Saturday, April 13, 2013
And it was all off-the cuff. Amazing.
He passed away yesterday at 87. What a brutal week this has been.
I was first introduced to Jonathan Winters as a kid. He would appear as a guest on Jack Paar's Friday night variety program and those were always the wildest shows. Jonathan never had a “monologue” or set routine. Paar would hand him an object like a stick and he would morph from a fisherma to a violinist to a lion tamer, canoeist, mental patient – you name it.
All the wacky stuff that Robin Williams does – Jonathan Winters originated it.
He later appeared in MAD MAD MAD WORLD, lots of other movies, MORK & MINDY, and few people remember he won an Emmy for playing Randy Quaid’s dad in a 1991 forgotten sitcom called DAVIS RULES.
But as popular as he was, he could have been more popular. He battled demons – depression, drinking – he even spent some time institutionalized. But it’s the old Oscar Levant line: “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity and I have erased that line.”
Jonathan and I had a mutual friend in Gary Owens. I would sometimes see him when I saw Gary. Gary wrote his autobiography and had a book signing at a (now defunct) bookstore in the San Fernando Valley one evening. A number of us got up to speak. When it was Jonathan’s turn he just began riffing on what Gary did in the war. It was spectacularly funny. Even line a gem. And the thoughts just flowed effortlessly out of his brain. It would take me six months to write that monologue and it wouldn’t be half as good.
Like I said, I was in awe. He pulled ideas and references from so far out in left field he was behind the bleachers.
Offstage he was a very quiet, almost shy man. But he was also just a second away from a great quip. At another function I was talking to him and Gary when another comedy writer sauntered over. The writer starting going into schtick, obviously trying to impress Jonathan. Jonathan just listened quietly for a few minutes then put his hand on the writer’s hand to gently stop him and said, “That’s why Dean left Jerry, y’know?” But that was Jonathan – offbeat, original, and in the kindest way could absolutely level you.
Robin Williams is just one of many who have been influenced by Jonathan Winters. I suppose there’s a little Winters in my comedy DNA.
I’m only sorry that a lot of his best work was the improvised material he did on late night talk shows because that was long ago and far away. For young people Jonathan Winters might just be a name. But for those of us who got to see him in action, he was Sinatra, Picasso, and Groucho all rolled into one, which is only fitting since he played so many characters.
R.I.P. Jonathan Winters. The world is a less happy place.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM