TO MY GREAT CHAGRIN: THE UNBELIEVABLE STORY OF BROTHER THEODORE (2007)
Starring: Brother Theodore
Directed by: Jeff Sumerel
Wriiten by: Jeff Sumerel
Currently available on Vimeo & Amazon
Having already delved into an odd byway of the horror genre, the stage musical (see “Attend The Tale”), I thought I might beg your indulgence with another, an examination of a documentary about the strange intersection of horror & stand-up comedy in the figure of Brother Theodore. (Cue sound: A crackling record of Marlene Dietrich warbles “For in this lovely paradise….you are in love….with pain…”) Listen…a man is speaking to you from the outer darkness…
You know Brother Theodore, even if you don’t – the black shadow of his voice and persona haunts American popular culture like a corpse at a banquet. If you’ve seen the animated version of THE HOBBIT, or THE LAST UNICORN, you know Theodore. If you’ve seen THE ‘BURBS, or watched David Letterman in the 1980s, you know Theodore. If you have a penchant for obscure monologists and bizarre comedy from the Beat Era, or have listened to some episodes of Joe Frank’s radio performances, you know Theodore. If you have embraced the dead, spit in God’s eye, laughed into the echoing abyss, and then consumed a modest meal, you know Brother Theodore. And Theodore knows you…
Theodore Gottlieb, stand-up tragedian and pitch-black monologist, entertained and disturbed audiences for decades. He passed away at the age of 94 in 2001. He packed a lot into a very long and storied life: Chess-hustler, friend of Einstein as a boy, dramatist, stage performer, voice actor, sardonic comedian, inspiration to varied creators, one-time anthologist, janitor, recording artist, perennial talk-show guest, concentration camp survivor…
“…a tortured man seemingly moments away from becoming completely unhinged, a “horror host” whose film was real life…”
Gottlieb was born to vast wealth in Vienna in 1906 and was raised to be a playboy, only to discover that being an Austrian Jew in 1938 meant he was not a person at all. Escaping to the United States by the skin of his teeth, he created a character that combined his literate background, interest in Decadent and Nihilist fiction, the Weimar Cabaret milieu of his youth (his routines are like George Grosz paintings come to life), and a caustic, excoriating, bleak, self-deprecating humor born and earned from his personal experience. And that character scorched itself into the underside of the American subconscious. Audiences flocked to small cafes, and larger stages, to be unnerved by a single man on a dark, bare stage who spat absurdity and invective at them, a man who performed narratives of classic weird tales (Poe, Bierce, etc.) and told unnerving “jokes” that made them unsure if they should laugh, a tortured man seemingly moments away from becoming completely unhinged, a “horror host” whose film was real life, a man who had gazed fully into the abyss…and neither had liked what they had seen: a man who was, as he often said, “just plain folks.”
This remarkable documentary does an amazing job of concentrating the “Theodore Phenomena” into a dark and absurd memoir which is at turns engaging, hilarious, sad, hysterical, and moving. The inventive editing overlays performances from decades apart, illustrating the purity of Theodore’s well-honed sardonic routines, inter-cut with extended interviews with the man himself (albeit represented on screen by a puppet avatar). Theodore’s humanity emerges in both large and small ways (I love the moment near the start when he asks for the lighting to be adjusted – “If you could turn it a little bit up towards the face…looks more spooky…..thank you…”), as does his commitment to his strange art, his entire life a testament to the human will to survive.
America never knew what to do with Theodore (he was always waiting, even into his 80s, for the “real success” that, as he saw it, never came). He slotted into the mid-1950s “Sick Humor” current but even then, there was something more in him than droll irony. Presumably sui generis, although incorporating aspects of artistic movements like the German Decadents (I believe Gustav Meyrink’s “Bal Macabre” is the uncredited source of his “Midnight Cafe” short film included here), Dadaists (“ga-ga-ga-ga-ga!” “Rat-ta-ta-rat-ta-TA! Rat-ta-ta-rat-ta-TA!”), Surrealists (Breton’s definition of “Black Humor”) and figures like Nietzsche, Artaud and Cioran (“Who would speak of the Eternal Recurrence when existing once already means existing once too often?”) Brother Theodore was a jester of the existential damned, a man whose stance declares: “I will say terrible things and will allow you to laugh at me for saying them. I will willingly be the object of your derision as I break the bad news to you.” He was a living-dead emblem of the pre-WWII European culture that was murdered in Nazi ovens, reflecting back the black nihilism they introduced into the historical narrative, in all its awfulness, and holding it up for mockery. There will never be another man like Brother Theodore…and he would be the first to say “thank God for that!” This documentary (about an hour long, with a wealth of supplemental materials on the disc) was a labor of love for Writer/Director Jeff Sumerel and Producer/Editor Jeter Rhodes. I would urge anyone who finds this review of interest to watch it on Vimeo or Amazon.