A Laughingstock for Every Half-Wit
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because to quote his gravestone, “As Long as There Is Death, There Is Hope.”
By Eugene S. Robinson
It wasn’t quite a Phyllis Dilleresque fright wig, this crazy cowlick that rose straight up from his forehead, but it was a hairstyle that once seen would not be unseen. And the owner, a one Brother Theodore, wore it like he played it: full throttle.
“You ridicule me publicly, you make me a laughingstock for every half-wit in the country, and then you sit back and giggle and smirk and wallow in your moral turpentine! I am not going to take that lightly. You want to destroy me. You want to confuse me. But I will strike back harder.” Brother Theodore, the nom de stage of Theodore Gottlieb, stares, truculent and unblinking, at David Letterman. The audience, unsure of whether to laugh or not to laugh, does both in short confused bursts.
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This is Brother Theodore lite, and he called what he did “stand-up tragedy,” and in the full face of who he was, what he had gone through and the 100 percent immersive characterization of the very spirit of high dudgeon, he was damned near perfect.
“So much of what happens when people get onstage behind a mic and in front of an audience is all about a base level of being appealing and seeking approval,” says notable curmudgeon and No Wave queen Lydia Lunch. “The fact that he didn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about any of this was totally refreshing at the time.”
Brother Theodore became a perpetual talk show guest.
And while Brother Theodore wasn’t the first abrasive stage presence to make a mark — insult comedian Don Rickles comes to mind — he was probably the smartest. A multilingual student at the University of Cologne, he had been thrown into Dachau, bought his way out and made his way to Switzerland where a family friend and possible lover of his mother helped him to escape to the United States. The alleged lover? Albert Einstein. His first job in the States? Janitor at Stanford University.
Janitor, chess hustler and by the time the late 1940s had hit? A monologuist. Talking shit on stage suited well Brother Theodore’s depth of field and eventually got him to think about other stages. Bit parts in movies, a sort of peripatetic bounce between the West and East coasts until eventually he hit with The Merv Griffin Show.
After that he became a perpetual talk show guest. Griffin, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Joey Bishop, Tom Snyder, Billy Crystal and eventually David Letterman gave him a massive media platform to “treat” American viewing audiences to the abrasive metaphysics of a solo performer who may have been joking but was not at all a joke.
“Happiness in others rubs me the wrong way,” Brother Theodore said once. Or 100 times. Underscoring a worldview that would have appreciated the darkness of him catching pneumonia and dying right as they started making a movie about his life. At the age of 94.
“I’ll hang you all here. I’ll hang you all in the nightmare of the dark while the dogs of madness bark,” said Brother Theodore during an upbeat moment. And then, “Look, all of our great spiritual leaders are dead. Moses, Muhammad, Buddha. … And I’m not feeling so hot myself!”
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