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The Gilbert Gottfried joke that foreshadowed his own death


When legendary comedian Gilbert Gottfried died in April of this year, the general public was unaware that the actor was even sick. It was announced that Gottfried had died from ventricular tachycardia, a heart condition that was complicated by type II myotonic dystrophy, a disease that he had privately suffered from for a number of years.

The announcement of his death came as a surprise to even some of his closest friends in the comedy world who did not know about Gottfried’s condition. Most of the world simply saw him as his grating and obnoxious stage persona, complete with an unmistakable voice and a predilection towards politically incorrect material. But to those who knew him off stage, Gottfried was a quiet, thoughtful, and genial presence that contrasted with the bombastic comedian that was internationally known.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 2017 documentary film Gilbert that most of his fans got to see the softer side of Gottfried. Tracking the everyday life of Gottfried as a family man interspersed with his signature off-colour routines, the documentary covers some of his most controversial moments, including his 9/11 jokes at Hugh Hefner’s 2001 Friar’s Club roast and his jokes about the 2011 Japanese earthquake that cost him his job as the voice of the Aflac duck.

Also included in the documentary are bits and pieces of his then-current stage act, which Gottfried had honed over years of club gigs. One of his jokes involved actor Michael Douglas claiming that he had been diagnosed with cancer after performing oral sex on his wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. Gottfried proceeded to list the excruciating list of ailments that he would happily endure just to be able to do the same things to Zeta-Jones. The joke was a perfect example of Gottfried’s humour: inappropriate, sometimes gross, and so ridiculous that you couldn’t help but laugh.

Among the ailments listed in that particular routine was muscular dystrophy, with Gottfried claiming onstage that he would take a form of the disease so powerful that Jerry Lewis would have to come out as a reference to Lewis’ annual telethons in support of research for the condition. The joke was a good excuse for Gottfried to do his Lewis impression, and on the surface, it appeared to be just another “too far” joke that Gottfried seemed to excel at.

Now that Gottfried has died from a variant of muscular dystrophy, however, the joke is a sobering revisit. If nothing else, it showed that Gottfried was the kind of comedian who never believed anything to be off-limits, even if the joke was on him. Years later, it turns out that one of his most profane routines might have been the ultimate slow burner of a dark joke, the kind that Gottfried almost certainly would have appreciated. 

Check out Gottfried and Norm Macdonald discussing muscular dystrophy down below.