sound like an insult at any point. You’d never say, ‘Oh, you’re Roman.’ I guess it’s from the use of persecution where they would just be looked upon as so horrible, they still get blamed for things, and it became like a cuss word. So when I hear someone say the word Jew, even when they’re not putting them down, it sounds like, ‘Ooo, what do they mean by that?’”
So is using the word Jew in your comedy a way to reclaim it?
“I’d like to say yes, but it sounds a little too deep and too thought-out for me,” Gottfried said, laughing.
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