Penn Jillette: Gilbert Gottfried Was a Comic Genius, But He Was Also So Much More

Longtime comedic peer and best friend shares his thoughts on Gilbert Gottfried’s death in Los Angeles magazine’s special guest column.

Gilbert Gottfried was a wonderful father, a wonderful husband. He was kind, and unlike his stage persona, gentle and sweet. He was my friend for over thirty years. I loved Gilbert dearly.

Who cares?  There are a lot of wonderful fathers, husbands, and friends.  Maybe not enough people are kind and gentle, but a lot of people are. Who cares who I love? I love lots of people.

Gilbert Gottfried was funny — the funniest I’ve ever seen, the funniest I’ve ever heard about. If you’ve seen the Roseanne Roast (go watch it now), you’ll see funny like you can’t believe.

So what?  A lot of people are funny. A lot of people can make you helpless with laughter. A lot of people can shock you, surprise you, and make you cry with laughter. There’s a lot of great comedians. There always have been.

I lost a friend when Gilbert died, but the world lost a genius. The world lost someone who has never existed before and will never exist again. Yeah, that’s true for all of us, but . . . it also kind of isn’t. Not like it’s true of Gilbert. Everyone is talking about how wonderful, funny, and brave he was, but Gilbert was way more than that.

I first saw Gilbert when we were both teenagers. I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet him then, but I saw him work and that changed my life and my career.  It was my first trip to NYC. I was from a small town and wanted to go to a New York comedy club. I got in late, but I was lucky enough to see Gilbert, who went on last. He was improvising on every act that had come before him. He was doing jokes about jokes. Maybe they weren’t even jokes. I didn’t know what he was doing, but I knew it was funny and I knew I’d never seen anything like it. Because I was a rube, I thought maybe all NYC comics were like this. Over the next half century, I found out that what I had seen really was unique. I had been in the same room with a real genius, live. Gilbert was my age, only eighteen years old, and he was changing the world.

What Gilbert did on stage live cannot be described or conveyed. Film and video show a brilliant performer and a great comedian, but they don’t show what changed everyone who saw his live performances. He could do everything. He could effortlessly and without a turn signal move from classic Borscht Belt comedy and impressions to a kind of improvisation, sound, and rhythm that didn’t exist anywhere else. Gilbert was perfectly skilled in all the basics of comedy. Picasso could draw. Miles Davis could play trumpet. Bob Dylan can sing, but Gilbert, Pablo, Miles, and Bob went beyond the skills their peers shared and took the world somewhere else. They made us feel things in their arts that no one could describe.

James Brown discovered that every musical instrument, including the voice, could be percussion. James Brown took music somewhere else. Gilbert showed us levels of comedy that no one else understood. He explored the rhythms and sounds of comedy. It was funk, it was cubism, it was bebop, it was poetry. You can watch a great comic work and diagram their comedy the way people parse sentences. You know what parts are character, what parts are timing, where the ideas come in, where the change ups are, where the turns are, where the jokes are. But we haven’t caught up with Gilbert. He defied analysis. I didn’t see Gilbert’s live shows enough, but I did see a lot of them. And there were moments in his shows when I’d look around and see the entire audience laughing, and no one in the room knew what they were laughing at. None of us had any idea. He was talking about Ben Gazzara, or the Pope, and just yelling the word “wheat.” What kind of bread did the Pope like?  “Wheat.”

There is nothing funny in what I just wrote, but Gilbert could kill an audience with it. He was doing something else. He learned, sensed, and felt things about comedy that no one else knew or felt. Comedy has learned from Gilbert over the years. He changed comedy. He changed our culture.

Gilbert was sick for a while before he died, and towards the end we were grieving together about our mutual friend Bob Saget. Gilbert joked that Saget got “six days” of press for dying. For six days the world cared that Saget had died. Gilbert predicted that his own death would get about three days. Then he speculated that if he and I went on SNL and he shot me in the head live on stage and then killed himself, we might could stretch that to a couple weeks, but that was the best we could ever do. He went on and on describing the scene and the aftermath. Man, even though he was sick, and I was so sad, he got me laughing.

I don’t know how long before the news cycle will move on from my friend Gilbert, but comedy is forever changed by his genius.

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