'Gilbert': A fresh, intimate look at foul-mouthed comedian Gilbert Gottfried

Over the last few decades, foul-mouthed comedian Gilbert Gottfried has made abrasiveness an art form. But while we know him as Iago in Disney’s Aladdin, the Aflac duck, or the guy with the dirtiest “The Aristocrats” joke ever told, to his wife and two small children, he’s mostly just a loving husband and dad.

That Gottfried even has a family is a little surprising. He is, after all, one of the bluest comedians in the game, and has historically been reserved about his private life. Director Neil Berkeley, however, pushes Gottfried’s brash public persona briefly to the side for a closer look at the man behind it with his latest documentary, Gilbert.

The concept that a comedian is vastly different onstage and off is not new. Comedians often lead different lives off stage than their acts may suggest, and many use the release of comedy to process difficulties they have faced in their own lives. But while Gilbert may not break ground with its angle, its contemplative take on what separates Gottfried as a performer from Gottfried as a person is interesting enough to drive the film, even if you may not particularly like his stand-up.

Gottfried the man is a shy, endearingly awkward family man. He dotes on wife Dara in his own lovingly profane way. He takes daughter Lily, 10, and son Max, 8 out on the town in their native New York. He visits sisters Karen and Arlene, the latter an accomplished photographer who, in the film, is battling cancer. She died in August.

Gottfried’s love of family is highlighted through old home movies; footage shows the Gottfrieds eating together, or a young Gilbert cracking jokes for his sisters and loving, late mother and grandmother. Gottfried’s father died long before Gilbert became a famous comedian, but the two had a tumultuous relationship, which Gilbert suggests could be one of the roots of Gottfried’s success.

Pretty touching stuff from a guy who is known for losing his job as a talking duck for making some ill-timed Twitter jokes about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Even Gilbert Gottfried, it turns out, contains multitudes.

Among the comedian’s eccentricities — and there are many — is his legendary cheapness. Berkeley follows Gottfried as he takes Megabuses to his own shows, where he swipes every free soda and snack in the venues’ greenrooms before returning to his hotel. There, he does the same, taking shampoos, deodorants, razors, and whatever else they’ll give him. He’s been doing it for years. Their home is stocked with giant bins of single-serving freebies Gottfried obtained, some of which date back to the days of Pan American World Airways, which ceased operations in 1991.

Berkeley uses a slew of other well-known comedians and actors — Dave Attell, Susie Essman, Bill Burr, Whoopi Goldberg, Joe Piscopo — to fill out the sections on the comic’s professional life, which along with plenty of archive footage, establishes Gottfried as a so-called comic’s comic. Gottfried works blue, but it isn’t for cheap laughs — it’s a carefully considered art.

For the most part, anyway. The doc does dive into a couple of well-known professional snafus in Gottfried’s career, like his “too soon” 9/11 joke at the Roast of Hugh Hefner or Gottfried’s 2011 Aflac scandal, which Gottfried explains was devastating on a personal and professional level. At one point, an agent told the comic after the incident that he shouldn’t ask what the pay is for gigs, and instead should just take the jobs because of how rare they became for a while.

Despite those dark spots, Gilbert is mostly an uplifting watch that balances Gottfried’s profane persona with his privately loving, shy nature for a more complete picture of Gottfried as a person rather than as a character. It is, in some spots, an emotional film thanks to the intimacy it shows between Gottfried and his family, but avoids being too saccharine. Thankfully, the comedian’s foul mouth probably helps the film from going too far into weepy territory.

That, after all, is how we know him: gravelly voiced and cursing, making jokes far too soon to far too much of his own delight. Now, though, Gilbert shows us how big the heart behind the swearing is, and it’s tough to help but love him for it.

MOVIES

Gilbert

    • Directed by Neil Berkeley. With Gilbert Gottfried, Dara Gottfried, Dave Attell, Whoopi Goldberg, Susie Essman. Distributed by Submarine.

    • Parents guide: Not rated.

    • Run time: 1 hour, 36 mins.

    • Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse