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Ol' Whiny Voice

In hell, temperatures hover around 8 billion degrees, George W. remains president for eternity, and the soundtrack consists of a loop of Gilbert Gottfried's voice. Or so we thought until we actually spoke to the comic, whose telephone persona is surprisingly soft and pleasant. Hmmm — then, without an audience sitting in his presence, does he still scrunch up his face when he speaks? "It's difficult not to at this point," he laughs.

Gottfried's voice — that obnoxious whine — has been with the public consciousness since 1975, when the then-25-year-old, after ten years of doing standup, landed on Saturday Night Live. Lacking the looks of Carrot Top, Gottfried parlayed his "asset" into a full-on commodity and squawked through a career-defining role in Beverly Hills Cop 2, dozens of film cameos, and regular gigs on talk shows including The Howard Stern Show.

The sound of his voice grates upon the ears so intensely that Gottfried himself seems stunned to have landed so much work. "I don't really know [how I developed that personality]," he says. "I never consciously thought of it." He still doesn't fully understand its appeal and was particularly surprised to score one of Madison Avenue's most famous jobs, as the AFLAC duck in seemingly omnipresent commercials. "They called me in. AFLAC wasn't very well-known. They wanted me to say 'AFLAC' a bunch of times. Then they said, 'It's going to be a duck that's saying it.' I thought, 'This won't last; it'll never even air. '" Instead, it became one of the most recognizable ad campaigns in years. Now, after having cashed a nice paycheck, Gottfried says, "My greatest fear is that they'll realize, 'Hey, we can just hire an actual duck. '"

In addition to playing the duck, Gottfried provides the voices for a parrot named Iago from Aladdin and a bird named Digit on a cartoon called CyberChase. "So my career is for the birds," he says. But that ignores another, crucial part of his personality — his vulgar side. It was shortly after September 11, 2001, at a roast for Hugh Hefner, that Gottfried told a joke known as "The Aristocrats," often shared backstage among comics who put the dirtiest spin possible on it. "It was a strange audience," Gottfried says. "It was like, now no one can ever laugh or tell a joke or do anything frivolous again. So I decided to shock them with bad taste and launched into these September 11 jokes. Someone in the audience gasped 'Too soon!'... so I went into the Aristocrats joke." That event inspired this year's hit film/documentary The Aristocrats — in which Gottfried's telling of the joke serves as the climax. "It's a strange thing — critics singled me out for praise, but what they said was, 'He stands out as the most disgusting and perverted of all.' Gee, thanks." So does he have any good ones about that earthquake in Pakistan or other natural disasters? "Nah. I sort of cornered the market on September 11 jokes and got lazy with writing my hurricane jokes."

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Deirdra Funcheon

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