I never decided ahead of time to watch Jonathan Winters, but when I walked by and he was on the television, I never walked away until he was done.
The large child known as Jonathan Winters died Friday at age 87.
Accompanying him into the now-noisier hereafter were the multitudes he contained, a cast of men, women, children of every race and nationality, rich and poor, city and country. Some were characters with names to whom the comedian would return — Maude Frickert, the go-go granny — but more of them existed for a minute or less, brought into focus, played with and then sent on their way, as another appeared in their place. He could create a person, a backstory and a world in the space of a line.
Significantly, he began in radio, in Ohio — a man in a room, filling it with people and noises with nothing but his own voice. (He was an expert producer of sound effects.) The tenor of the times — it was an age of comedy-as-theater, including improvisational theater — set the stage for Winters' work, but he found his own way into it.
Improv, which is often done badly (and rarely solo), is not just "making things up." It requires a depth and breadth of knowledge, a sponge-like sensitivity to the wide variety of humanity, from the way people walk to the sounds they make, and not a little empathy. Winters brought a varied background to his art: He knew country life and city life; he was a gunner on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific in World War II; he had thought at one point to be a political cartoonist and went to art school to that end.
After a nervous breakdown onstage at San Francisco's Hungry I, some time in a mental hospital and a second collapse, he quit nightclub work. In the early 1960s, his work included TV appearances that more and more were tailored to his gift.
All it required for him to turn this on was a suggestion, a prop. In one famous appearance with Jack Paar, a stick becomes a fishing pole, a lion tamer's baton ("Send in those big cats — uh, send in the smaller ones"), a flute, a violin bow ("Imagine what I could do if I had the other part," Winters said, sawing his arm), the feeler of a giant beetle, a paddle, an arrow, a golf club (in the hands of a perfectly captured Bing Crosby), stocks (the kind you sit in as punishment), a teacher's pointer, a bullfighter's sword and a wand.
He was considered a kind of magician; not just a clever comic, but a different species of being, a human oddity: "This isn't a prepared comedian," Paar said of him. "There's nobody who can do what Johnny Winters does; there isn't another Johnny Winters."
His singularity means that there is not a long line of followers: There is only really Robin Williams, whose own comedy is a career-long homage to Winters' — appropriately, they played father and son (Williams being the father) on "Mork & Mindy" — and possibly Jim Carrey.
The "Mork" role was inspired casting: Not only were Winters and Williams fellow prisoners of a rapid-fire brain, but Winters' big, round face and small features gave him perpetually the look of a large baby, though he was a serious and sometimes troubled person. But that is almost a metaphor for comedy.
There was something compulsive about his comedy. "I answer my phone as anybody but myself," he told David Letterman in 1986, "because life does get a little dull when you're not working steadily."
Interviewed decades earlier by Ed Murrow for TV's "Person to Person," which was shot in the subject's home, he began: "Good evening, Ed. I am Jonathan Winters. This is my wife. These are my children. This is my living room. I'd like to show you more of the house, but there isn't any more."
On a cross-country airplane trip, he turned to the person in the next seat and said, "Gosh, see that down there ... H-E-L-P .... Oops, snow blowed it over. Well, that's life."
April 15, 2013
A Madman, but Angelic
By ROBIN WILLIAMS
My father’s laughter introduced me to the comedy of Jonathan Winters. My dad was a sweet man, but not an easy laugh. We were watching Jack Paar on “The Tonight Show” on our black-and-white television, and on came Jonathan in a pith helmet.
“Who are you?” Paar asked.
“I’m a great white hunter,” Jonathan said in an effete voice. “I hunt mainly squirrels.”
“How do you do that?”
“I aim for their little nuts.”
My dad and I lost it. Seeing my father laugh like that made me think, “Who is this guy and what’s he on?”
A short time later, Jonathan was on Paar again. This time Jack handed him a stick, and what happened next was extraordinary. Jon did a four-minute freestyle riff in which that stick became a fishing rod, a spear, a giant beetle antenna, even Bing Crosby’s golf club complete with song. Each transformation was a cameo with characters and sound effects. He was performing comedic alchemy. The world was his laboratory. I was hooked.
Not only was Jonathan funny on TV, but his comedy albums are also auditory bliss. One of my favorite routines involved a mad scientist who sounded like Boris Karloff. But instead of creating a Frankenstein, he made thousands of little men that he unleashed on the world. His shocked assistant cried out, “What are they looking for?”
The professor replied, “Little women, you fool.”
He also created comic characters like Maude Frickert and the overgrown child Chester Honeyhugger. In one classic pre-P.C.-era routine, he had Maude being molested by a huge farmhand. She protested, “Stop, I’m church people.” After he had his way, he was off to do his chores, and she called out, “Don’t be long.”
Mort Sahl said Jonathan was seen as a great improviser, but to him he was just being himself. He was a rebel without a pause, whether he was portraying the WASP who couldn’t get a decent martini in Mombasa or the cowboy who couldn’t ride a horse and backed out of frame. Jonathan’s wife, Eileen, maybe had the best quote. She said that Jonathan went through his terrible 2’s but that they lasted 20 years.
In 1981, my sitcom “Mork & Mindy” was about to enter its fourth and final season. The show had run its course and we wanted to go out swinging. The producers suggested hiring Jonathan to play my son, who ages backward. That woke me out of a two-year slump. The cavalry was on the way.
Jonathan’s improvs on “Mork & Mindy” were legendary. People on the Paramount lot would pack the soundstage on the nights we filmed him. He once did a World War I parody in which he portrayed upper-class English generals, Cockney infantrymen, a Scottish sergeant no one could understand and a Zulu who was in the wrong war. The bit went on so long that all three cameras ran out of film. Sometimes I would join in, but I felt like a kazoo player sitting in with Coltrane.
On one of his first days on the show, a young man asked Jonathan how to get into show business. He said: “You know how movie studios have a front gate? You get a Camaro with a steel grill, drive it through the gate, and once you’re on the lot, you’re in showbiz.”
No audience was too small for Jonathan. I once saw him do a hissing cat for a lone beagle.
His comedy sometimes had an edge. Once, at a gun show, Jon was looking at antique pistols and a man asked if he was a gun proponent. He said: “No, I prefer grenades. They’re more effective.”
Earlier in his life, he had a breakdown and spent some time in a mental institution. He joked that the head doctor told him: “You can get out of here. All you need is 57 keys.” He also hinted that Eileen wanted him to stay there at least until Christmas because he made great ornaments.
Even in his later years, he exorcised his demons in public. His car had handicap plates. He once parked in a blue lane and a woman approached him and said, “You don’t look handicapped to me.”
Jonathan said, “Madam, can you see inside my mind?”
If you wanted a visual representation of Jonathan’s mind, you’d have to go to his house. It is awe-inspiring. There are his paintings (a combination of Miró and Navajo); baseball memorabilia; Civil War pistols and swords; model airplanes, trains, and tin trucks from the ’20s; miniature cowboys and Indians; and toys of all kinds.
We shared a love of painted military miniatures. He once sent me four tiny Napoleonic hookers in various states of undress with a note that read, “For zee troops!”
But the toys were a manifestation of a dark time in his life. Jonathan was a Marine who fought in the Pacific in World War II. When he came home from the war, he went to his old bedroom and discovered that his prized tin trucks were gone.
He asked his mother what she did with his stuff.
“I gave them to the mission,” she said.
“Why did you do that?”
“I didn’t think you were coming back,” she replied.
Jonathan has shuffled off this mortal coil. So here’s to Jonny Winters, the cherubic madman with a stick who touched so many. Damn, am I going to miss you!
Robin Williams is an Oscar-, Emmy- and Grammy-winning actor and comedian. He recently completed filming “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn” and is in production on “A Friggin’ Christmas Miracle.”