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' :


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.


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.