When Gene Wilder shocked a world that didn’t know he had been wrestling with Alzheimer’s by dying recently, he was mourned extensively. He was celebrated as a comic genius, a friend to children everywhere, an essential component to some of the most beloved and influential films of the past fifty years and even, perversely, as the star of one of the internet’s most irritating memes (that would be the “Condescending Wonka” meme, which should have died with Wilder, but probably will not, if the deathlessness of the “Michael Jackson eating popcorn in rapt anticipation of watching a total shit show” meme is any indication). That’s no small feat considering that memes are almost by definition annoying.
Wilder’s legendary love affair with the similarly beloved Gilda Radner was celebrated far and wide, in ways that often veered into cloying and somewhat conveniently forgot that Wilder re-married and enjoyed a long union with a woman I imagine isn’t overjoyed about being more or less erased from the historical record because she isn’t famous.
But Wilder was most assuredly not mourned or celebrated as a television star. That is for a very good reason. Wilder’s short-lived 1990s television show, the tellingly and terribly named Something Wilder (to paraphrase Tracey Jordan, “Wordplay!”), proved less a comeback vehicle than the kind of failure that might make a man want to go away forever.
Something Wilder was actually Wilder’s second attempt at a 90s sitcom vehicle after Eligible Dentist failed to make it to series. The 90s were a rough decade for Wilder. He was reduced to starring in a feature film adaptation of a Bob Greene article (Funny About Love, which the universe agreed may have been about love, but was not funny) and a fourth and final collaboration with a visibly ill and frail Richard Pryor (Another You) that was the only box-office flop of their partnership.
When an icon of Wildler’s caliber dies it invariably triggers a culture-wide scramble to determine who mourns him most, and best, and most publicly. Yet the three episodes of Something Wilder available on YouTube have been watched less than four thousand times and, needless to say, Something Wilder is not on DVD, nor is it streaming.
The show casts Wilder as an ad guy of a certain age who married and started a family late in life with his much younger wife and soon fathered a pair of painfully adorable twin boys. In one of the show’s only attempts to differentiate itself from every sitcom ever, Wilder’s character’s neuroses sometimes manifests themselves in fantasy sequences.
There’s something about the tone and structure of conventional sitcoms that acts as kryptonite to distinctive, unique performers like Wilder. Maybe it’s the distracting, dispiriting roar of a laugh track that treats every lame wisecrack and exaggerated reaction like comic nirvana, or the stale laziness of static establishing shots of a house. The rote elements include Wilder’s job in advertising, the default profession/field in movies and television shows when lazy writers want to give characters a job that’s financially lucrative but not emotionally fulfilling.
It seems a little unfair to judge a television show from just three episodes, but Something Wilder does not seem like the kind of show that’s wobbly one week and solidly funny the next. No, a certain hacky mediocrity seems hard-wired into its creative DNA. It’s hard to say what’s sadder: that Wilder lowered himself to starring in a dumb sitcom, or that this clear act of professional desperation failed to connect even on a commercial level.
The Wilder that mugs and yells his way through a painfully generic quirky dad role feels like a muzak version of the inspired madman of The Producers and Young Frankenstein. From the outside, they’re sort of the same, but when you pay attention, you realize that the soul and grit and authenticity has been diligently removed, leaving only a limp simulacrum of its former greatness.
I did not come close to laughing during the three episodes of Something Wilder, but Wilder’s death lends a melancholy to a scene where Wilder’s character, who must take a tie from a dead man in a coffin for reasons far too stupid to go into, fantasizes that he’s the man in the coffin. Wilder’s doppelgänger in the coffin tells the “real” Wilder that he should go easy on himself because he finally got his act together. He’s got a great wife, great children and a good home. “It’s a miracle. Live your life! Enjoy it!” the coffin Wilder implores his double.
The scene is poignant for reasons that have nothing to do with the show itself and everything to do with Wilder’s real life. It’s tempting to imagine that while filming this scene, and others, Wilder chose to take his doppelgänger’s advice and bow out of this show-business idiocy so he could enjoy the final decades of his life with something approaching dignity. Heaven knows dignity is in short supply in Something Wilder and Wilder’s other 90s work.
Maybe that’s why Wilder’s retirement had to happen, and while the cinephile in me would have loved for Wilder to come out of retirement to play the lead in The Royal Tenenbaums, a role he was reportedly offered, watching Something Wilder made me understand why he’d want to give this dirty, ugly business the heave-ho permanently and completely.