Brother Theodore in sketch form.

To My Great Chagrin: The Exceptionally Cranky Life of Brother Theodore

To those who remember his appearances on David Letterman’s show in the ’80s, Brother Theodore was a German-accented, white-haired old crank whom Dave tried to goad—without much success—into a smile. His existential gloom was a stage act, originating in the 1940s, but its source was real: Theodore Gottlieb (1906–2001) played chess with Einstein, lost his family and fortune in the Holocaust, emigrated to America, and became a “stand-up tragedian” whose one-man shows and TV appearances never quite delivered the success he craved. Drawing on a considerable archive of clips and Theodore’s diaries, director Jeff Sumerel crafts a suitably eccentric and ultimately moving documentary tribute. A Brother Theodore puppet ruminates on his life; audio interviews—the voices identified only in the end credits—reveal admirers including Woody Allen, Penn and Teller, and Eric Bogosian, who places Theodore in the Weimar cabaret tradition of confrontational comedy and audience discomfort. His style is both Brechtian and self-abasing, laughter from scolding and doom. (One signature line: “As long as there is death, there is hope.”) Offstage, Theodore was evidently a charming womanizer who divorced his American wife in the ’40s and only reunited with his son four decades later. It’s axiomatic that comedy springs from pain, yet it’s hard to locate Theodore’s morbid heirs today. Perhaps the indignant ranting of Lewis Black comes closest, but few American comics are willing to risk joking at the edge of the grave.

More in Film

‘Roma’ projects to be the big winner at the 91st Academy Awards this Sunday. Photo by Carlos Somonte
And The Winner Is: 2019 Oscars Preditions

Who will take home the awards on cinema’s biggest night?

Mads Mikkelsen stars in Seattle’s current weather… I mean, ‘Arctic.’ Photo by Helen Sloan/Bleecker Street
Mads Mikkelsen Delivers a Tour de Force in ‘Arctic’

The near-silent performance makes this survival film transcend the genre.

The upbeat everyman Emmet remains cheerful even in post-apocalyptic settings. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Everything’s Still Awesome

‘The Lego Movie 2’ builds on the success of the original with more humorous pop culture-drenched adventure.

In a fairer world, little film like ‘The Rider’ would have a chance at Oscars gold. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Who We Would’ve Nominated For 2019 Academy Awards

Narrow defintions of “Oscar worthy films” and Hollywood politics shut out some of the year’s best. Let’s change that.

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly take the stage as Laurel and Hardy. 
Photo by Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics
‘Stan & Ollie’ and the Art of Playing Comedic Geniuses

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly carry the story of legendary duo Laurel and Hardy.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig simmer as musicians in love in <em>Cold</em> <em>War</em>. Photo by Lukasz Bak
The Warm Musical Romance of ‘Cold War’

The gorgeous Polish tale of love behind the Iron Curtain would be a layup for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in a non-‘Roma’ year.

KiKi Layne (Tish) and Stephan James (Fonny) star in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’ Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures
Meandering Along ‘Beale Street’

Barry Jenkins follows up ‘Moonlight’ with the textured racial mood piece, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’

Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson square off in ‘Aquaman.’ Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘Aquaman’ Can’t Figure Out Which Wave to Surf

The latest DC Comic movie struggles to find a balance between keeping a straight face and having fun.

Emily Blunt takes on the role of the magical nanny in Mary Poppins Returns. 
Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Boasts Nostalgic Musical Charm

The first soundtrack album I ever knew deeply was Mary Poppins, and… Continue reading

Spider-Folks from various dimensions come together in ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’ Image courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Gets Caught in Its Own Web

The animated comic book gets stuck up on its multiverse fan service.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone battle for the queen’s attention in <em>The Favourite</em>. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox
Black Comedy with a Regal Veneer

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz bring catty rivalry to the queen’s court in ‘The Favourite.’

Yalitza Aparicio (left) makes her feature debut as Cleo, the central character in <em>Roma</em>. Photo by Carlos Somonte
‘Roma’ Makes an Epic Film Out of an Intimate Story

Alfonso Cuarón’s memories and vision guide the Spanish-language Oscar front-runner about a young housekeeper in 1970s Mexico.