Yesterday, Gene Wilder passed away. My condolences go out to his family and friends.
I never knew the man. But, my gosh, I knew Gene Wilder the performer. His sense of style taught me how to tell a joke. And I’m not talking riffing off his finest moments. His take on comedy and his choices as a performer are hardwired into my brain.
Wilder once said that to sell a beat or a joke or a turn in the script, the performer has to lie to the audience. From an interview with Roger Ebert:
“Here’s what I mean by lying,” he said. “We all grew up on movies with scenes where the actor is lying, and you know he’s lying, but he wants to make sure you know it’s a lie, and so he overacts and all but winks at you, and everybody in the world except for the girl he’s talking to knows he’s lying…I want to do the opposite. To really lie, and fool the audience…What good is a character who’s always winking at the audience to let them in on the secret?” – Gene Wilder
Never wink! What’s the point? If you’re doing a gag, do it. If your character is lying, be a deceiver. I’ve kept a Facebook page with no punctuation and in all capital letters for something like three years now because I think it’s funny how we all tend to shout about things on social media. But, I don’t wink at it. I don’t want to explain it. I want you to get it because of how I’m doing it. So, I just do it. I’m not sure if Wilder would be flattered or offended that he’s partly responsible for this Facebook nonsense of mine. Only partly though, because he greatly understood nuance. Which my Facebook gag lacks.
I loved how understated his delivery starts and how wild it could go because of that understatement. I’m thinking of the scene in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN where Frankenstein (Wilder) interrogates Igor about the brain he has stolen. Frankenstein calmly promises not to get angry. But, once Igor reveals the nature of the stolen brain Frankenstein tries to throttle the life out of him. If your character spends a movie dialed up to eleven with nary a sane moment to be seen, your audience goes numb. Take that same character and play them as a believer in science and rational thinking and then allow the story to push them to the heights of extreme rage, well. That, friend, is comedy.
I loved his general aversion to relying on swear words. And that he frequently would say he thought comedy in the modern era was going down the tubes by playing it so crudely. That’s an utterly wonderful position considering he spent a major portion of his career writing and acting and working with King of the Swears, and the most honest comedian on the planet, Richard Pryor. God, they were so great together.
Look, he was famous for playing a mercurial candy magnate getting his kicks from
humiliating children, but he did it all while singing beautifully about imagination. He was famous for playing a bottle-wasted sad sack of an ex-gunslinger ready to aimlessly make his way through the world. But, he did it while helping the hero out when he needed it. He was famous for playing a frustrated, pretentious jerk of a doctor coming to terms with his mad heritage. And he was great. He took these rough characters and gave us something beautiful. I mean, come on. He was the original Leo Bloom in THE PRODUCERS. He’s a comedy hero. I may not have known the man, but his work had a huge impact on me. I don’t know about y’all, but I plan to spend the next few days revisiting his performances.
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