How Gilbert Gottfried’s Terrible Voice Became Comedy Gold

5 minute read

If some singers are said to possess the voice of an angel, then Gilbert Gottfried’s voice might be compared to that of a demon. Gottfried spoke in a hoarse yell that was shrill, abrasive, blustering, obscene; you could practically feel his spittle fill the air after each gasping breath, even if you were watching him on video.

But it was exactly this incomparable delivery that made fans all over the world want to hear Gottfried say, well, just about anything. And over and over again he complied: voicing children’s cartoons like the parrot Iago in Aladdin; reciting filthy material like Cardi B’s “WAP” and Go the F*ck to Sleep; pretending to be Breaking Bad’s Walter White or Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy. Gottfried’s voice, and his unimpeachable commitment to wielding it, made him a beloved and towering comedic presence for decades. He died on April 11 at 67 from muscular dystrophy.

Gottfried’s voice wasn’t a natural gift: it was a craft. Early videos of him from Saturday Night Live, where he was a cast member in 1980, reveal him speaking in a very different tone: smooth and mellifluous almost to the point of sliminess. This approach did not serve him well: he received poor reviews and was fired after 12 episodes. “I didn’t like the writers and the writers hated me,” he said on the Joe Rogan Experience last year.

So he decided instead to lean into his “pure stupidity,” as he would later describe himself, and build a persona based on irascible antagonism. Gottfried didn’t need a lot of onscreen time to leave a mark: in minutes-long scenes in Beverly Hills Cop II and Problem Child II, he lit up scenes in the guise of arrogant motormouths tangling with the film’s respective heroes. The latter scene, in particular, is sublime evidence of his full-throated commitment to repugnance: he lets out a blood-curdling scream as the mischievous third-grader Junior walks into the room, before yelping in his face, “Your dad is a moron!!!”

Gottfried’s voice was introduced to millions of children around the world via the ill-tempered parrot Iago in Aladdin. Animator Will Finn actually designed the parrot to resemble Gottfried and his exaggerated facial expressions. On Tuesday, the Broadway cast of Aladdin paid tribute to Gottfried, with current Iago portrayer Don Darryl Rivera saying onstage, “I think one of the main reasons this character is who he is, is because of what Gilbert brought to the animated film: his comedy and that voice. That voice that the New York Times once said sounded like a ‘busted Cuisinart.’”

As comedy moved from stand-up shows on VHS tapes to YouTube videos to podcasts over the years, Gottfried would continue to rely unflinchingly on that signature voice to maintain his outsized presence. Gottfried happily signed up for concept skits based solely on his voice: screaming through the most graphic scenes of 50 Shades of Grey, or hawking a new (faux) meditation app in which he asked listeners to imagine their first enema. He hosted a popular podcast, Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, about bygone eras of Hollywood and comedy.

He particularly thrived on Cameo, an app that lets people buy requested voice messages from celebrities. “This is Simba from The Lion King and I wanted to tell you about my latest business: This is Simba’s Sh*itpit,” he screamed in one, completely straight-faced. A group of YouTubers discovered that Gottfried was willing to read almost any script, even extremely raunchy ones that other celebrities had turned down, and seize them for his own. The results are far too disgusting and profane to print—and left the YouTubers in complete stitches.

Just like his good friend Bob Saget—another shock-driven comedian who also passed away this year—Gottfried was fearless in pushing the envelope toward tastelessness for the sake of humor and discomfort. When he hosted the Emmys in 1991, he shocked the audience with a bit about Pee-Wee Herman actor Paul Reuben’s recent arrest on an indecent exposure charge. The bit was cut from tape-delayed broadcasts for later time zones, and Gottfried says he was never invited back. In the fall of 2001, Gottfried was one of the first prominent comedians to tell a 9/11 joke, which was met with cries of “too soon” from his audience. “I thought he meant that I didn’t take a long enough pause between the setup and the punchline,” he later joked on Late Night with Seth Meyers.

While his joke offended many, Gottfried explained his thinking to Meyers, saying, “In situations like that, people need to laugh… They desperately want to laugh.” Gottfried wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but that was exactly the point: he hoped to leave a bad taste in your mouth—and to leave your sides hurting from laughter.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at