Gilbert Gottfried possessed one of the most famous voices in modern American entertainment: screechy, delightedly abrasive, unmistakably New York. The voice was his professional signature and disembodied calling card.
But that was not exactly how he spoke behind the scenes.
Gottfried, who died Tuesday after a long illness, reportedly exaggerated his vocal style to make people laugh. The radio shock jock Howard Stern once played a clip of a voicemail message from Gottfried. The voice on the line is virtually unrecognizable.
He was “much calmer and more soft-spoken in person than onstage,” New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff wrote in an illuminating 2013 profile. The headline: “Vulgarity’s Abrasive Master, but Not at Home.”
“I’ve been doing it for such a long time, that one day you wake up and you go, Oh, this is what your delivery is,” Gottfried told the Miami New Times in 2017. “It’s like going up to someone walking down the street and asking, ‘How did you develop that walk?’”
If you grew up on Disney’s animated version of “Aladdin,” the truth about Gottfried’s trademark squawk might come as a surprise. But by all accounts, Gottfried was a performer whose caustic persona concealed an inner core of sweetness.
Yes, Gottfried could be gleefully offensive. He was a button-pushing “comedian’s comedian” and a lifelong provocateur. He tossed off one-liners about national tragedies and other seemingly out-of-bounds topics with reckless abandon.
But the tributes that poured in Tuesday afternoon were testaments to a dimension of his personality that might have been hidden from the general public or obscured by his zeal for off-color social commentary.
Frank Santopadre, co-host of Gottfried’s podcast, said in a statement that Gottfried could be “brash, shocking and frequently offensive, but the man behind the jokes was anything but.”
“Those who loved and him were fortunate enough to share his orbit knew a person who was sweet, sensitive, surprisingly shy and filled with a childlike sense of playfulness and wonder,” Santopadre added. (Itzkoff, too, observed Gottfried’s “fundamental shyness.”)
The man who courted controversy in public sometimes receded in private. Gottfried was loud-mouthed and foul-mouthed in equal measure when a microphone was in his hand — but he was “a softie on the inside,” Oscar-winning actor Marlee Matlin tweeted.
“It’s a funny thing because people will act strange if I don’t act the way they want me to act in person,” Gottfried told Time Out New York in 2014. But even though I think they’re crazy for thinking that way, I’m basically the same as those people.”
He went on to explain: “It’s like, I’ve never met Julia Roberts, but if I met her and she didn’t open her mouth really wide and start cackling and waving her hair around, I would think: Why is she acting so different now?”
The comedian’s death comes not long after the passing of his comedy peers Norm Macdonald and Bob Saget. The three men were on the same wavelength in at least one respect: subversive in their joke-telling, earnest in their personal lives.
Gottfried adored the Golden Age of Hollywood and classic film stars. He did impressions of Groucho Marx and Bela Lugosi long after the median American even recognized those names. But his throwback interests were a tell. How edgy was he, really?
The language of vintage Hollywood was how he once explained the truth about his real voice, in charmingly self-deprecating fashion. Time Out New York asked him if his shrill-voiced schtick got louder over time.
“Oh, yeah,” Gottfried replied. “In real life I sound like Bing Crosby!”