Kindness is not a quality often associated with comedy. Most of the time, in entertainment and in life, when we laugh it is at someone or something’s expense. Kindness, or a deep caring about the condition of those around us, elicits emotion, sometimes a warm feeling, or even gentle tears, but not generally laughter. Gene Wilder, who died this week, was that very rare comedian of kindness. He made us laugh at the beauty of it all; more than anything else, he celebrated the beauty that is inside us all.
Wilder could be funny without being mean-spirited or aggressive, which is part of why he played so well opposite comedians like Richard Pryor and in the work of comedians like Mel Brooks, who were in many ways his opposite. Pryor and Brooks and were more typical, often pointing out the stupid or obnoxious nature of people and the world. Meanwhile, Wilder with his wide blue eyes seemed to breathe in the beauty of life and exhale a comedy that made us laugh from our hearts sensing goodness, not our minds reacting to a clever cut.
Wilder’s portrayals are often termed neurotic, and it’s true that most of his characters seem more than a bit off. But Wilder’s characters are not neurotic in the same way as his contemporary Woody Allen, whose style would lead to comic figures like George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” and his creator Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Allen and David are harping critics of everything around them, always sensing that they are slightly better than their surroundings. They struggle with empathy; Wilder embodied it.
In Allen’s “Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex, But Were Afraid To Ask,” we see this difference in neurosis in a stark way. Wilder plays a psychiatrist whose patient is in love with a sheep. So deep and funny is Wilder’s effort not to judge the man harshly that he finds himself in love with a sheep. He plays the perversity straight, never hinting that it might be wrong, but rather finding the love in the scene and making us laugh at his generous and absurd portrayal of that love.
An Actor, Not A Comedian
There is an old saw in show business that comedians tend to make better dramatic actors than dramatic actors make comics. This is true in large part because comedy is harder in many ways than dramatic acting. Comedians, from the days of vaudeville through the advent of stand-up, have always had an adversarial relationship with their audiences. There is a scorecard: they laugh or they don’t. There is no middle ground.
Wilder’s comedy was not forged in the fire of live comic performance. Rather, he came up as an actor, and a serious one at that. Wilder joined New York City’s prestigious Actor’s Studio in the early 1960s, the heyday of the method-acting organization. By then he had already studied at the University of Iowa’s theater program as well as in England.
In the 1960s, and to some degree still to this day, the method taught a style of acting steeped in psychology and empathy. Becoming a character meant more than playing and embodying him outside of rehearsal. It meant fully understanding him, allowing his thoughts to become one’s own. This was out of step with the transactional nature of comedy. Wilder never transitioned to the more self-aware comic model. He was always to be found deep inside a character, rarely winking to his audiences about the absurdity of it all.
Wilder’s training and natural gifts often helped him perform as an admirable straight man. He could set up comedians like Zero Mostel, Cleavon Little, and eventually Richard Pryor and leave us rolling at his true and delicate responses to their antics. In a significant sense all acting is reacting, most importantly to a scene partner. In this sense, Wilder was an extremely generous artist. So many times, in film after film, that slow-motion recognition creeping over his face gave us all we needed to let the comedy wash over us.
Playing Against Type
Wilder’s most iconic role was relatively rare for him, and not merely because it did not pair him with a more typical comedian. Wilder’s turn as Willy Wonka is interesting because he’s playing against type for much of the film, as a snarky and sarcastic egotist, but the final reveal feels so real because deep down we sensed all along it was an act, not the true Wonka.
The film was not an immediate success; critics and audiences alike didn’t seem to know what to do with his dark portrayal of the cynical candy genius. Here again his straight acting chops were on display with as deep a character study as one is likely to find in a children’s film. I remember showing my younger brother, who was then six or seven, the movie on VHS and seeing the genuine fear in his eyes during the boat scene. That darkness and terror, which initially dismayed audiences, would eventually make it an all-time classic.
The recent remake of Willy Wonka starring Johnny Depp, a fine actor in his own right, shows us just how challenging and brilliant Wilder’s turn as the candy man really was. In an important way Depp failed in the role because we believed his arrogance too readily, and all of the daddy psychobabble in the remake made the story about Wonka’s transformation, not his genuine search for a kind and honest soul.
In a 2013 interview at the 92nd street Y in New York City, a frail Wilder explained why he did not star in any films in the final two decades of his life.
“The swearing, and the, the loud bombing, after a while I said, they were so..they were dirty,” Wilder said, “and once in a while a nice, a good film, but not that many. I don’t mean when I was starting out, but later on. And I said, I don’t know, I don’t want to. If something comes along that is really good, and I think I would be good for it, I’ll be happy to do it, but not too many came along.”
In making that choice, Wilder would leave millions of dollars on the table and millions of fans disappointed that they had seen the last of his comic genius. But comedy had passed him by, and he knew it. Not only because of the tragic death of his beloved wife Gilda Radner, but because society had changed. The clean, pleasant, and kind comedy that he had grown up with and eventually mastered had given way to crass and callous yuks, and that was a style Wilder would never embrace.
In Wilder’s work, in “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Stir Crazy,” “Willy Wonka,” and others, we find a kind of comedy even more rare today than it was then. It is a comedy of kindness we can show our children, as I showed my brother, that lets us laugh at the best, not the worst, that we are. This was a singular gift, and one we ought to cherish for as long as people keep making us laugh.