Saturday, April 13, 2013

Jonathan Winters 1925-2013

Jonathan Winters was quite simply a comic genius. I was privileged to watch him in action a few times and was absolutely in awe. No one was faster, more inventive, or funnier than Jonathan Winters.

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.

29 comments:

Pat Reeder said...

Friday being my day off, I was away from the news and hadn't heard this until I stopped by your blog. Now, I'm really depressed. Jonathan Winters was one of the greatest comic minds of all time. I have some hilarious tapes that are just outtakes of him doing radio commercials and riffing at the mic for half an hour.

One of the funniest bits I've ever heard was captured on one of his albums. It's his parody of a Lerner & Lowe-type Broadway musical, complete with the entire score: "I paint that wagon all day loooong..."

RIP to a man who truly deserves the overused and seldom-earned title, "comic genius."

unkystan said...

Netflix has a 2007 mockumentary available called "Certifiably Jonathan" in which he plays himself in a spoof of his obsession with being a serious painter. Hilarious and you can stream it. He was the King (yes, capital "K")and will surely be missed. RIP

DonBoy said...

Not only do I remember Davis Rules, I remember Bonnie Hunt seeming to hold her own when the two of them were riffing together.

A Fan said...

Found this on you tube, "Before he was Jonathan Winters."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mndv-c6JTyY

sanfernandolil said...

One thing about Jonathan, as brilliant as he was at ad-libbing, when he was acting he was always very considerate of the appropriateness of ad-libbing to the scene, as well as to the ability of whoever he was working with to handle his particular brand of spontaneity. Few performers with his skills are that thoughtful.

emily said...

One of my rolemodels in life was Maude Frickert.

Johnny Walker said...

Once again, Marc Maron did a fantastic interview with the subject of the day's blogpost. This one was recorded just two years ago, and is possibly the last interview Winters ever did(?).

Despite being 85, Winters was still firing on all cylinders and talked opening and honestly about his life. It's another amazing interview.

WTF with Jonathan Winters

(It was recorded so long ago that the episode is now a "Premium Episode", so you will have to get the WTF App for your iPhone or what-have-you to listen to it, but as you can see from the comments on the page above, it's worth it.)

Anonymous said...

Marc tweeted that he is reposting the interview from the archive.

Ray Heiden said...

I was always fascinated by Mr. Winters' appearances on TV, but I never laughed at one of his performances. I just kept watching.

Cruising the web, I've read many fond remembrances of folks who'd been happy just to have met him.

And I certainly don't blame him for Robin Williams.

Another good guy lost.



Johnny Walker said...

I just saw that and was going to post it here. Sweet! Everyone will be able to listen to it for free later today then.

WTFPod.com

Bob Publicover said...

Johnny, I felt premium was worth the price! Thank you, Ken for your remembrances. My one direct contact with Jonathon Winters was a wonderful, thoughtful, quiet conversation. Seeing the sparkle in his eyes made me love the man as much as the mania.

EileenK said...

Luckily for us, many of Jonathan Winters's performances are on YouTube. Here he riffed for 8-1/2 minutes in the Dean Martin Roast of Frank Sinatra. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XynxTU8ovZ8
He did a lot of those roasts. He always played a character in those bits and never broke character, improvising all of it. Hilarious.

Brian Phillips said...

I've written a blog entry about him here:

http://ultrasonicremote.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-impact-of-jonathan-winters.html

To DonBoy: Agreed. As a matter of fact, Bonnie Hunt (a Second City Alumnus) on her sitcom "Bonnie" played a reporter. The "live reports" were not scripted and she was hilarious. I don't remember her part in "Davis Rules" but her riffing with Winters and doing it well is no surprise.

Brian Phillips said...

DonBoy addendum: Both Hunt and Winters are/were great actors. Hunt was great in "The Green Mile" and Winters and Jack Klugman were both wonderful in the Twilight Zone episode, "A Game of Pool".

RCP said...

Wonderful tribute, Ken - and thanks for attaching the clip from the Jack Paar Show. What a brilliant, brilliant man.

Brian Phillips: totally agree about "A Game of Pool" - yet another facet of JW's amazing talent.

MikeAdamson said...

"I paint that wagon all day loooong..."

"And that's why I sing this happy,happy song..."

Bought that album when I was 12 or 13...hilarious!

VincentS said...

That was a great tribute, Ken. I grew up on Jonathan Winters. I remember his variety show as well as his numerous other TV appearances. Once he appeared on the tonight show after Robin Williams. He walked out in an authentic Civil War uniform with no explanation for it! It was the only time I EVER saw Robin Williams speechless - he was too busy laughing! The world is indeed a less funny place

Breadbaker said...

What's amazing about that clip is that he's wearing a plain suit and tie but he changes not just his accent, but also his stance and facial tension each time he changes character and it's dead on perfect each time.

Ken's comment about it taking six months for him to write what Jonathan could improvise on a dime is so spot on. The whole thing feels like the scene in Cyrano where he riffs on his nose, but I'm betting Rostand didn't write that in five minutes.

Cap'n Bob said...

Winteres collected toy soldier figures of French Foreign Legionnaires.

Canda said...

Great to see a clip from the Tonight Show with Jack Paar when intelligent people had lively conversations, and people like Winters could be allowed such freedom.

NBC deserves all their misfortune by thinking that intellectual lightweight Jimmy Fallon is any kind of successor to Paar and Carson. Leno seems like Noel Coward in comparison.

Cap'n Bob said...

My typo. I meant Winters, of course. No relation to Katy, by the way.

Daddy Background said...

Also from Marc Maron via http://www.xojane.com/entertainment/jonathan-winters-biography -

"I met him twice. The first time I was a guy with a mic for Comedy Central at the Montreal Comedy Festival in the early nineties. I was walking around interviewing people. There was a gala event and I was stopping entertainers who were going in to ask them questions. I walked up to Jonathan Winters and asked the question I was told to ask. Before I could get it out of my mouth I noticed Dick Cavett run up to the sound guy in my crew. I saw the sound guy take off his headphones and give them to Cavett. I turned to Jonathan and said something like, “Mr. Winters, have you seen any young performers that have made an impression on you or that you’ve enjoyed here at the festival?” He looked at me with grave seriousness and said, “I haven’t been able to get out to many shows. My wife is ill in the hotel room. I’ve been taking care of her.” It was not the answer I was expecting. I tried to be polite and appropriate and said, “I’m sorry to hear that.” He looked at me with the same stern earnestness and said, “I shouldn’t have flown her in air cargo. It's cold and there are animals down there.” At that moment I heard Dick Cavett howling with laughter behind me. I had been had. It was an honor."

VP81955 said...

As a native upstate New Yorker, I recall Jonathan for the long-running series of Utica Club beer commercials, where he voiced talking beer mugs Schultz and Dooley. They were as funny and charming an ad campaign as Bob and Ray's Bert and Harry Piels spots were to the downstate crowd, and many of them can be found on YouTube.

chuckcd said...

He was one of my favorites.
Sad to see him go.

Johnny Walker said...

I believe that's a transcription from the interview that's now available for free on the WTF website.

Posterity said...

@Pat Reeder - any chance you could put them on youtube for me?

Posterity said...

@Pat Reeder - any chance you could put them on youtube for me?

Posterity said...

@Pat Reeder - any chance you could put them on youtube for me?

Posterity said...

@Pat Reeder - any chance you could put them on youtube for me?