Looking at Some of Jonathan Winters’ Earliest TV Appearances
The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down).
Improv on TV is a mixed bag. Whose Line is it Anyway? did short form improv (and will again in the future) for years successfully, but is generally scoffed at by those who study long form improv. The Upright Citizens Brigade tried to turn their weekly improvised show, ASSSSCAT into a show for Bravo in 2005, but didn’t get beyond a one-hour special. As we learned in an earlier column, even Woody Allen tried to get in the mix with a sitcom pilot that was made in 1962 about a struggling New York improv troupe. Recently, the comedy world lost one of the pioneers of improvisational comedy with the passing of Jonathan Winters. Today we look at two of his early television appearances and examine the magic of his particular brand of comedy.
One of the biggest elements in Winters’ comedy was his use of characters. His old lady character, Maude Frickert, was perhaps his most well known, but they were a constant force in his work, to the point where there are very few moments in either of these pieces of television where the “real” Jonathan Winters is present, which is very unique for a standup. In his interview on Marc Maron’s WTF, he describes his first foray into show business as the host of a radio program on WING in Dayton, Ohio. Getting sick of just reading the time and temperature, Winters began to interview himself as a character, and was promptly told by the management to cut it out. (He did, but not for long.)
The November 27, 1956 episode of The Jonathan Winters Show begins with Winters pulling that same trick, only this time we get to see him interview himself. At the top of the fifteen minute program, a then 38-year-old Don Pardo announces that we are going to be taken to Niagara Falls, to see an interview with a man who is about to go over the falls in a car. Cut to Winters, in a black room, pretending to hold a microphone, introducing his guest, Elwood P. Suggins. He then turns to Camera 2, seamlessly adopts a hillbilly voice, and tells us about the long line of falls jumpers he is descended from. “My brother Dean went over in a rubber ball, bounced over into the Canadian side, we think he’s somewhere in Toronto. My youngest brother went over the falls in a pair of work gloves. He wasn’t right…” Moments later, Mrs. Suggins (also Winters), the boy’s nervous mother, enters and watches Elwood go over the falls. She is overjoyed to see that he’s made good on his promise after 28 years: he finally washed the car.
The format of the show is the standard for the time: a few sketches, a musical guest (in this case, Edie Adams, wife of the beloved Ernie Kovacs), a commercial for the sponsor, and a pop culture parody. In this episode, the latter takes the form of a parody of “My Fair Lady,” in a gender-reversal production called “My Fair Gentleman.” But the whole production feels different, fresher somehow. There’s nothing topical to date the show, though that may just be luck of the draw in this case as Winters chose a target to parody that happened to last the progression of time. While the buttons that close each of the sketches are a little corny, sketches are notoriously hard to end, and so that can be forgiven to some extent. There is an electricity to this sort of one-man production that you don’t often see in a lot of material of this time that speaks to the performance ability of Winters.
From 1956 we jump ahead to 1964. The Jonathan Winters Show had ended and its host had become a household name, having recorded a number of comedy albums, and appearing many times on both Jack Parr’s and Carson’s Tonight Show, The NBC Comedy Hour, an episode of The Twilight Zone, and the film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Following up on all of this success, NBC decided to give Winters his own hour-long special, entitled Jonathan Winters: A Wild Winters Night. The production was basically a larger version of his fifteen-minute program, complete with musical guest (The New Christy Minstrels, who are immediately recognizable as the inspiration for The New Main Street Singers from Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind). Along for the ride is Jack Parr, who stops by to briefly “sign-off” on the evening and make a quick cameo, and Art Carney who is around for the entire night.
Throughout the special, I kept trying to think of a contemporary comedian that most closely matched Winters’ style of comedy, before realizing that there wasn’t one. There is some similarity with his future co-star on Mork and Mindy, Robin Williams, with his off-the-cuff style, but he doesn’t have the same manic energy, and use of characters. I found a little bit of Jim Gaffigan in him as Winters would speak for the audience after doing something strange, exclaiming in a deep, fatherly voice, pointing at an invisible television set, “What’s he doing, Martha? He’s making a fool out of himself!” And then there’s a little bit of the Whose Line guys there too.
When Art Carney comes out, he almost immediately rolls out a table of hats. There are a number of different costume hats, like an Indian headdress, a marching band hat, and so on. Art starts at the left end of the table, and works his way down, putting on a hat, saying something weird, getting applause from the audience, and then taking off the hat. For example, he puts on a Viking helmet, and then, pointing to the horns says in a Scandinavian accent says, “You talk about your wisdom teeth!” and then moves on. Whether or not this piece was actually improvised or not, I can’t say, however, later in the show the pair each have large tables of wigs and beards, and here it is very clear that they are speaking extemporaneously. In that sequence there are bits that work well, such as when Art Carney interviews Winters as a weather predicting groundhog, but there are also bits that fall flat. For example, towards the end, probably out of ideas, Winters picks up a number of wigs and puts them on, exclaiming, “Look at my hair! It’s all over me! What do I do, Fred? I can’t go to the ball this way!” Art Carney responds, giving him the opposite of a “yes, and” by saying, “you’re not going to the ball that way.”
The hour, as a whole, is a fine representation of Winters’ comedic style. The final piece of the night features him as Maude, his old lady character, receiving a selection of birthday presents from the new Christy Minstrels. While it’s never stated outright, I don’t believe Winters knew what gifts were going to be given to him, again incorporating his improv abilities as he responds to each of the gifts and goofs around with each of the band members. When a female singer from the band dramatically asks Maude what the most terrifying experience she’s had in her life, Winters first comments on her acting, saying “What a dramatic reading!” before eventually answering the question.
But in light of Winters’ passing, it was the ending of the show that I found the most endearing, as he talks about the recently published book Happiness is a Warm Puppy, by Charles Shultz which features the Peanuts characters reflecting on the things that personify happiness from the perspective of childhood. After giving a few examples from the book, he moves on to talk about happiness from his own, adult perspective. And even though in this moment, he’s just saying goodbye until we see him on The Tonight Show next, today it reads as a perfect send off from a very funny performer.
“Happiness is coming home, opening that door, and kissing my wife Eileen. Seeing my dog Maude and my boy Jay, talking about that tree house we’re going to build come next spring. He’s a big boy and a good boy. Throwing the football (he throws a pretty mean pass)… My little daughter Lucinda, she can be a tough audience…The four of us on the stairs, or sneaking down at night to get a little cold fried chicken. Just being around the house, walking up that long stone path, Jay, Lucinda and myself. That’s our happiness… There’s a special kind of happiness for everyone. Happiness for thankfulness and that during the last hour I brought a little happiness to people like you. Goodnight everybody.”