The Unique Beauty of Brother Theodore’s ‘Stand-up Tragedy’

Brother Theodore on Letterman. Photo: YouTube

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underratedwe chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

For the past four years, Penn Jillette and his partner, Teller, have spent their summers on the CW, providing magicians from around the world with a prime opportunity. If a magician can perform their act on an episode of Penn & Teller: Fool Us — the new season currently airs Mondays at 8 p.m. — and leave the duo stymied as to how they pulled off a trick, then they win a five-star trip to Las Vegas to perform as Penn & Teller’s opening act at their theater in the Rio Hotel and Casino.

Of course, anyone who’s ever seen Penn & Teller in action knows that they’re as much about comedy as they are about magic, and given how knowledgeable and verbose Jillette has proven to be over the decades, it should come as no surprise that his agreement to do an interview for an installment of Underrated was soon followed by no fewer than eight potential topics of conversation. All of them had their merits — a few of them actually necessitated a bit of Googling in order to identify their place in comedy history — but one figure stood out among the rest: the late Brother Theodore.

Regularly introduced during his many appearances on Late Night with David Letterman as “a philosopher, metaphysician, and podiatrist,” Theodore Gottlieb didn’t consider himself to be a stand-up comedian, instead preferring to refer to his diatribes as “stand-up tragedy.” And when you get right down to it, that really is a far more apt summation of his work. His career was decidedly eclectic in nature: He appeared in two Orson Welles movies (The Stranger and The Third Man), regularly made the talk-show rounds in the 1960s and 1970s (he was interviewed by Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Tom Snyder, and Joey Bishop), provided the voice of Gollum in the 1977 animated version of The Hobbit, and even co-starred with Tom Hanks and Bruce Dern in the 1989 Joe Dante horror-comedy The ‘Burbs.

As it turns out, Jillette’s first encounter with Brother Theodore came courtesy of his longtime partner, and while the experience turned him into a fan for life, it also proved to be the only time that Jillette ever had the opportunity to be in the same room with Theodore. Not that Teller didn’t try to change that situation at one point, but … we’ll get to that.

I was psyched when I saw that one of your picks for the interview was Brother Theodore.
Are you a big fan?

Probably not as big as I would be if I could access more of his stuff, but I’ve seen all of his appearances on Late Night with David Letterman at this point, at the very least, and the documentary about him (To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore), which I know you’re in.
Had you known about him before the documentary?

Yeah, the first episode of Late Night I ever watched was the show’s fourth-anniversary special. I remember Theodore being in a montage of past guests and just going, “Who is that?!” And it wasn’t too long after that when I found out that he’d been a recurring figure on the show.
You know, at that time, I wasn’t watching a lot of TV, so I don’t think I saw all of the Theodore appearances. Not until recently, when I watched a lot of them again. But I have the vinyl of Tears from a Glass Eye… With a Tongue of Madness, his album.

The stuff that’s available now — it’s an amazing thing. In the late ’70s or early ’80s, if you knew about Brother Theodore, no one else did, because they couldn’t find anything. Now the internet is so beautiful and wonderful and wide open that everybody can learn this stuff right away. You just type in “Brother Theodore” or “Lord Buckley,” and all of a sudden you can access stuff that we used to have to dig around for like a pig looking for truffles!

So I’ve read his entry on Wikipedia, and before Wikipedia I read what little biographical information I could find about Brother Theodore, and his real story … I just assumed that what he was doing was entirely a character. I certainly believed the accent was fake. [Laughs.] And now I certainly believe the accent is real, and that he was persecuted and put in a concentration camp, that he was a chess wizard. We don’t know how much Brother Theodore made up. He’s probably a more reliable narrator than Bob Dylan, but not by a lot!

Do you remember when you first discovered Brother Theodore?
Oh, boy, do I! I’m from a small town in western Massachusetts, and Teller is a city boy. He’s from Philadelphia, his parents are both fine artists, and he volunteered for professional theater when he was still in high school and knew the whole scene and everything that was going on. The first person that I ever met in show business or the arts was me! The closest was really the projectionist at the movie theater. And I actually considered being a projectionist and studied it because I so wanted something to do with the arts.

So I started doing juggling shows in nursing homes when I was 12 or 13, and I never knew anything, but there were three things that I desperately wanted in life: to live in New York City, to be Jewish, and to be gay. [Laughs.] Those are the three things I wanted more than anything! I wanted to not be a big, dumb, straight goy from western Massachusetts. I listened to Lenny Bruce talk about the big, dumb, square-headed goyim farmers, and that was me! And I wanted to be on the other side of that joke. So as soon as I got out of high school — notice I do not say “graduated” — I went to New York City right away, with no money, nothing, and I just tried to soak up everything I could. I saw National Lampoon’s Lemmings. Met Michael O’Donoghue, met Chevy Chase, met John Belushi. And I was 17 years old! I mean, New York was everything. The arts were everything!

So during this time, there was an ad in the Village Voice that said that at this downtown theater [The 13th Street Theater] was a guy named Brother Theodore. And Teller took me. I had no money. The only reason I talked to Teller was that he would buy me supper. Because I wasn’t eating — I was homeless at the time. And he brought me to Brother Theodore. Whatever those tickets were, they were way beyond my reach, probably $10 or something. But there I saw what to me was New York City, what to me was the arts, what to me was comedy, what to me was absolutely everything that I wanted to be part of in every way.

I remember sitting there with Teller, and you can, if you choose, imagine me coming in barefoot from a fishing hole directly to Greenwich Village and Brother Theodore. And there was this small, toad-like man — I don’t know how old he was in the ’70s, certainly younger than I am now, but he seemed to me at the age of 18 to be ancient. And that crazy hair! And just the kind of commitment to comedy that makes me absolutely love Gilbert Gottfried. But there he was, and I remember him having a very powerful flashlight and shining it in people’s faces. So if he would hit you in the face, you couldn’t see him — or anything! — but he could see you. I will spare you doing a bad impression of Brother Theodore, but in his croaking German accent and a voice from the sewer, the combination of deep nihilistic Dada philosophy that really did not have a comedic point — it was not tongue-in-cheek, it was actually real — coupled with Borscht-belt type jokes that would sneak up on you. I remember him doing one that was like, “All the great religious leaders are dead. Jesus is dead. Abraham is dead. Buddha is dead. Mohammed is dead. And I’m not feeling so well myself.”

It was straight “ba-bing-boom” shtick in the middle of these long rants about a godless universe full of pain. It was very much like Sun Ra would play this avant-garde banging space music and then instantly go into Fletcher Henderson charts, note-for-note perfect for like two minutes, playing big-band stuff beautifully to go, Oh, by the way, we can do this, and then back to the space music. Brother Theodore had that with these long, rambling no-jokes, no-laughs rants and then right into straight cadence what you’d hear from Jay Leno, and then — boom! — back into this dismal stuff!

There’s this wonderful quality that Teller and I talked about for hours, days, months, decades after seeing the performance. Whenever Teller and I have our long, pretentious talks, which is all Teller and I care about: being pretentious. I always think art should be pretentious. It should be trying to be more than it can be. And I think that’s our goal. But Brother Theodore had this sense — one that I hope we capture once in a while — of truly letting people laugh at us and not with us, of truly not being in on our own joke.

Teller and I write stuff and do stuff that is deeply from our hearts, with no irony and no wink whatsoever, and people laugh at us. They think we’re in character, they think we’re making fun of something, but we’re not. We’re being us. And when I would watch Brother Theodore, sure, there were the jokes, and sure, he knew what his hair looked like and he knew he was wearing all black. But at the same time, I felt — and I’m just projecting all of this, because I never spoke with him — that some of the rants he was giving were completely and utterly from his heart. And the audience would laugh because they thought it was a character or, more likely in my mind, they were afraid to accept that that’s who he really was. And that, to me, is when art is the most beautiful.

When I saw him on Letterman on Halloween — and I’ve only seen it once, and only when it happened — there was a thing where he talked about Letterman having him on the show on Halloween and how offended he was by that. He didn’t care about the horror of children dressed up like goblins or blood and gore, he cared about the actual horror of living in a godless universe with nothing.

That definitely sounds on-brand.
And let’s all just take a moment and applaud David Letterman, shall we? Having that kind of act on mainstream media, so that people could see it. Now, please, don’t accuse me of saying that giving this kind of stuff to the masses is being disruptive or being edgy. I’m not talking about any of that. I’m just talking about a small-time performer who was given a national platform to be able to do something beautiful. I’m not saying, “Boy, stupid America sure got shook up that night!” I’m saying, “Beautiful America saw something beautiful.” Also, the clip of him on The Merv Griffin Show in conflict with Jerry Lewis …

You know, I literally had never seen that clip until earlier today, but it’s amazing
As someone who loved the Sex Pistols, it really makes the Sex Pistols look like amateurs. The level of pure punk … I mean, I knew Jerry and I respect Jerry, but the fact that Jerry doesn’t get it is kind of wonderful, and the fact that Brother Theodore is in over his head, the bit does not go the way that he wants it to, it does not take the turn he wants it to … He completely fucked it up, and yet he continues to commit, he continues to be him. There’s this thing that comics do where they give you that wink. They’ve got to let you know that they’re in on the joke. And it sickens me. Allen Ginsberg said, “The poet stands naked onstage.” You have to be able to stand there with people laughing at you without going, “Hey, man, this is what I really meant!” or giving a wink. But if you do a close-up on Brother Theodore’s eyes when he’s bombing, and you keep that close-up on him for three hours, not once will he wink.

No, but you’ll feel your soul shrink while you’re looking at him. 
Oh, sure. He’ll steal everything that’s beautiful and rich in your heart and take away your desire to live! [Laughs.] When Teller and I hit Off Broadway and had, for us, success beyond what we ever expected or certainly beyond what we deserved … Teller wanted to give me a wonderful birthday present. And he tried — I mean, he really tried and worked hard to book Brother Theodore to do my birthday party at our theater [the Westside Arts Theater] after hours. And he told me afterwards, and I heard from people who worked with us, that Teller was just begging Brother Theodore and throwing money at him, anything he could do, promising to pick him up in his car himself, but Brother Theodore at that time didn’t want to go out, did not want to do it, so I never got a chance to meet him and never got to see him work live other than that first time.

But I must underline to you that the difference between seeing Brother Theodore where you are safe — like, say, clicking on a video on your computer and just sort of marveling at him from a distance — and being fresh off the farm and being in the third row where adults are doing real art and real comedy … Even after reading National Lampoon for years, even after following Abbie Hoffman and reading all the Dada artists and reading all the Beat poets, to walk into that room and see someone doing what still to me is the pure definition of art? How inspiring and beautiful and rich that was! I never got to see Lord Buckley, I never got to see Lenny Bruce; I’m sure there was some of that feeling there. I’m not doing any sort of ranking, I’m just saying there’s some overlap. I’d put those three at kind of the same level in my life, although Lenny Bruce certainly had a much bigger following.

I don’t know of any comic right now who is as deeply in-character, where you don’t really know what you’re getting, where you don’t know what’s real and there’s no wink, as Brother Theodore. I think everybody in comedy now wants to be the kind of politician you can have a beer with and not the kind of creep you’re a little afraid to be in a room with. To me, personally, I want to sit in a room with someone who I feel is standing naked and is so deeply strange and different from me and yet touches my heart with the kind of humanity that we share. I’m really missing that now.

Earlier you described Brother Theodore with the adjective “toad-like.” It’s no wonder that he was offered the opportunity to provide the voice of Gollum. 

But while I’d known about that credit, I hadn’t realized that he was actually in two Orson Welles movies.
He was, yeah.

I’ve seen the films, but I hadn’t known to look for him. And given how long ago it was, I get the feeling that I would’ve had to actively look for him, because they weren’t exactly leading roles. 
Uh, no. It’s not like he played Harry Lime! You know, you’d think that Orson Welles would understand Brother Theodore completely, wouldn’t you? But I’ve got to tell you, if I had my time back and could send myself money in the past, I would’ve gone to see Brother Theodore 30 or 40 times. I mean, I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, and like I said earlier, there’s an overlap there, in that they just don’t fucking explain, you know? And we’re in a phase where everybody seems to want to explain.

I’m very glad that Joe Dante put him in The ‘Burbs, although I can’t imagine what anybody who didn’t know anything about him thought of that performance. But at least it got him into the mainstream, if only for a moment. 
Yeah, and I guess he’s not A-list enough that anybody will do the deep, deep, deep research to find out where this creature really came from. But I think that an aristocrat taken down by the Nazis and then emigrating to the U.S. certainly seems as believable as anything to create that creature.

So here’s the million-dollar question: Why should people in 2019 investigate the work of Brother Theodore?
I think Brother Theodore is worth checking out so that people can see how broad our American view of comedy has been and how far it can come.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Unique Beauty of Brother Theodore’s ‘Stand-up Tragedy’