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The Reeler Blog

Doc Fortnight Closes to Great Chagrin

A still featured in To My Great Chagrin, screening Saturday in MoMA's Documentary Fortnight series (Photo: MoMA)

By Rich Zwelling

As its annual Documentary Fortnight series winds down on Saturday, MoMA features a repeat screening of its popular opening-night selection, To My Great Chagrin: The Incredible Story of Brother Theodore. Directed by South Carolina filmmaker Jeff Sumerel, this 70-minute tribute takes an unconventional look at actor-comedian-philosopher Theodore Gottlieb, whose self-proclaimed “stand-up tragedy” was a bizarre, angst-driven synthesis of monologue, black comedy, philosophical inquiry and nonsensical wordplay.

If the audience atmosphere following the initial screening is any indication, viewers will be in for a rare treat. That night the mood was one of palpable joy and bittersweet reminiscence; Sumerel fielded questions from a thoughtful audience that included Dick Cavett, Eric Bogosian and Sandra Nordgen, manager of the 13th Street Theater, where Gottlieb performed every weekend for more than 40 years -- well into his 80s. A major influence on entertainers such as George Carlin, Woody Allen, Joe Dante and Penn Jillette, he’s been compared to Dali, Picasso, Stravinsky, Miles Davis and, by his own assessment, Winnie the Pooh.

Born in Germany in 1907, Gottlieb grew up as an aristocrat but was sent to the Dachau concentration camp during World War II. After being released, he escaped to the United States with the help of family friend Albert Einstein, eventually working as a janitor at Stanford University. He eventually moved New York, and in the 1950s he began a one-man show that drew on his wartime experiences and a love of Edgar Allen Poe.

His monologues varied wildly between the absurd and the morbid, the quotidian and the profound, the innocuous and the taboo. He ranted about his obsession with a young woman’s teeth, the (non?)existence of God and bouquets of broccoli, always with a distinctly Jewish flavor of irony and self-deprecation: “The only thing that keeps me alive is the hope of dying young.” He went on to television appearances with Cavett, Merv Griffin and David Letterman, among others. He retired from performing in the late 1990s and succumbed to pneumonia in early 2001.

Sumerel captures the versatility of Gottlieb’s eccentricities through a judicious selection of archival footage and interviews, plus some oddly poetic puppetry sequences in which a marionette Gottlieb gestures over audio clips of the comic’s voice. The director especially succeeds in capturing the delicate balance between the hilarity of Gottlieb’s stage persona and the unabashed seriousness of the life behind it -- particularly his twisted view of existence and his willingness to engage audiences in challenging, sometimes unpleasant metaphysical ruminations. Despite his fatalistic, bleak view of humanity, Gottlieb was nonetheless generous and warm with friends and family. “He was totally different in person,” his son Thomas said during the Q&A on opening night. “If you knew him and went to see his act, you’d never know it was the same guy.”

To My Great Chagrin: The Incredible Story of Brother Theodore screens Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at MoMA; visit the museum's Web site for more information.

Posted at February 29, 2008 3:09 PM

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