Time for another installment of Saturday Hot Links! Or not…
Today: The “We Remember The Comic Genius of Jonathan Winters” Edition!
In a departure this week, I am going to delay the usual SHL until tomorrow in order to honor one of my heroes: Jonathan Winters. The brilliant comic actor and comedian died this week. He was 87 years old.
I was first introduced to Winters’ unique brand of humor in 1967-1969 with his variety show on CBS. I was a teenager at the time and was fascinated by comedians, staying up late to watch “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, the last segment where he usually featured stand-up comics. Winters was featured on many “Tonight Show” episodes and was about the only guest who could reliably have Johnny falling off his chair with laughter.
Jonathan Winters was a comic genius. There is no other way to describe his creative instincts. If you take the time to watch any of the videos I have posted below, you will see some of his brilliance at work.
His character work was incredible, how he totally inhabited these creatures of his own imagination.
His voice was remarkable, shifting from one persona to another seamlessly.
But it was his improvisation which shone like the stars. On his variety show, each week Winters would take a prop and come up with 2, 3, 4 or more bits completely out of the blue. And they were always funny. He could seemingly riff on anything and had a uncanny sense of calm amidst the most uncertain improvisational circumstances.
As I say, comic genius.
How much did I admire Jonathan Winters? You can go here to read how I wandered into writing my first screenplay. Complete and utter happenstance. In the midst of a two year stint doing a stand-up comedy act, playing clubs up and down California, it was only natural that my initial foray into screenwriting would be about something I knew: The script was titled “Stand Up”.
The logline: “A talented, but inexperienced stand-up comic goes on tour with a legendary comedian who is struggling through a mental breakdown.”
The character I had in mind for that “legendary comedian” was Jonathan Winters. From Wikipedia:
In his interview with the Archive of American Television, Winters reported that he spent eight months in a private psychiatric hospital in 1959 and again in 1961. Although he was not given a diagnosis while in the hospital, the comic was later diagnosed with manic depression. With an unprecedented frenetic energy, Winters made obscure references to his illness and hospitalization during his stand-up routines, most famously on his 1960 comedy album The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters. During his classic “flying saucer” routine, Winters casually mentions that if he wasn’t careful, the authorities might put him back in the “zoo”, referring to the institution.
That was the character in my script: A manic-depressive. Every time I wrote that character, I had Winters in my mind. I tried my best to honor him with his stand-up routines, his spontaneous ‘performances’ for waitresses, police who arrested him, etc. But throughout, despite dueling with his own personal demons, he served as a Mentor to my story’s Protagonist, the young comic. The truth he conveyed, through subtext and actions, was this: If you really want to be funny, you have to be willing to go all the way.
That rookie comic learns that lesson pertains to how one lives life as well.
One day many years ago, I met with somebody – I can’t remember who – at Musso and Frank in Hollywood. After lunch as I was heading outside, I saw him: Jonathan Winters, seated at the table nearest the front door with some other diners.
I can’t tell you how many times I have intersected with this actor or that, and not spoken to him or her. I know the drill. It’s just not cool. They deserve their privacy. And besides I can devolve into a little kid in their presence, so my default mode is turn aside and get the hell out of Dodge without causing a stir.
But not this day. I pivot and blurt out, “Mr. Winters.”
He trains his gaze up at me.
Holy shit! It’s the Jonathan Winters!!! He’s looking at me!
“I used to watch your variety show. I just want you to know, you make me laugh more than… anybody.”
He smiles at me. The people at his table nod their head. A nice moment. Fan meets idol.
Then he reaches out his hand to shake mine and says, “Well, I’m glad you have such low expectations.”
Today a special Saturday Hot Links. I’ll provide the usual links tomorrow. But for now, enjoy the comedy of Jonathan Winters:
Several comedians remember his remarkable talent.
Godspeed, Jonathan Winters.