Monday, April 15th, 2013

There Will Never Be Another Jonathan Winters

There, in his eyes.

Controlled madness. Laser-keen in bursts. Pointed and precise.

Vulnerability, too. A certain tenderness. His eyes set the tone for his act.

I can't think of an American comedian more revered and respected than Jonathan Winters. (There's Jack Benny, for those who remember him.) Winters created a world where you were welcome, but you had to keep pace. His rapid-fire mind took hairpin turns. The inattentive might be left in his dust.

Winters was one of the more offbeat performers in mainstream comedy. He was as polished as Hope. As graceful as Gleason. As biting as Rickles. Yet Winters pushed it further. Breathed different oxygen. No matter how far out he went, Winters was accepted and cherished in the most conservative venues.

His improvisation skills were wholly singular. No Viola Spolin games or Del Close Harold for him. He broke standard improv rules, and it didn't matter. Once Winters got rolling, everything else conformed to his reality.

With the tributes pouring in, you've doubtless seen clips of Winters' performances on Jack Paar, Dean Martin, or Andy Williams' shows. You're aware of the heavy influence he had on younger comics, Robin Williams especially. But Winters could dial it back, divert his gifts in engaging directions.

On a 1961 Twilight Zone, Winters played the ghost of a Minnesota Fats character. He serves as counsel and warning sign to a pool shark played by Jack Klugman. Early Twilight Zones retained the flavor of live TV drama from the 1950s, so we get a taste of how Winters might have served a Rod Serling or Paddy Chayefsky script from that golden age.

In The Loved One, Tony Richardson's 1965 satire of the funeral industry, based on Evelyn Waugh's novel, Winters plumbed an odder vibe. His Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy plans to blast the dead into outer space to open up more profitable real estate on Earth. Here he explains his scheme to a frightened cosmetician, played by Anjanette Comer.

The Loved One was co-written by Terry Southern (with Christopher Isherwood) whose dark absurdist dialogue seemed tailor-made for Winters. Former SNL writer and Michael O'Donoghue collaborator Nelson Lyon reunited Southern and Winters on Give Me Your Hump (2001), a collection of readings and performances of Southern's published work.

In "Freud & Kafka (Act 2: An Apartment To Exchange)," Winters infuses both iconic figures with his mad energy, giving Southern's prose added pop. But Sandra Bernhard seems out of place. There's no reason why Winters couldn't have played her role as well.

Nelson told me about working with Winters. He was of course a consummate pro; but Nelson detected a wistful side. Although he was kind to younger comedians, Winters confessed that he wasn't fond of post-ironic, Letterman-esque humor. The dumbest things were considered humorous. ("They make jokes about blank walls — 'See that wall? Isn't it funny?'" he said to Nelson) Joy and imaginative abandon were missing.

All aging comics have critical views of later generations. Winters, at least in this case, was no exception. Yet there was a lack of bitterness and anger. Despite setbacks, breakdowns, and bipolar disorder, Jonathan Winters maintained a sweet creative edge. He truly loved performing.

Those of us who grew up watching him felt that love. We were luckier than we knew.

Dennis Perrin is the author of Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue, The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous.

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  • Arthur Goode

    "There, in his eyes.
    Controlled madness. Laser-keen in bursts. Pointed and precise.
    Vulnerability, too. A certain tenderness. His eyes set the tone for his act."

    Great – captured that something about him perfectly.
    I also like your clips, it recalls the way he fit into a certain trend of classic era TV, comedians doing drama (Regading Serling, Micky Rooney comes to mind too)

    Since you referred to him, I think Jack Benny would provide an interesting contrast. Diametrically opposite to Winters in style, Benny is from another era, so of course the recorded evidence of his younger, peak era wasn't available growing up as part of everyday media, in the same way Winters would be. Benny developed a single character (himself) over years and shaped different formats to that. His comedy was known for his timing, sustains etc. Winters at his most fun, displayed (as you point out) the connective speed of thoughts and associations firing off to be evidenced in different characters (like a set of character-actors in his head) that reflect his psyche. It was funny as it also seemed to come from somewhere recognizable, approachable, laced with some part of a sense of wonder or joy you point to. Which is so opposite to the narcissistic,manic on-steroids-feel of Robin Winters (and regarding Jonathan Winters, Mork and MIndy shouldn't be considered anyone's "good turn")
    I guess I'm going to try and look for some recordings of Winters now.