“I would like to point out that for me this is a very, very strange experience.” No kidding. The speaker is a marionette of Theodore Gottlieb, and as he may or may not be looking into the camera, you’re more than aware of the strangeness of this experience. “Frankly,” the puppet goes on, “I don’t know what I’m dong here. Frankly, I don’t know what you are doing here.” You may have an idea about this, at least in the sense that you’re watching the aptly titled film, To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Life of Brother Theodore.
Born in 1906 to wealthy Jewish parents in Düsseldorf, the precocious Gottlieb grew up playing chess with family friend Albert Einstein. At 32, he was imprisoned at Dachau and lost his family to the Holocaust; released after he agreed to sign over the family fortune for one Reichsmark, Gottlieb made his way to the States with Einstein’s help, and remade himself as a janitor, chess hustler, and dock worker, until he found his métier as a performer of “monologues from the edge.” During the 1960s and ‘70s, Gottlieb was at once an oddity and a perfect comic persona, refining his “stand-up tragedian” act in nightclubs and on TV, appearing on shows hosted by Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Tom Snyder, Dick Cavett, and during a comeback period, David Letterman and Billy Crystal. “You began to think this might be a madman who might be on the brink,” remembers Cavett, “That something terrible might happen in the next minute.”
Gottlieb’s many performances—barely preserved on grainy, decayed videotape—form the essential content for Jeff Sumerei’s 2007 film, airing 19 September on Documentary Channel. Assembled with impressions of the artist spoken by unseen interviewees like Woody Allen, Len Belzer, Eric Bogosian, and Joe Dante, these bits demonstrate his capacity to make sense of chaos, as well as his embrace of absurdity and horror. He was like “Miles Davis or Stravinsky,” says Penn Jillette, “Somebody who knows the rules and knows the rules well enough just to step away.” As much as he seemed to be ranting, “His use of language was so incredible, most pieces were written out word for word perfectly.” In these pieces, Gottlieb takes aim at diurnal and devastating horrors, institutional religion, marriage, and the mix of cruelties and generosities that shape human relationships. “I’m five million light years ahead of my time,” he pronounces, “I’ve always known it and now I’ve said it and you know it too.”