“My name, as you may have guessed, is Theodore. I come from a strange stock. The members of my family were mostly epileptics, vegetarians, stutterers, triplets, nail biters. But we’ve always been happy.”—Brother Theodore
I’m not sure this story qualifies as an actual anecdote or just a meandering way of introducing an amazing collection of YouTube clips, 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 no longer going to eat the food I was being served by my parents. In a home where greasy pan-fried hamburgers (or “Steakums”) were the typical main course and Kraft macaroni and cheese substituted for the “vegetable group,” I simply wanted to eat healthier. My parents were not very happy about this this demand—for that is what it was—and it seemed really insulting to them, but what could they do? The severity of my new diet must have really taken them by surprise. I became, pretty much a Fruitatarian, or 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 with the distinctly unappetizing title, 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—many 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 workings of the digestive system is almost Nietzschean in its peculiar character. This 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 monologists Eric Bogosian, Lydia Lunch and Spalding Gray, who had been performing his totally insane one-man show at the tiny 13th Street Theater in Greenwich Village for ages and was a frequent guest on David Letterman’s late night talkshow during the 1980s. Theodore, or rather his persona, was once described as “Boris Karloff, surrealist Salvador Dalí, Nijinsky and Red Skelton…simultaneously.” That’s not far off the mark.
At his age, it was not much of an 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, Disinformation, well that, shall we say existential tension is what made his nonagenarian performances so incredibly spell-binding.
His show was in the form of a stern lecture. It was nearly impossible to tell if this was an act you were seeing or if he was utterly batshit crazy, a berserk “genius” impervious to laughter as long as an audience bought tickets. The props were a chair, a table, a chalk board and a styrofoam 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!
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, for instance. His mother, stepfather and sister were killed, but Theodore’s release was secured by none other than Albert Einstein—his mother’s adulterous lover!—who paid his way to America after the war. He’d also been on Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and most famously on Late Night with David Letterman (Theodore, along with Harvey Pekar, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and Captain Beefheart, was one of the most memorable and emblematic oddball Letterman guests of his early era). He was in The Burbs playing Tom Hanks’ great uncle and was the voice of “Gollum” in The Hobbit cartoon. He had a cameo in Orson Welles’ The Stranger. 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. The former concentration camp prisoner is also seen, rather inexplicably, wearing a Nazi SS 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 well into his eighties. Theodore was an old Beatnik, that’s the way I saw him. I think that’s largely the way he saw himself.
And talk about a weird way to make a living! 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 (everything went to hell when our ancestors stood up according to his theories).
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 Allan Poe anthology, The Portable Nietzsche, some Saint 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 unconventional 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 the “Foodism” lecture performed on Late Night with David Letterman in the mid-80s.
And here’s the real treat: Every single Brother Theodore appearance on Late Night With David Letterman!
BONUS: The infamous episode of The Merv Griffin Show where Brother Theodore let’s Jerry Lewis HAVE IT with both barrels. Merv wisely just lets it happen…
An extended excerpt from Jeff Sumereal’s documentary ‘To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore.’ Watch it on Amazon Prime.
Theodore does his entire “Lizalotta Bindel” routine as Letterman looks on.
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)
Brother Theodore was my babysitter