On Monday, we lost the great writer and comedic actor Gene Wilder. The world lost a paragon of gentle silliness and I lost a particularly inspirational figure in my own life.
There were many influences that contributed to the writing of Howard Carter Saves the World, ranging across the spectrum from Jim Henson to John Carter of Mars to Encyclopedia Brown and all the schlocky Creature Features and cold war science fiction classics that aired in late night syndication throughout my childhood.
But it would have been a different story entirely without the influence of two writers who first showed me how to find comedy in the fault lines of their chosen genre: Douglas Adams and Gene Wilder.
Around about the year I was born, Wilder was watching one of the old Frankenstein movies when he decided he wanted to rewrite the classic story with a happier ending. As he told it in interviews, he sat down and immediately began writing, giving birth to my favorite mad scientist of them all: Frederick Fronkensteen.
I can’t pinpoint when I first watched Young Frankenstein, but I guarantee that it was much-edited for broadcast and I wasn’t supposed to be watching it. In fact, almost all the seeds of Howard Carter were probably planted illicitly in the flickering glow of a cathode ray tube with the sound turned too low to be heard by my parents sleeping downstairs.
Sleeping has never been something I’ve been very good at.
One by one, those stories germinated in the mind of a viewer sitting too close to the screen, watching monsters maraud and flying saucers pummel the armies of earth. But it was Young Frankenstein that, for me at least, first broke them all down and showed me the cracks in the edifice. And it was a certain frizzy haired mad scientist succumbing to gentle madness who would eventually bear fruit in the very silly persona of Doctor Villainous Deeds, PhD.
I once described Doctor Deeds as someone who ordered a Do It Yourself Villain Kit from the back of a comic book. He didn’t have it in him to be truly evil so he’d settled for strange degrees of villainy and ever sillier heights of madness.
A late night game of “What if..” pushed the idea beyond its beginnings and spawned a twitter account and then, ultimately, a novel.
All maniacal laughter is handcrafted and organically grown. Only artisanal maniacs are allowed to contribute laughter here. #Mwahaha
— Villainous Deeds (@LaughManiacally) April 14, 2015
I threw everything into the blender when I was creating the story of Howard Carter. Everything from Star Wars to the Muppets to Call of Cthulhu played their part. It was and always will be an homage to everything I loved and still love about science fiction, fantasy, and horror. At it’s heart, it was a concerted effort to revive the things I’d most loved that had fallen into cliche.
I made a list and marked them off as I got to them: freeze ray, Roswell, men in black, boy genius… And when I arrived at mad scientist, I naturally reached back for the OG mad scientist: Doctor Frankenstein. But it wasn’t Colin Clive or Kenneth Branagh or any of the others who have cackled and/or strutted their way through the role with Hollywood bravado, it was the slightly neurotic and gently unhinged cackle of Gene Wilder that gave me the voice of Doctor Deeds.
“Be of good cheer. If science teaches us anything, it teaches us to accept our failures, as well as our successes, with quiet dignity and grace… Son of a bitch! Bastard! I’ll get you for this! What did you do to me? What did you do to me?”
It seems fitting in retrospect that it was the man who had told me my first meta story, who had first demonstrated how to crack a story without breaking it, whose voice whispered in my ear whenever my mad science teacher graced the scene. It was the closing of a circle.
Thank you, Gene. Thank you for your genius and especially for your words. Thank you for demonstrating a fragile and friable humanity in every role you undertook to portray from gunslinger to mad scientist. No matter what stereotype your roles tried to plug you into, you refused to fit.You were irrepressibly the squarest peg in the roundest holes.
Rest in peace, sir.