In memory of a great storyteller
What do you think of when you think of Gilbert Gottfried?
Is it his voice of Iago, the wisecracking parrot in Aladdin?
Is it his assortment of live action film and television roles, from Beverly Hills Cop II to the Problem Child movies?
Or is it that iconic voice, which came through in everything from his celebrity roast appearances to his time as the nasal-voiced Aflac duck?
The comic’s work is being remembered this week after his death on Tuesday, but for true Gilbert Gottfried fans, some of his best work happened on his podcast.
The Gilbert Gottfried Amazing Colossal Podcast started as on a lark, when Gilbert and his co-host, comedy writer Frank Santopadre, attempted to interview some of their favourite old Hollywood actors and comics and essentially collect their stories.
Their first episode didn’t work. Their first guest was 100 years old, and not coherent enough to carry a long conversation. The two hosts shrugged their shoulders, went for pizza, and figured it was all worth a shot.
Then they tried again, and slowly but surely history was reborn.
Gilbert and Frank made a comprehensive list of the classic Hollywood players that they wanted to come on the show. Instead of legends and household names, the two focused on comedians, character actors, writers, and others who could really tell their stories.
Over the past 8 years or so, the podcast recorded over 400 episodes. Some featured screen legends such as Dick Van Dyke and Alan Arkin, but most interviewed comedy writers and historians, television directors, and long-retired character actors.
Most guests may not have been household names, but they were the institutional memory for some of the greatest decades of film and television history. These were often the small players that worked alongside the biggest stars of all time, and could tell firsthand stories of their working relationships and friendships with people who had been gone for decades.
Gilbert used his podcast as a way of keeping those stories alive.
Some contained a great deal of innuendo about long dead stars, and many of those became a running gag for devout listeners. So too did Gilbert’s vocal impressions, many of them stellar, of forgotten character actors from long ago. His co-host would often ask guests if they remembered such-and-such actor before Gilbert treated them to an impression.
Yet today the podcast serves as a legitimate historical archive, even if many of the stories are by way of second degree. Those stories brought distant events and long-deceased characters back to life. They gave you a sense of who these people really were,
Gilbert even got the chance to share his own story, as the subject of a 2017 documentary. The film takes an honest look at a multi-dimensional performer. It helps preserve not only Gilbert’s story, but that of his sister, Arlene, a noted New York photographer who died not long after its release. Gilbert was proud to share his story, and guests often complimented the documentary while on his show.
When the podcast hosts took time to reflect on air, Frank often became emotional remembering an episode that they had done with married character actor couple Ron Liebman (aka Rachel’s father on Friends), and his wife Jessica Walter (aka Lucille Bluth), who have both since passed. The two delighted in 2 hours of sharing stories from a combined century in show business, and both loved playing games with the hosts.
Yet as Frank walked them to the elevator, Ron Liebman pulled him in close and begged him to never stop doing the podcast. He knew that the two were using these stories to preserve history, and keep it alive if only for a little bit longer.
That’s the power of storytelling. The stories may not always be yours, and they don’t always need to be current. Yet that’s why storytelling is one of our oldest human traditions – it keeps history alive if only for a little bit longer.
I was gutted when I heard of Gilbert’s sudden passing, and tried listening to an episode not long after but broke down quickly.
Yet the next day I re-downloaded an old favourite episode featuring a great comedy writer and raconteur, and spent my drives during the day just relishing in the power of those stories.
Goodnight Gilbert. Thanks for showing us all how it’s done.