Wilder’s wild humor leaves lasting impact


Staff illustration

Actor Gene Wilder’s death leaves a little less color in the world.

Leaning back as much as my school-sanctioned desk would allow, I held my right hand perfectly level in front of me, and said “Look at my hand.” My friend Kade only looked at me quizzically, so I marred the quote by asking him “Steady as a rock, right?” Kade nodded and I raised my left hand, twitching and shaking it, and added “Yeah, but I shoot with this one.”

Such was the odd, wild humor of the late Gene Wilder, who died Sunday, Aug. 29 at the age of 83. During the course of his 32-year long career, Wilder starred in classics such as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Blazing Saddles,” “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein” and cemented himself as a pop-culture icon with his hypnotic performances.

It is for his off-kilter zaniness that Gene Wilder will forever hold a place in my heart. From his hysterical freakouts through “The Producers” to his uproariously drunk Waco Kid in “Blazing Saddles,” Wilder was the king of the madmen. His iconic shrieks of “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!” in “Young Frankenstein” forever changed spoof movie history and the way that I view comedy.

I mourn the passing of a man who brought such vivid color to the silver screen, even when he was in black and white.”

— Jaren Tankersley

As an actor, I have always identified myself with comedians such as Bill Murray or Bob Hope, who both focus on quips and sarcasm and create a sense of distance from the plot through either direct fourth-wall breaks or actually dulling their character’s reactions to the antics of the plot.

While Wilder may at first seem to be as dissimilar as possible from these facetious shadows, a closer inspection shows differently. Through most of “The Producers,” Wilder played a quiet, average accountant, while “Young Frankenstein” originally set out with the very sane goal to restore his family’s name. Even Wilder’s most famous role, Willy Wonka, acted, if eccentric, at least calm until he went completely off his rocker in the scary tunnel.

It was Wilder’s expertly timed dips into insanity that made him so enjoyable to watch. Few things are quite on par with watching a laid-back, sarcastic character transform into a squawking maniac with bulging eyes, subverting every audience expectation, and leaving every audience member hungry for more.

Wilder’s hilarious breakdowns taught this pompous thespian that on occasion, even the best-planned sardonic zingers cannot serve comedy as well as clear, obvious, well-timed lunacy.

I am eternally grateful to Mr. Wilder. I mourn the passing of a man who brought such vivid color to the silver screen, even when he was in black and white, but take solace in the wisdom left behind by a very wild man.