Gilbert Gottfried might not be a human being. He might actually be a cat in a human being costume. About forty minutes into “Gilbert,” Neil Berkeley’s incongruously warm and fuzzy doc about the comic legend’s life and times, Gilbert packs a couple suitcases for a cross-country tour. He readies to leave the apartment he and his wife Dara Gottfried, live in, and as he makes for the door she makes a request. “Hug?” She wraps her arms around him. He drapes a single arm around her shoulder, then begins insistently poking her. Before long his arms stretch outward, stiff like airplane wings, as if he’s trying to free himself without giving the impression of wanting to go. Dara holds tight. “Happy anniversary!” she says. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he replies.
His reticence and neuroses suggest a feline soul. But the truth is that Gottfried’s really a unicorn, as Anthony Jeselnik puts it in a talking head interview later on in the film. Everyone loves the guy, a rarity in the comedy field. When you’re a comedian, and you’re almost universally beloved by your peers, you aren’t doing something right, per se; you’re just doing something different. In “Gilbert,” Berkeley wants to show audiences what separates Gottfried from other comedians, the qualities that make Gottfried Gottfried and distinguish him from comedians of generations both before and beyond his own. Is it his restraint? Is it his sense of timing? Is it his ever-evolving list of stage materials? Is it his stature? Is it his background? His mythical cheapness? Did he suffer damages that outweigh the worst life scars his fellow comics wear on their sleeves?
“Gilbert” doesn’t totally answer these questions, any of them, at least not until Berkeley steers us toward the film’s ending and shows us a clip of Gottfried podcasting with Richard Kind, who singles out Gottfried’s chief identifying characteristic as his defiance. Most comics might bail out if they’re on stage and their jokes meet with silence, or maybe derision. They’ll take the response personally and shut down. Gottfried, he’ll take the response personally, too, but he’ll also turn it back on the crowd. It isn’t his fault that they’re not laughing. It’s theirs. Kind describes Gottfried as “defiant.” “Intransigent” is a better fit, and that’s the most impressive detail of Berkeley’s film: He gives us a panorama of Gottfried, measures his circumference so that we’re able to appreciate and accept the reverence shown him by the picture’s many participants.
Reverence is the emotion du jour in productions like “Gilbert,” of course, because who in their right mind invites their subjects antagonists to speak about them in what essentially amounts to a puff piece? But Berkeley has other ideas in mind than singing praise, even if plenty of praise is sung about his subject over the film’s hour and a half of running time. Yes, he plays all the hits, touching on basic background information, the seeds and roots of Gottfried’s upbringing and the basis of his persona; we learn about his sisters, Arlene and Karen, and their folks, Lily and Max, and the apartment they grew up in Brooklyn, and we’re told that his sense of humor derived from his grandmother. We see him later in life as his career took off in earnest, arcing from one success to another. We see him today, 62 years old, married, a father of two adorable children, et cetera, et cetera, roll credits.
But at each point of Gottfried’s life that we observe through Berkeley’s film, composed of a mix of home video footage and archival footage as well as his own, we see his bewilderment in sharp relief. “Gilbert” isn’t about a comedian, or comedy, as much as it’s about a man utterly perplexed at the shape of his life. If you know Gottfried by reputation only, you may puzzle at shots of him playing with his daughter and son, named for his late parents, especially when Berkeley cuts to a sequence of Gottfried on stage, performing a bit about Mackenzie Phillips. (You don’t need to be a calculus whiz to figure out where he ends up doing with that routine.) How can a person be as capable of fatherly love as he is of shocking people into fits of uncomfortable cathartic laughter? Consider, perhaps, Gottfried’s reaction to one of his fans, a World War II reenactor bedecked in a Nazi uniform. “I feel bad about the uniform,” the man tells him. Gottfried guffaws, hand to his gut. “Why? It’s not wrinkled.”
There’s nothing he won’t joke about, except for cancer. (Arlene, we learn as “Gilbert” closes in on its ending, was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2009. Gottfried might make her laugh, but he won’t make her laugh about her illness.) And sometimes, his refusal to bite his tongue gets him into trouble, as it did in 2011, when he Tweet-stormed a series of jokes about the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which cost him his gig as Aflac’s duck mascot. But “Gilbert” reminds us why humor matters, and where it’s often best applied: When we confront pain and tragedy, and sometimes even when we confront contentment. Gottfried can neither explain nor comprehend his good fortune. He can hardly even crack wise about it. Instead, he sits mystified, though maybe mystification suits him. Gottfried is a man of the world. He travels by bus, nicks hotel soaps and shampoos, hoards all of his old possessions, and makes no fuss about being in public, about being a regular guy who just happened to be an icon of his industry.
Success rolls off his back. You get the sense that he might enjoy it more if his parents were alive to enjoy it with him, and that longing infuses “Gilbert” with a core sweetness. Maybe Berkeley doesn’t arrive at any strict conclusions about Gottfried, comedy, or the entertainment biz (none, at least, that aren’t covered in other profile films like this one), but he lets us see Gottfried up close, inside and out, a Frankenstein’s monster loose in a world that’s seemingly been made for him by the love of his friends and family. It’s authoritative only to a point, but that doesn’t keep it from being utterly compelling all the same. [B+]