Another Kind of Schlemiel: On Gene Wilder, Family, Comedy, Melancholy & Prayer

Gene Wilder’s (Jerome Silberman’s) passing has given me so much to think about. Ever since I was a little kid, I (like millions of other children) was fascinated with Gene Wilder’s rendition of Willie Wonka. After seeing the film, I wanted to see every film he acted in. I felt as if he was a member of my Jewish American family and that, like a teacher, he wanted to help me – through his acting – to let go and turn my actions into a vehicle for a comical kind of transcendence or for establishing a creative and yet humble relationship with people and the world. I would literally try out some of his gestures (with my head, my eyes, or even my posture) with my own family members and then take note of whether or not I made them smile. In the midst of this, I would check in with myself and see how I felt.  In a way, this kind of activity gave me my first taste of how embodiment could be comical and spiritual.  It conjured up moments or events that took me out of one world and into another (which is sustained by a kind of improvisational and endearing way of being). Wilder also gave me my first intimation of what I would call a spiritual schlemiel.

When I learned, yesterday, that he passed away I wanted to find out what it was that spoke to me in his work. And since Wilder was always so articulate, I went online to find some interviews with him. What I found was fascinating. I learned that his comedy was very influenced by his mother and father and that he, from the very start, thought of himself as melancholic and felt a desire to pray. More importantly, he realized that his comedy wasn’t simply a means to save himself; it was way of helping his mother make her way through suffering. But most notable is the fact that he identified this task with the schlemiel.

In this 1976 interview with Bobby Wygant, Wilder is asked about the film he did at that time, The Frisco Kid (1976).

When Wygant takes note of how his character comes across as a “bumbler,” she basically articulates the description of a schlemiel and asks Wilder to respond. She says that she “identified” with the schlemiel character/Rabbi he plays: “We have to talk about the Frisco Kid, that’s why we are in Los Angeles. I identify with that Rabbi, the character you play, he’s a bumbler, he knows up and down, maybe, but he doesn’t know left and right and north and south and gets lost probably in his own back yard. I identify with that guy.”

Wilder’s answer is telling.

He starts off by saying that, as an actor, his job is to make the audience emotionally identify with the hero and create a – using a psychoanalytic register – “transference.” As a result, they are “no longer watching that character but watching themselves” (which would imply that they are seeing themselves as the schlemiel and emotionally identifying with it). Wilder takes it further and suggests that men and women can identify with the characters he plays because what he is speaking to goes beyond gender to something spiritual which he associates with the “emotional make up” of the human being (for Wilder,this has to do with what he calls identification).

In response to this, Wygant asks the ultimate schlemiel question (which suggests that there may be no fine line between a fictional and a living schlemiel): “Is there a bit of a bumbler in Gene Wilder?”

In response, Wilder says – with a delightful gesture – “that’s a good question, I have never been asked that before…and I want to give you as deep an answer as I can.” Wilder begins by turning to his family and stating that “there is the mother in me and the father in me.” And through this framework he discusses the familial origin of his schlemiel characters (but with a caveat; his father was not a schlemiel in the typical sense):

The mother in me is not a bumbler at all. The director in me and the writer is not a bumbler. My father in me, from whom I think I derive most of the qualities that you see on the screen, not what made me want to be an actor, that was my mother, but the basic naivite, the innocence, that’s my father. I wouldn’t call him a bumbler but I would say that he was, there was something so naïve about him…a stranger could say that he was…a klutz, a boob, a schlemiel…if they didn’t know him…because he was so innocent…but not a bumbler…but that quality is inside me, yes….and it comes out in different ways…I can go on stage and act…but I’m not a bumbler at that but…just walking down the street I can say the wrong thing, I say the wrong name….that way, yes.

Wilder’s wording is telling.

He sees his father as the source not only of his innocence but also his bumbling. The type of schlemiel he is referring to – who is more of an innocent simpleton than just a simple bumbler-has its source in Rabbi Nachman’s tales. He is not alone in making such distinctions. In an interview, the award winning novelist, Bernard Malamud, does the same thing. They both want to give the bumbler his spiritual roots and not just get caught up in the antics.

But what sticks most in this interview are his words about the relationship of family to comedy. In a 2007 interview for PBS, Wilder goes more in depth about this relationship and also brings in two other elements melancholy and prayer.

In the (animated) interview, he takes note how, when he was eight years old, his mother had a heart attack. He remember how the doctor, who was sweating profusely, told him to “never get angry because you might kill her….but the other thing he said was try to make her laugh…For the first time in my life I tried consciously to make someone else laugh.” His ailing mother – who laughed at his jokes – gave him confidence to be a comedian:

When you please your mother it gives you confidence to please other people. And that’s where the courage to make people laugh came from but I didn’t want to be a comedian, I wanted to be an actor….And that’s what got me into acting, putting on an act, because in life I wasn’t funny, on the stage on in the movies I was free…I could do whatever I wanted to.

But then he turns to a difficult time in his life. When he was 18 he “felt the compulsion to pray….and I must have prayed for twenty minutes or so….I didn’t know what I was praying about, I was feeling guilty about something…the next day it was 30 minutes…and than an hour and two hours.”   Wilder then confesses and discloses the source of his guilt: he was too worried about his mother dying to enjoy his freedom in life.  He “didn’t think he had the right” to be happy when she was suffering.

Following this, Wilder turns to the opening scene in Willy Wonka (1971) and about how he wanted to first appear to children in the film with a cane, limping, and then do a tumble so as to show he was just acting (he really wasn’t cripple and in pain).  The director, in response, says that he doesn’t know why he’d want to “do that for,” and Wilder responds that following this tumble “from that time on no-one will know if I am lying or telling the truth.” The animated image, following this, depicts him as a dual character (two-in-one).

But the point that is missed is that his comedy is not only fun; it is also sad.  His comic character (his schlemiel) is innocent and has the aspect of a wounded child. And perhaps this indicates that Wilder never really left his guilt for his suffering mother behind. He tried to cover it up and make people laugh, but it slips through the cracks. And perhaps this is what made Wilder so endearing. His schlemiel character’s emotional content is foregrounded. He isn’t simply a bumbler. His schlemiel character prays and is wounded by the death (not his own) of the (m)other.

And as we can garner from these interviews, his seriousness as a writer and actor drew from his mother while his desire to make her laugh came from his father. It came in response to the realization that his ability to make her laugh might help her to stay alive. But, at the same time, he knows that this naive and innocent belief in the power of comedy, couldn’t keep him mom from suffering…and eventually dying.

Gene Wilder’s acting embodied a kind of innocence and a kind of mortal awareness in the face of death and suffering. Bringing them together made his acting deeply moving and truthful.

That said, I want to end this essay by way of switching tenses and speaking directly to you, Gene Wilder (Jerome Silberman).  The tumble you did at the opening of Willy Wonka gave us hope that we could turn the tables.  But it also showed how the basis of your comedy was not in acting but in the family.  You tumbled for your mother (and perhaps in memory of your mother) and for the crowd. Rest in peace Gene, you were family.   You made us laugh through the suffering (while having us remember that it was still there).  The world won’t be the same without you.  I’ll say a prayer for you who are…another kind of a schlemiel and  not simply…a blunderer, but a teacher.

PS: Of all the films I saw you in, I think that it was the Frisco Kid that spoke most to who you are or wanted to be.  In the schlemiel Rabbi, you seem to have brought together Gene Wilder and Jerome Silberman. In that film the actor, the Jew, and the comedian became one.

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory

Submit a comment