Thursday, March 13, 2008

Brother Theodore: A season in hell

Posted By on Thu, Mar 13, 2008 at 4:28 PM

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There was a time when David Letterman was not only funny (OK, funnier, maybe), but also when he and his producers booked cutting-edge guests and just sat back and let the magic unfold. I'm not only thinking of Andy Kaufman and Crispin Glover, who clearly made Letterman uncomfortable, but also the incomparable (and the late) Brother Theodore. Billed by his introductions by Letterman as "a noted metaphysician, philosopher and podiatrist," Theodore Gottlieb as Brother Theodore captivated, entertained and generally weirded out the crowd with his stream-of-consciousness rantings and ravings that he had cultivated during the Beat Generation days of 1950s-era Greenwich Village scene that led to a one-man off-Broadway show. He reportedly influenced everyone from Woody Allen to Eric Bogosian.

So if there's one movie that I'm dying to see at the Atlanta Film Festival (April 10-19) it has to be To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore. The film is directed by Jeff Sumerel, whose previous documentary chronicled the Clemson-USC rivalry, so this should be an interesting change of pace.

The beauty of Brother Theodore's appearances were in the way he challenged our notions of performance and comedy, taking absurdity and balling it up into wads of fury — as if everyday life were turning him completely mad, and our own inability to see the madness around us and inside him just angered him still further. (One of oft-quoted lines: "The best thing is not to be born. But who is as lucky as that? To whom does it happen? Not to one among millions and millions of people.") Only rarely could you sense that he was in on the joke, and he seemed to be a constant source of wonderment for Letterman at a time when he too was pushing the boundaries of television by the deconstruction of its process.

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