Regarded as a comedian’s comedian, Gilbert Gottfried kept his life-ending illness a secret from all but his closest friends. He did what he could to maintain his wild sense of humor even as death loomed. Fittingly, those occupying his inner circle strove to keep Gottfried, who died Tuesday at age 67, laughing.
Penn Jillette, who met Gottfried decades ago when they appeared together on the Howard Stern show ranked among the last to speak with the comedian. “Being in the room with Gilbert equaled being in the room with Miles Davis,” said Jillette of his late friend’s freewheeling, improvisational talents.
Jillette’s wife, Emily, was in the hospital room with Gottfried and his wife, Dara, and she held a phone to Gottfried’s ear so the two comedians could have one last conversation.
“Twenty minutes before he was officially dead, when they were going to pull the ventilator off of Gilbert, I spoke with him,” Jillette, choking up, told The Post. “I tried to make a few jokes. Then I fell apart and said, ‘I love you.’ That was it.”
Jillette, who is devoutly scientific, added, “I have no delusion that he understood me.”
Gottfried died from recurrent ventricular tachycardia, a heart disease brought on by myotonic dystrophy type 2.
Jillette told The Post that, even while fighting a fatal illness, the comedian — who, “when he wasn’t working, [could be] incredibly soft-spoken and gentle and not mean” — maintained his comedic edge.
“We always liked to do transgressive humor,” said Jillette. “If you thought Gilbert was not safe for work on TV or movies or Stern, you have no idea how far Gilbert can go.”
Sharing, he told The Post’s reporter, “would end my career and yours and his memory in one fell swoop.”
According to Frank Santopadre — a friend and co-host of “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing, Colossal Podcast! With Frank Santopadre” — less than a month before his passing, Gottfried was still as funny as ever.
“I don’t think he thought his days were winding down,” Santopadre told The Post. “I think he thought he would get better and soldier on. Two weeks ago, he performed in Toronto and it was business as usual. Then we did our podcast on March 31 and he delivered. No way did Gilbert act like a person who was slowing.”
Out of the studio, said Santopadre, “I would ask how he was feeling. Gilbert would say he was fine, dodge the question and move on. He’s a guy who wanted to be funny. Gilbert would call me on the phone, I’d answer and he would launch into impressions. I loved his Herve Villechaize as Al Pacino’s character in ‘Scent of a Woman,’ which he threw himself into, headlong, milking the French accent for all it was worth.”
Comedian Judy Gold did her best to keep her pal’s spirits up.
“In January, I texted Gilbert a totally inappropriate joke. He responded ‘LOL.’” But, she added, much as Gottfried tried to keep his maladies under wraps, sometimes it was impossible: “Right before Covid, I brought him onstage at Gotham Comedy Club and he needed my hand to get up there. If you knew Gilbert, you could tell he was sick.”
However, that did not stop him from joking about death. “Gilbert [performed at] a benefit for my kid’s school,” she recalled. “A woman had a stroke during Gilbert’s set and she died. We joked that it was sad, but, making it even sadder, the last thing she heard was Gilbert’s voice.”
When it came to dark humor, Jillette recalled, Gottfried did not cut himself very much slack. “He made a lot of jokes about dying. He had a defibrillator in his [chest]. If his heart went down, the defibrillator would kick him in the chest and it would be like getting kicked by a horse. He would say, ‘Horses hate me. They hate little Jews. They’re waiting on line to kick me in the chest. The horses have a newsletter about it.’”
Even medical staff got a taste of his comedic sensibility.
“Very close to the end, doctors wanted to see if there was brain damage,” said Jillette. “They asked him to do arithmetic to show he was lucid. Instead, he sang the theme song to ‘Car 54, Where are You?’”
He and Jillette even joked about his death notice.
“I called Gilbert on his 67th birthday and told him, ‘You can die now because the obituary would not say you died young,’” said Jillette.
Noting that the death of mutual friend Bob Saget was mourned but still provided comedic fodder, Jillette remembered discussing how Saget’s passing dominated the news cycle and how the stretch of tributes might look for Gottfried.
“He said he would like to beat Saget,” Jillette recalled. “Gilbert said that Saget got six days [of headlines] and he would get at least three. Gilbert won’t make the cover of People but I think he’ll get 300 years of people talking about him. That is his level of artistry.”