Admittedly, “The Aristocrats” wasn’t for everyone. The unrated 2005 documentary focused on a joke that wasn’t particularly funny and was so raunchy that one movie theater chain refused to show it.
Enjoying a second life on DVD, “The Aristocrats” is finding new fans and giving a boost to some of the comedians featured in the film.
About 100 comics were involved in the telling of the joke, including such famous names as the Smothers Brothers, Martin Mull, George Carlin and Drew Carey. But the best version, agree many fans, critics and comedians, was the one told by Gilbert Gottfried.
“I liked the Gilbert Gottfried version. And I say that with no hidden agenda,” the man himself says by phone from Toronto. In a recording studio to tape his voiceover work for the PBS series “Cyberchase,” Gottfried conducts an interview in snatches between takes. On the phone, his voice is calm and quiet, nothing like the raspy screeching he’s known for on stage.
Gottfried uses his stage voice as the robotic bird Digit on “Cyberchase,” a familiar noise to anyone who’s heard him as the Aflac duck on television or as the parrot Iago in the Disney movie “Aladdin.” He also appeared as the voice of a penguin in “Farce of the Penguins,” a parody of the Oscar-winning film “March of the Penguins.”
“I’ve always said my career’s for the birds,” Gottfried says. “Maybe I’ll branch out to turtles or centipedes.”
Now 52, a newlywed and a new father, Gottfried has been a standup comic since he was 15. He began as an impressionist: Boris Karloff, Humphrey Bogart, Groucho Marx and James Mason were part of his repertoire. “I still pull them out sometime,” he says.
Gottfried has his fans — and several Web sites dedicated to him — but has never managed to achieve breakout status. He joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1980, after the departure of the original cast, but that entire season has been written off as largely forgettable except for the appearance of Eddie Murphy.
“‘Saturday Night Live’ was a creepy time period because it was right after the original cast left and I kind of think of our cast like the sacrificial lambs,” says Gilbert, who shared the stage with Tim Kazurinsky, Charles Rocket, Joe Piscopo and Gail Matthius and left at the season’s end. “Of course, now the cast changes between commercial breaks. Back then, it was like they were gunning against the show from before it went on the air, like ‘How dare they?’ When we did go on, we did suck, but that’s a whole other story.”
In the years since, Gottfried has appeared in a string of TV shows and movies, including a scene-stealing turn opposite Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop II” in 1987, and made regular visits to Howard Stern’s radio show. He also was the voice of a talking smoke alarm in a 1991 fire safety video.
“Look at everything I’ve done in my career and do the opposite,” is the advice Gottfried says he would give to any up-and-coming comedian wanting any.
Gottfried’s ability to tell a joke, and tell a joke well, has kept him busy for decades. His appearance in “The Aristocrats” also has people giving him a second look.
“I believe that the movie exposed him to a lot of people and that a lot of people really enjoyed him in the movie,” says Paul Provenza, who directed “The Aristocrats.” “They used to just think he was an annoying pain in the ass. I’ve had a lot of people say that it really turned them around on Gilbert, that they used to just think he was this annoying voice, but now they get him. They think he’s really funny.”
Provenza has known Gottfried since the late 1970s. He says comedians can “understand why they [other comedians] are funny, but nobody can really explain Gilbert. There’s no real formula to what Gilbert does. It’s what Gilbert is.”
Of course, Gottfried still has his detractors. Perhaps turned off by his stage persona, in which Gottfried adds a squinty barely there look to his grating screech, members of the dating service JDate in 2006 voted Gottfried the worst Valentine’s Day date.
That’s not an honor, but at least Gottfried is visible enough now to be included in such polls. Gottfried appears to relish criticism. He says his favorite review was from a critic who wrote in Variety that “Gilbert Gottfried is the most unpleasant thing to happen to show business since the snuff film.”
“That one I kind of enjoyed,” Gottfried says.
“The Aristocrats” was made on a non-existent budget using a digital video camera. Provenza, also a standup comic, and magician Penn Jillette, who served as executive producer, emptied their address books to fill the movie with their friends and acquaintances. Taping began in early 2001.
“The Aristocrats” made $6.1 million at the box office, according to the movie tracking Web site Rotten Tomatoes, which also estimates it took in $13.2 million from video rentals in just nine weeks’ time. The movie might have done more at the box office, but AMC Theatres banned the film from appearing on any of its 3,500 screens.
Provenza, who declines to say which of his friends told the joke best, will say that “Gilbert’s is one of the best.”
More than 200 people reviewed the movie on Amazon.com, giving “The Aristocrats” an average of three-and-a-half stars out of five. Some said the reason they sought the movie out was because of Gottfried’s performance.
Comedian Steven Wright, who also appears in the film, says Gottfried told the joke the best. “He’s one of my favorite comedians. He’s so hilarious and different.”
Gottfried appears twice on the DVD. He is shown telling the joke sitting at a table in a segment included in the disc’s extras. But the highlight is him telling the bit during a Friar’s Club roast of Hugh Hefner.
Gottfried launched into the joke after the audience reacted poorly to his quip about the events of Sept. 11. It was 18 days after. Gottfried joked that he couldn’t get a direct flight from New York to Los Angeles: “I had to make a stop at the Empire State Building.”
“You could hear chairs screech back and someone yelled out, ‘Too soon!’ I thought that meant I didn’t take a long enough pause between the setup and the joke.”
Gottfried says he decided “to get twice as offensive” and tell his version of the aristocrats joke. The joke was fresh on his mind; he’d already taped the bit for “The Aristocrats.”
“It’s not a good joke,” says Bob Saget, who’s also in the movie. Saget starred in the 1980s sitcom “Full House” and also served as the original host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” “It’s just about being offensive to be offensive.”
Forced to choose who tells the joke the best, Saget says it’s either Paul Reiser or Gottfried.
“Gilbert’s was just incredibly strong,” Saget says. “He just blew the place up.”
The irony in Gottfried receiving these accolades for telling the joke is that he isn’t known for dirty jokes.
“The funny thing is, in my regular standup I work clean,” he says.
“He doesn’t work raunchy at all,” Provenza says. “He can if he wants to, but telling dirty jokes is not really what he does. That’s just the thing he’s really good at.”
Riding the wave of interest in “The Aristocrats,” Gottfried released his first DVD at the end of 2005. “Gilbert Gottfried Dirty Jokes” is 50 minutes of Gottfried telling just that. He also released a CD that contains the same material.
“I guess the time was right because of ‘The Aristocrats’ and because I didn’t feel like using up all my material on the DVD, so I decided to do this one,” he says.
Gottfried tells yet another version of the aristocrats joke on his own DVD.
“I figured at this point it would almost be glaring if I didn’t,” he says. “This one, I tried to even outdo the one I did on the film. I felt proud of myself because a few people said their only complaint with the joke was it was too long and too disgusting, so I thought I accomplished something.”
Gottfried, who tends to dislike contemplative questions, deflects one about the future of his career.
“I really don’t know,” he says. “If I keep working, I’ll be amazed.”