Neil Berkeley’s “Gilbert” will catch even the comedian’s biggest fans by surprise.
The documentary focuses on Gilbert Gottfried, the screechy comic we’ve been watching, and hearing, for the past 40 years. Turns out he’s a devoted husband whose wife adores him despite him occasionally telling her to go f*** herself.
It’s in jest, of course. And she laughs at the line every time.
Capturing that unusual bond proved crucial to the film, according to Berkeley.
“We wanted to give you an idea that he’s in a relationship, the fears that come along with it and give you a good sense of what [his wife’s] personality is like,” Berkeley says.
The early reactions he’s heard from audiences tell him he stuck the narrative landing.
“People come up to me and say, ‘I get it. They’re two puzzle pieces that fit perfectly together,’” the director says. “Others are envious of how much they laugh together… that’s something I really want to come across.”
“Gilbert” looks at the breadth of the 62-year-old comic’s mercurial career. Stand-up. TV and movie roles. The voice of the parrot in Disney’s “Aladdin.” And appearances across the pop culture landscape, from “Hollywood Squares” to “The Apprentice.”
He’s a niggardly workaholic, a man who saves hotel toiletries and lives an amazingly frugal existence. He also lights up when his young children enter the room. The film’s sequences featuring Papa Gilbert will make audiences grin.
It’s a fascinating look at an unconventional comic. Gottfried’s vocal patterns may drive some to distraction, but his sharp wit has kept him relevant for decades.
“Gilbert” also reminds us that angering the PC police doesn’t mean one’s career is over. Six years ago Gilbert fired off some off-color tweets following a tsunami which killed thousands in Japan.
“Japan is really advanced. They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them,” Gottfried wrote in one Tweet. “What do the Japanese have in common with @howardstern? They’re both radio active,” he said in another Tweet.
Aflac canned him as the voice of the company’s duck mascot, a gig he had held for more than a decade. That wasn’t the comedian’s only concern. Would his career wilt like Michael Richards’ did years earlier? The “Seinfeld” alum hurled the “n-word” at comedy club patrons in 2006, an act that nearly ended his career.
The documentary shows how the controversy didn’t damage Gottfried’s livelihood as expected.
“He’s still selling out clubs. He’s more in demand than ever,” Berkeley says. It’s a lesson for other entertainers cowed by political correctness.
“Don’t let fear of pissing off some giant corporation make you not behave as the artist you are. That’s the wonderful takeaway. His life didn’t end,” he says.
“We don’t have to be so scared. He’s been around 45 years and doses what he wants and only gets more successful,” he says. “He’s proof that you can stick to your guns and be what you want to be.”
Berkeley says making a film about Gottfried was like capturing “Don Rickles in his prime.”
Getting it all on film wasn’t easy, though. He had a connection to the comedian’s wife, Dara Gottfried, and from there he slowly integrated himself into the comic’s life. Moment by moment he coaxed the shy comic to let his guard down.
“I had a camera in my hand when I started getting to know him,” he says. “I met his kids for the first time with a camera in hand … when you watch the movie you’re learning about him as I learned about him.”
That meant making some sacrifices along the way.
“I literally just packed up and moved to New York and lived on my friends couch for seven months to make the movie,” he says.
Berkeley shot nearly 400 hours for the film, which runs a tidy 94 minutes. He says the home video release will feature 30 additional minutes. Gottfried is still protesting the film in media interviews, saying he didn’t want to be a part of the production then … or now.
Berkeley respectfully disagrees.
“I think, yes as much as he does that shtick that it was hell to watch the movie … I think he’s definitely thrilled that people have had a chance to meet his sisters, his mother and father,” he says. “When you’re around for 45 years part of you has to want people to look around at what you’ve done.”
And, toward the end of production, the comedian would call Berkeley to help him add new personal information for the project. The veteran documentary filmmaker understands how subjects eventually warm up to the process.
“It becomes therapeutic,” he says.