Brother Theodore on David Letterman

Richard Metzger is the current Boing Boing guest blogger I'm not sure this story is an actual anecdote or just a meandering way of introducing an amazing YouTube clip, but here goes nuthin' : ehret1sthsth.jpg
As a lad growing up in Wheeling, WV in the 1970s, at approximately the age of twelve, I decided that I was NOT going to eat the food I was being served by my parents any more. In a home where greasy pan-fried hamburgers (or "Steakums") and Kraft macaroni and cheese were the normal dinner fare, I simply wanted to eat healthier. My parents were not very happy about this this demand --for that is what it was-- but what could they do? However, the severity of my new diet must have really taken them by surprise. I became, pretty much a Fruitatarian, almost a raw foodist, years before this was common. What influenced my twelve year-old mind to do something like this was an obscure book I found in the local library called "The Mucusless Diet Healing System" by Dr. Arnold Ehret. I won't go into the details of the diet, which extols the value of avoiding "mucus" and "pus" in your food --sounds like an admirable goal, right?-- but suffice to say that while Dr Ehret's work still has many followers --he's thought of as the founder of Naturopathy -- some diet experts consider him a total quack. But I am not here to debate the merits of his ideas, pro or con, merely to offer some brief context before I send you off to read this short essay, The Definitive Cure of Chronic Constipation. Okay? You got that? At the very least skim it. The language he uses is quite distinctive isn't it? The total disgust he expresses about the digestive system is almost Nietzschean in its peculiar character. The absolutist tone must've contributed greatly to my pre-teen interest in the diet. brothertheof098j0.jpg Now flash-forward to the late 1990s, New York City. I had become friends with the then 91 year old Theodore Gottlieb, better-known as the infamous dark comedian Brother Theodore, a big influence on Eric Bogosian, Lydia Lunch and Spaulding Gray, who had been performing his totally insane one-man show at the tiny 13th Street Theater for ages and was a frequent guest on David Letterman's show during the 1980s. No exaggeration to say that Theodore had been around forever. He was delivering lines like "The only thing that keeps me alive is the hope of dying young" long before I was born. What was a great gag when he was, say, 50 years old, and then to STILL be delivering a line like that at the age of 93, as he did on my UK television series, well that existential tension is what made his nonagenarian performances so incredibly spell-binding. The show was in the form of a stern lecture. It was impossible to tell if this was an act you were seeing or if he was utterly batshit crazy, a berserk "genius" impervious to the laughter as long as an audience bought tickets. The props were a chair, a table, a chalk board and a stryrofoam cup. There was a single spotlight. If you were anywhere near the stage in that little theater he could totally scare the shit out of you. Of course, whenever I brought friends, I took them right down the front! tedanddave2 scr6y.jpg It was an act, I can assure you. Theodore in real life was a mellow old bohemian guy who lived several lives in his 94 years. He'd been in Dachau and he'd also been on Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and most famously on Late Night with David Letterman. He was in "The Burbs" playing Tom Hank's great uncle and was the voice of Gollum in "The Hobbit" cartoon. He had a cameo in Orson Welles' "The Stranger." Theodore was an old Beatnik, that's the way I saw him. (He was even in a porno movie! An X-rated parody of "Jaws" called "Gums." Theo plays the boat captain, in a thankfully non-balling role. In "Gums" he is seen, rather inexplicably, wearing a Nazi uniform for most of the film). In his nineties he was dating a woman in her mid-forties. He rode a bike around New York City until he was late in his eighties. He really wasn't anything like his crazed monk act in real life, though. And let me tell you, when you are in your thirties and have a friend who is in their nineties... you learn things about life. Not all of them good, either. 94-years is a long time to live. Too long, if you ask me. I'm quite sure he felt that way, too. Theodore apparently had great difficulty memorizing lines, even his own material and so he only really ever did two major monologues --he'd switch off between them when he felt like it-- for over 40 years. One was called "Foodism" -we'll get to this one in a minute and the other was called "Quadrupidism" where he'd extol the virtues of human beings getting down on all fours. One day I was visiting Theodore at his apartment and I was looking at his sparse book shelf. On it sat "The Confessions of Aleister Crowley," Baudelaire's "Les Fleur du Mal," an Edgar Alan Poe anthology, The Portable Nietzsche, St Augustine, and... ta da... "The Mucusless Diet Healing System" by Dr Arnold Ehret. I remarked to him that I myself was a pre-teen adherent to Arnold Ehret's ideas about diet and he replied that it was the inspiration for his "Foodism" monologue. "I merely exaggerated his writings. Just slightly. That was all it took!" My jaw hit the ground. He'd managed to craft one of the most brilliant comic monologues of all time based on Ehret's zany diet-sprach. I was awestruck at how amazing this revelation really was. I mean... how creative!! You read that essay about constipation, right? Promise me? Now go watch this extended excerpt from "Foodism" performed on Letterman in the mid-80s. A Secret Noodle Ring in Minnesota New York Times obituary for Theodore Gottlieb Brother Theodore is Dead by Nick Mamatas Brother Theodore by Jon Kalish (the "TV producer" referred to here is probably me) A radio tribute to Brother Theodore on WNYC's "The No Show" Tears from a Glass Eye... with a Tongue of Madness! (Brother Theodore record) O Brother, Where Art Thou? (on the Theodore documentary) To My Great Chagrin (Brother Theodore documentary) Note that there are several torrents of Brother Theodore performances out there on the Interwebs.


  1. Wow.

    My first thought: This is amazing.

    My second thought: Could this ever show up on broadcast television again? Length, pacing, subject matter, delivery… I sadly say no. It is too awesome and too unlike the choreographed stage show that most TV is now. (The show credits were much shorter, too.)

    My third thought: I need more of this.

  2. The thing about Brother Theodore to me is, he reminds me—and he honestly was—like a lot of the elderly holocaust survivors I grew up with in Brooklyn in the 1970s. Just random odd pieces of horror spewed out at the oddest times… Like when buying fruit?

  3. The guy was a great orater and actor. What a voice! The subject matter is, unfortunately, not unfamiliar to me. I wrote a fluff paper for school one time on fasting and cleansing and used Dr. Arnold Ehret’s writings as my research material. I even got a science credit for it! Ha Ha!

    I was inspired to experiment briefly with the fasting/cleansing diet as described by Ehret and others. One regimen involved drinking apple juice mixed with bentonite clay. The mixture is supposed to help remove the rubbery substances lining your digestive tract.

    It may be fodder for late night comedy, but this shit (sorry) is taken pretty seriously in some circles to this day. It is mercilessly ridiculed in this household however, where on numerous occassions it is pointed out that I was discovered eating clay in an illegal living unit with no bathroom. You might have had to have been there to get the humor, though.

  4. Good the form is now working. My previous posts seem to be lost, As always we can take some stuff and make it work for us or end up captured in the stupidity of trusting some one else The most lethal person you have ever met is yourself. If you can’t laugh at it you are toast.

  5. @2
    I thought the same thing. You just won’t see stuff like that on modern television. It’s all been modulated and choreographed until the last vestiges of what made the performers human has been squeezed out.

  6. Um, I commented earlier when posting seemed to be down. I hope that doesn’t mean a bunch of repeat posts.

    My favorite quote from Brother Theodore (paraphrased): The difference between bad hospitals and good hospitals is that bad hospitals kill you, while good hospitals just let you die.

    Gems like Brother Theodore are cherished because of their rarity. If they were on every corner, what would be the point? Still, I do wish unique people like him were, at least, slightly more prevalent to my consciousness. I’m sure there are more out there, but they are so damned hard to find.

    On the other hand, it may be that the only way for the surreal outlook of people like Brother Theodore to develop is to have experienced a mind-bending/numbing horror like the holocaust firsthand. How else do you make sense of inanities like jaywalking fines, liquor taxes, or corporate personhood when you spent several years in absolute terror, so completely concerned with not being killed that lice infestations aren’t even a distraction?

  7. I’d first seen Brother Theodore on Johnny Carson, of all places, some 30, 35+ years ago. I was young and impressionable. I’ve never been the same since. Pity his voice, beyond the recordings, is stilled. I envy you having met him, Richard. We need more of this, right now in River, on the nightly news, on every street corner.
    But Dr. Ehret–now that’s some scary shit. Literally.

  8. Incredible.

    Reminds me of the Breatharians from Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan. Creepier, sure, but that’s probably just the lighting.

  9. Richard, in 1975 I worked on the crew of a low budget feature film called Devil’s Express, a bizarre martial arts blaxploitation horror film starring, um, Taurean Blacque. Brother Theodore had a small role in that film, and on several occasions I was lucky enough to drive him to and from the shooting locations, which meant that I got to know him just a little bit and as he really was offstage. And when he did his one big scene in the film he received a huge ovation from the crew. Thanks for helping to keep his memory alive!

  10. I was on the breatharian path for a while, but I never made it past the Yellow Diet. Corn pasta, mustard and rum-raisin ice cream.

  11. I remeber Bro Theodore and Joe Frank quite well. I wonder if this culture can handle a kind of entertainment with negativity — I wonder if this culture can handle negativity at all anymore. For generations that grew up with direct experience with genocide and true hardship, the fat cow like gluttons of today seem like paradise. And paradise, it turns out, is very very boring.

  12. I remember very well the lower of the two black and white 1 column inch ads pictured above. The upper one not so much. Were they Village Voice ads?

  13. Ah, comments. I was gonna say, 10 hours ago, how amazed I was to see this post, as I was just looking at Brother Theodore material on youtube a coupla weeks ago. You can find the complete album version of “Quadrupedism” along with a 1989 interview, at Bob Claster’s Funny Stuff site.

  14. Slight correction. Brother Theodore did not play Hanks’ great uncle in “The Burbs.” Rather he played Hanks neighbor, Uncle Reuben Klopek, one of a family of three insane murders who let their house become unsightly and did not maintain their lawn.

    Thanks for fixing the comments posting.

  15. Wow, can you believe that shit was playing uninterrupted on national television for that long? I remember why I used to think Letterman was the man back then, he’d pull out all kinds of wacky stuff/guests like that.

  16. That was brilliant! Great post.

    @DEDALUS #13: I don’t think Letterman was being a git. He was just playing the role Brother Theodore set up for him. They’re both pro entertainers, and clearly they both know comedy. Ted was deliberately setting Dave up for that punchline when he repeated the word “climax” twice. He was saying “please, take this and make a joke out of it”, and Dave improvised a pretty clever retort. Theodore’s mock-insulted response was just part of the act. If he hadn’t stayed in character there, it wouldn’t have been funny.

    I wonder if Joaquin Phoenix was thinking about Brother Theodore when he made his famous bearded Letterman appearance earlier this year?

  17. There was always a point in his show when he would look over the ladies in the audience and say, “And which of you wants to become Theodorah?”

  18. @otherthings

    You’re right, Theodore thought David Letterman was a prince. Their banter was all in fun. Theodore’s “slow burn,” then shouting at Letterman was a mainstay of his nearly 30 appearances on that couch.

    I don’t believe the clip survives, but he told me a great story about how Jerry Lewis was doing some goofy improv on the Merv Griffin show in the early 1960s, and humiliating a young singer making his TV debut. Griffin’s producer encouraged Theo to “let Lewis have it” and what followed was a shouted rant about Lewis’s “idiotic monkeyshines and low IQ buffoonerisms!” at full volume, a performance that allegedly led to Merv peeing himself because he laughed so hard.

  19. ‘Monday on Late Night: Andre the Giant’
    This was when Letterman rocked. Brother Theodore, Andre the Giant, Howard Stern, Crispin Glover, this is the type of weirdo that TV needs.

  20. #23: Back when cable was new to me, I and I want to say it was Comedy Central (way back when, I don’t really remember), I saw a replay of a show with Peter Ustinov on David Letterman’s show, and they rotated the video image 360 degrees through the course of the show.

    The only reference I could find quickly is this PDF: (Google has it in html format, search for: David Letterman 25 years still going strong) There’s some other crazy stuff in there.

    There is also mention in this page, although there are some formatting oddities:

  21. I’ve always wondered about Brother Theodore’s background since I saw him on your Disinformation TV series back in 2004. I can speak for all at that we miss your insights.
    Richard, you need to join Boingboing on a permanent basis.
    I propose you help the folks out on Boingboing during the weekends, when posting is rather slow from the regular contributors. Your ability to bring forth the lantern-bearers from dark intellectual caverns is unparalleled.

  22. Filthy. Filthy! … FILTHY! Out of one hundred and fifty corpses examined by physicians, all but one of them was filled with filthy dead necrotic decaying tissue! And the one that wasn’t filled thusly was apparently a physician’s assistant taking a nap on a gurney, but still… FILTHY!

  23. @Jason Rizos: “When he first immigrated to the United States in the 1940s, comedian and spoken word performer Brother Theodore gave dramatic recitals of (Edgar Allan) Poe’s poetry.”


  24. #25 — i just really hate letterman anyway – i think ur giving him too much credit as an entertainer – the setup deserved a come-back in my opinion – and he wasnt given time for that – maybe ide have a better reference point if i were to watch all his appearances – – the git is notorious for being rude to brilliant but strange personalities – regardless, letterman can suck my poop tentacle

  25. Stop ragging on Letterman. The thing is his CBS run is fairly middle of the road, but his run on NBC was profoundly transgressive and just plain fun. He completely embraced the weirdness of 1980s NYC and really bridged the world of public access “Who gives a fark?” sensibilities with a major network show.

    Remember nobody cared about late night when Letterman started his run.

  26. The thing is his CBS run is fairly middle of the road

    It is so middle of the road it fairly bisects the thoroughfare with the laser accuracy. I sure hope Conan doesn’t disappear into the same void…

  27. Oh, my starry eyes. This is genius. If Laibach did standup, it’d be this guy. I am in love.

  28. I was fortunate to have caught Brother Theodore’s act (and what an act it was!) twice at the 13th Street Theater in the early 90’s. Both were his “Foodism” monologue. I remember offhandedly mentioning to my mother that I had gone to a performance, and her shocked reaction was, “He’s still alive?!” It turns out she had seen him perform back in the 50’s.

  29. Thanks for introducing me to Brother Theodore Richard!! It is very interesting and made perfect sense for him to have an Edgar Allen Poe anthology. After reading this post, I began looking up more clips of him. This particular one was my favorite:

    After several viewings, I realized he was doing the same thing for Berenice by Edgar Allen Poe as he had done with Ehret’s food treatise. The full story can be seen here:

    Or check out this facebook note with quotes from the story that practically come straight out of Brother Theodore’s mouth:

  30. Wonderful post! I read the Dr. Ehret book over 40 years ago. He firmly believed that the mucousless diet would allow for a longer life, as well as curing constipation. However, if I remember right, he fell and died while walking in Big Sur at the age of 56. I was introduced to his book by a masseur from Esalen Institute(Fritz Perl’s Big Sur therapy hangout)by the name of Lars, who arrived at my Pasadena home with 5 pounds of green grapes, a copy of Ehret’s book and a bottle of massage oil. This was about 1972 and was surreal. Thanks for the memories.

  31. maybe if the producers had let Brother Theodore reach his climax, Dave would have seen the light and avoided the eventual quadruple bypass.

  32. I’m smiling. How else would he think? His father ran a fashion magazine publishing company, ergo, he would have been game for every weirdo health/beauty/life enhancement scheme going (and his part of Germany was simply full of spas/sanitaria/ treatment facilities. Until he got sent to Dachau, his life would have been full of women either trying to get high or trying to evade the aging effects of drugs, alcohol, or simply time.

    That he decided to latch upon the possibilities of German demogogery to illustrate the ill effects of simply living is a masterstroke.

    Remember, if he’d developed the way he was ‘supposed to’, we wouldn’t have seen him as ‘ a bitter old Jew’ but as Helmut Newton.

    It was only penury that made him a poor man’s Peter Lorre.

    Think about it.

  33. My good friends, beware all you who made negative and unjust comments about the great late and the late great Brother Theodore, for shall he shall return from the grave where the worm dieth not and he shall reward those of us who have been his faithful servants and justly punish the unjust, those of you who dwell in the twilight shadow between heaven and hell, between good and evil, those of you who have not paid homage to a man who is still waiting for his picture to be seen on every postage stamp.

    The United States Postal Service must bestow that honor upon Brother Theodore or else when he returns. heads will fly, as well as wigs, toupees, glass eyes,dentures, facial prosthetics and hearing aids! I have warned you!

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