Gene did it best when he said nothing at all

Gene Wilder starred in hit films including Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. Mychele Daniau / AFP
Gene Wilder starred in hit films including Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. Mychele Daniau / AFP

Here’s the funniest thing that Gene Wilder, the great comic actor who died this week, ever did in front of an audience.

Well, that’s probably a hard statement to prove. Wilder delivered so many hilarious and human moments – both on film and on the stage – that picking the best of the lot is a foolish and quixotic endeavour.

But take my word for it. I’m about to tell you about (one of) the funniest scenes Wilder ever performed in front of an audience, and you can trust me because it didn’t require any dialogue at all, which as a writer is a painful – and financially foolish – thing for me to admit.

The set-up was simple: Wilder’s character was a widower who was raising his five young children. His longtime friends invited him to a dinner party to show off their newly redeco­rated house. They had just reached the age where their children were off and living lives of their own, and had decided to celebrate with a home makeover in a sophisticated, adult, no-kids-around style. As Wilder is on his way to the party – trying to leave amid the chaos and disarray of a household with five young kids and a babysitter who needs instruction – his youngest daughter is caught eating a giant chocolate bar, which he takes from her hands and puts absently into his jacket pocket.

So, all you really need to know is this: one, his friends have redone their entire house, which included the installation of a large and expensive and entirely white sofa, accessorised by dozens of small and expensive white cushions; and two, Wilder has a large chocolate bar melting in his pocket which he’s totally forgotten about.

You can see where this is going, right?

Left alone for a moment in the living room, Wilder discovers, to his horror, that he’s left a chocolate handprint stain on one of the cushions. When he tries to cover it up, forgetting for a moment that his other hand is now covered in chocolate, he only makes it worse. For the next three or four minutes, Wilder frantically tries to cover up the stains all the while creating more stains, so by the time his hosts re-enter the room, the sofa – and Wilder – are smeared with melting chocolate.

I have never laughed harder. When Wilder first performed this moment, during a rehearsal for an episode of his only – and, sadly, unsuccessful – situation comedy, the entire crew was transfixed. Mostly, crew members and stage personnel go about their business during rehearsals, ignoring whatever is happening on stage. But this time, the entire company stopped and watched, and laughed harder than any of us knew we could.

Wilder could do that to an audience, both in real life and in a cinema. His bedrock character was a decent man pushed to extra­ordinary limits, trying hard to keep a lid on his own, and the world’s, madness. His performances were always touched, in large part, by a gentleness. But despite his immense talent, he hadn’t made a picture in 25 years.

Someone asked him a few years ago why, exactly, that was. And here’s what he said: “I didn’t want to do the kind of junk that I was seeing. I didn’t want to do 3-D, for instance. I didn’t want to do ones with bombing and loud and swearing.”

When you think about it, most of the films made today are some combination of those four basic ingredients: loud, bombing, swearing or 3-D. So for an actor of Wilder’s particular gifts – finding belly laughs in small moments, creating characters that are both larger than life and believable – a picture that doesn’t offer up nuanced dialogue or moments where characters interact with other humans, as opposed to robots or superheroes, well, where’s the appeal? He wasn’t handsome or well-built. His watery blue eyes radiated decency and restraint.

When one of his characters erupted in anger or unleashed a stream of profanity, what made it funny was how unlikely Wilder made that seem, how much it clearly pained his characters to behave that way. Contrast that with the current crop of comedies, on film and on television, in which characters deliver vulgarities and epithets so casually that they have no impact at all. It’s much the same with what Wilder called, with an old man’s exasperated diction, “ones with bombing and loud”. How many of those pictures can you take? They all seem the same.

And audiences notice. This summer, especially, has seen the lacklustre performance of a lot of projects – those with 3-D and bombing and loud – which can only mean that moviegoers are suffering from ear fatigue. So many vulgarities. So many bombs. Not enough chocolate-covered sofas.

Wilder’s films are still available anytime, on Netflix or places like that. But what audiences really want are films and television shows starring the next Gene Wilder, the next comic genius with a gentle soul who can get jaded, bored stagehands to stop what they’re doing and laugh.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl

Published: September 1, 2016 04:00 AM

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