Gene Wilder: A Bastion of Yesteryear

Upon hearing the news of Gene Wilder’s death yesterday, just about every child of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s hoped he was resting peacefully. We grew up watching reruns of his movies on AMC and TCM, enjoying each viewing more than the last. We never got sick of Wilder, and saw a new side of him with every exposure to his art. He also somehow represented a vague but certain era — perhaps the latter half of the twentieth century, when we as a society were modern and edgy, but when children were still a little bit naive.

So, what was it about Willy Wonka that was so different? Even special?

The specific brand of Gene Wilder humor was slapstick but brilliant (usually, those two are at odds); it was not reliant on a certain type of funny, but rather inclusive of just about every type. He was sarcastic. He was witty and wry. He was clever. He was even a little bit corny. Gene Wilder didn’t just have a tired shtick. And of course, it made sense that he was really a Jerome Silberman.

He wasn’t a mere comedian. Wilder was an icon of whimsy and a reminder of a simpler time when we could sit in front of a single screen and be dazzled by a magical performance of song, dance, and dialogue. The performer embodied a pre-iPhone zeitgeist, capable of captivating kids and adults alike with a charm that was at once innocent and impish. In each role he played, he wasn’t quite acting; there was, without fail, an element of his fantastical self peeking through.

But he was always putting on a show.

And that’s what’s missing from today’s childhoods. Nobody could be as charming today because we are so busy distracting ourselves, and because even if a modern-day Wilder came along, we’d probably miss him in the sea of “content” and “culture” we are collectively drowning in. In a world saturated with words and pictures and videos and messages, when toddlers look at screens on screens through other screens — in the age of communication — could anyone today ever communicate so clearly and eloquently, the the way Wilder did? Could anyone delight us in so many ways and pass it off in a singular, easy delivery?

Likely not. May his work live on.

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