Gilbert Gottfried talks residuals, ‘Ren and Stimpy’ and forgetting his roles
Legendary comedian discusses upcoming Buffalo shows in exclusive interview
Gilbert Gottfried could have played an important role in your childhood.
But he probably won’t remember if you ask him.
Throughout his 30-plus-year career, the comedian lent his voice to films like “Aladdin,” cartoons like “The Fairly Odd Parents,” video games like “Kingdom Hearts” and over 160 other projects. While he doesn’t always recall each of his gigs, he still rakes in the residual checks for them –– even the ones worth $.01.
The stand-up legend’s voice is so recognizable that a phone call with him feels almost like talking to an impersonator. Still, his charisma makes him just as personable on the phone as he is during raunchy stand-up sets –– like during his November run at Helium Comedy Club downtown.
We caught up with everyone’s favorite cartoon bird(s) before his Buffalo appearance from Nov. 14-16, as he shared his favorite career memories, most memorable video shoutout requests and, of course, his brief stint on Nickelodeon’s “Ren and Stimpy” (a question we couldn’t avoid asking).
Our interview with Gottfried, lightly edited for style and length, follows below:
The Spectrum: You’ve supplied generations with incredible voice acting and I feel like those of us who are college-aged now got to experience some of your best work –– mainly “Aladdin,” “Cyberchase” and “The Fairly OddParents.” What’s your biggest takeaway from voice acting in cartoons?
Gottfried: I always like to do the cartoons. It’s certainly easy. You don’t have to memorize the script. And it brings a whole other generation of people to you. I’ve always said my career walks the tight rope in between early morning children’s programming and hardcore porn. Especially something like “Aladdin” that will live on. And “Cyberchase” is a cartoon, people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, my kids learn so much [from you].’ Wow, you’re the worst student in the world to learn from me.
TS: Some of your early cartoon work like “Ren and Stimpy” came at a really important time for the artform, with Nickelodeon branching out as it did. Did you see voice acting for Nick at the time as being a part of something special?
G: I didn’t really think about it. It was just a job. I remember I was Jerry the Belly Button Elf. And it was certainly a fun part to do. They let you just go crazy and encourage you to be as insane as possible. That was a fun one. People bring it up all the time.
TS: IMDB says you have 166 different roles listed. Have you ever heard your voice somewhere and realized you were in the film or show?
G: Where I forget is, sometimes I’ll get a residual check. And it’s funny because people say to me, ‘Oh the residuals you’re getting, that must be amazing.’ And sometimes my mailbox will be stuffed with residual checks and I’ll add them all up and it comes to $1.27 all together. I see stuff where I go, ‘I have no idea what that was.’ I have a check hanging in my bathroom –– I framed it –– for a penny. And I printed a little fortune from a Chinese restaurant that says ‘your talent will be recognized and suitably rewarded.’
TS: A lot of the stuff you’ve been a part of has gone on to be monumental. Did you realize that signing up for “Aladdin” would lead to your involvement in one of the most successful video games in “Kingdom Hearts,” or were you just going through the motions of Iago?
G: When you’re doing it, you think, ‘Oh, it’s a job and it’s fun to do.’ You’re not really thinking of it as something that so many people can see. I remember at the time I was recording ‘Aladdin’ somebody came up to me and we were talking. They said, ‘So what are you working on now,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, some stupid cartoon.’ That shows I didn’t know.
TS: As a comedian that got his start at age 15 in the New York scene, was making the cut for a box office smash with a legend like Robin Williams anything you would’ve expected?
G: I always felt like, going into the business, I had stupidity on my side. I was stupid to think I could have a career in show business. What are the odds when you think of it realistically? And then I’d have a bunch of failures along the way. Now when people say to me, ‘I’m an aspiring comic or actor,’ I’m like, ‘What are you out of your mind?’ Nothing is going to come out of this.
TS: You mentioned people coming up to you and recognizing you regularly for your voice. What’s the deepest cut out of your resume that a fan has recognized your voice as?
G: Every now and then, people will come up and remember stuff that I don’t remember. The funny thing is, when we were making “Problem Child,” nobody thought that was going to be anything. The studio itself was saying –– one guy, an executive at Universal –– ‘We need to treat this movie like a wounded soldier on the battlefield. We’ve got to run and save our own asses.’ And then when it came out, to the shock of everybody, it was a major hit. That's the one that always surprises me.
Another thing is, there are these things that I’ll do where I’ll have no idea what it’s for. I’ll go on a computer game and I’ll find out millions of people saw it.
TS: Now, outside of these roles and stand up, you’ve got a bit of a side hustle on Cameo. You charge a pretty penny for video shoutouts. What’s the strangest one you’ve gotten so far?
G: One was congratulating someone on their sex change operation. And I’m thinking, ‘That’s something that nobody at Hallmark ever had.’
TS: There’s some buzz building on your upcoming Helium stand-up shows here in Buffalo. You’ve been here before. Is it easy to work a Buffalo crowd?
G: I never really thought of where I’m going as making a difference. Sometimes I’ll have people make remarks, ‘I’m going to such and such a place.’ And I go, ‘Oh, God, do I know anything out there?’ That was the old days where you’d go to a certain town and people were naive and backwards or something, but nowadays everybody has the internet and everybody knows what everyone else knows.
Reilly Mullen contributed reporting to this story.