“Gilbert is a child and a demon at the same time.”
Peering through an apartment building’s front door, looking for a note his father left half a century ago, he looks like a child standing on his toes looking through a toy store window at the bike he’s always wanted. Of course, Gilbert Gottfried stands at 5’5″ so looking through any tall window make him look like a kid waiting for the bus, especially while sporting a backpack.
Beside him is his sister, Arlene. They’re going around New York recapturing memories of their childhood. Through director Neil Berkeley’s home video-esque lens, time feels it’s a freeze frame from their past. Everything leading up to this moment in the definitive Gottfried documentary has perfectly captured the essence of Gilbert and his surroundings.
I hesitate to say the definitive Gilbert Gottfried documentary because as much as it is about the famed comedian, it is as much a study of his family. In turn, the depths of Gottfried are revealed through interviews with his sister and home video reflections with his mother and more.
It’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster documentary for the best. Berkeley takes clips from home videos showing the shy Gilbert, wild TV appearances that have created the mythos of Gottfried, celebrity interviews to show the Gilbert no one sees, and his own camera to latch on to a side of Gilbert that’s never been before seen.
Of course, the Frankenstein analogy comes because Gottfried describes himself as that monster speaking of how he feels as a father, afraid he’s going to mess up like the flower scene in the 1931 Frankenstein where the monster throws Maria into the lake thinking she’ll float.
Berkeley even starts his doc with a wide shot that shows Gottfried walking past his Frankenstein artwork, getting ready for the day in his bathrobe before his two kids head to school. It’s a life Gottfried says he never expected would be his. A past version of himself would be shocked he’s where he is today, a family man at 62 years old married to the love his life, Dara.
If you weren’t familiar with Gottfried’s act and watched this film, it’d seem like the role he was meant to play. There are no jokes about a natural disaster and “The Aristocrats” certainly aren’t around to entertain.
Still, after living a life as a standup notorious for his antics with the most distinguishable voice like the world’s most entertaining squeaking door, it’s hard to accept this is his life now. Through Berkeley’s laser focus on his subject that’s avoided personal interviews for decades, it becomes much clearer everything you’ve seen and heard about Gottfried is an act, just like the fishbowl magician from The Prestige.
Behind the curtain, Gottfried has his own quirks like anyone else and he’s much calmer and restrained. He’s a hoarder that has tubs of hotel complementary soaps, soaks his socks in hotel sinks, and still takes the bus for shows.
Something should be said about how Berkeley was able to pull that out of Gottfried, the first interviewer to get Gottfried to open up about his family. Call it timing or luck, it’s incredibly revelatory. He even pulls from Gottfried’s sister, holding and holding until the right moment to reveal her struggles that also reflect the caring brother and son Gottfried has been.
No comedy documentary would be complete without some celebrity appearances (especially considering Gottfried’s podcast with guests like Richard Kind and Dick van Dyke), though. The moments with his comic counterparts are even more revealing, not just of Gottfried but the industry at large.
Larger than life personalities like Bill Burr or Jeff are shown to be laid back and subdued (who knew they were humans like us?!) than their talk show appearances and TV specials show. As much as Gilbert works as a study of a man too few people — including himself — know, it also works as a wonderful glimpse of the industry at large. When someone goes off the rails like Gottfried has been known for and gotten in trouble for in the past, it’s out of a need to diffuse the situation by making a joke.
Showing the man behind the curtain doesn’t make that any less effective, as Gottfried said he fears, it has only made a greater appreciation for his art knowing he’s that much different off stage.