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On March 12, one day after a devastating tsunami struck Japan, comedian Gilbert Gottfried tweeted: "I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, '[There will] be another one floating [by] any minute now.' "
The next day, Gottfried was at it again. "Japan is really advanced," the 56-year-old tweeted. "They don't go to the beach. The beach comes to them."
The world was outraged, and even though Gottfried removed his tweets and apologized, he was dropped as the spokesman for Aflac after 11 lucrative years.
But were these tasteless jokes really a surprise?
"It's like no one had ever heard of 'The Aristocrats,' " said Gottfried, referring to his infamous version of the dirty joke in a 2005 film. "It's like eating cornflakes every day, and one day you eat cornflakes, and all hell breaks loose."
Gottfried, who performs four stand-up shows at Wiseguys West Valley City this weekend, acknowledged during a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune that the jokes might have been made too soon. But in a pleasant, low-key voice nothing like his screechy onstage persona he said he will continue to write and perform jokes inspired by today's headlines. (Last month, he tweeted, "I just proposed to #CaseyAnthony. I figure she knows how to keep kids quiet.")
"Some people are still amazed I'm on Twitter," he said.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Gottfried knew at a young age he wanted to be a performer, even imitating the people he would see on TV.
"It was either this or being a serial killer," he joked. He had no idea that once he became famous, thousands of people would imitate him.
Gottfried received his big break when he was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" for the 1980-81 season. Soon after, his squinting eyes and caustic tone made him a regular guest at celebrity roasts and on "Hollywood Squares."
"My whole delivery it seems like you wake up one day and you start doing it," he said. "It's just something that develops, like just the way people hold a cup of coffee."
His unique onstage persona led him to be cast as the wise-cracking macaw Iago in the movie "Aladdin," and later as the duck in omnipresent Aflac commercials. He is a frequent guest in film and TV projects, but he is that rare comic who is famous and instantly recognizable despite the lack of a career-making role.
He recently published a memoir, Rubber Balls and Liquor, that traces his career missteps in detail, including the Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner three weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the time, Gottfried joked that he had intended to catch a plane but couldn't get a direct flight because "they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first."
But is that joke, and others like it, inappropriate so soon after such an emotional event? Or should it be accepted from a "shock comic"? Can that kind of humor bring people through hard times?
Local comic Spencer King opened for Gottfried in Portland, Ore., at the end of June and had an opinion on Gottfried's enduring popularity.
"He's relevant because he makes himself relevant," King said. "When he's not politically correct, he uses it as a tool to point out hypocrisy."
Wiseguys' owner and comic Keith Stubbs opened for Gottfried in the early 1990s and said Gottfried is one of his favorite comics "of all time."
He is "as unique a comic as you'll ever see," Stubbs said.
After all, who but Gottfried could tweet to actor and fellow comedian Tracy Morgan (who recently was castigated for an anti-gay rant): "@RealTracyMorgan You must apologize for your tasteless, insensitive "jokes." Feel free to use any one of my apologies. Just insert [your] name."
It's the Aristocrat!Gilbert Gottfried performs.When • Tonight and Saturday, Aug. 6, at 7:30 and 10Where • Wiseguys West Valley City, 2194 W. 3500 South, West Valley CityTickets • $20 at wiseguyscomedy.com