One of the most original and influential comedians in stand-up, Jonathan Winters could dazzle and delight audiences as both a zany clown and a caustic satirist. Incredibly, he could be both at the same time. The same routines that might amuse a country fair crowd accustomed to Red Skelton would also draw knowing chuckles and approval from nightclub sophisticates accustomed to Mort Sahl.
Two things everyone agreed on: when Jonathan came along, there was no one remotely like him. And in the years since he came along, no one has remotely found out what to do with him. His genius was so unique, it didn’t always fit in to pre-conceived TV variety shows, movies, or sitcoms. It seemed to work best in stand-up concerts and talk show appearances.
As a clown, the moon-faced comic twisted his features and changed his voice and suddenly became an entire country of funny characters—rural types, city slickers, old women, young kids, pressured businessmen, laconic gas station attendants and sharp politicians. As a satirist, the laughs were brutally on-target. His characterizations, warts, cliches and all, were mirrors that gently distorted each person’s weaknesses and folly so that they were made not only crystal clear, but hilarious as well.
One of the keys to Winters’ comedy was a line he used in his early monologues. He believed “most men are little boys.” As for the rich businessmen and powerful politicians, “they just have bigger toys.”
Winters was born in Dayton, Ohio. When he was only seven his parents split up. The boy was frustrated in school; never a very good student. He enlisted in the Marines when he was 17 and after World War II held a succession of odd jobs, ultimately turning up as a disc jockey and TV personality on WBNS in Columbus. In 1953 he came to New York but lost as a stand-up comic on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.” He did win some walk-on parts on a Saturday morning kids’ show called “Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers.” The show’s star, Cliff Robertson: “During our rehearsals, or even when he wasn’t on the air, he’d go behind a flat and the most amazing and weird sounds would come our way—all kinds of things like machine guns, bomb blasts, and everything imaginable.” He was simply referred to around the set as “the nut.”
“The nut” was an amazing chameleon, able to change identities and stay in the new character as if it were real. Like a chameleon, his actions were really reactions. He was “on” all the time, all the world becoming his stage. It wasn’t enough to mimic people’s pathetic foolishness, pomposity or pretensions for audience approval. It was as important to confront them one-to-one off-stage, playing the game for his own amusement. Sometimes it would take the form of a benign put-on, but sometimes it was more sinister. Like the time he silenced a gabby cab driver by intimating he was The Mad Bomber, complete with furtive glances and veiled threats.
Winters didn’t merely have talented vocal cords or a sensitive ear. He had a sensitive heart and sensitive skin, and every person who crossed his path made an impression. Some were reflected back to an audience with love like the rube Elwood P. Suggins or feisty old lady Maude Frickert. But many characters were etched in acid; caricatures of the giggling jeering schoolmates he knew as a kid, the blustery officers who ruled over him in the Marines, or those he called “the Babbitts, the pseudo-intellectuals, the little politicians” he encountered in his every day life.
When Winters arrived, he was considered breathtakingly unique. While some comics had dabbled in routines involving sound effects and even visual and verbal mimicry of characters, no one had done it as well, or with such a sharp satiric eye, or with such a bewildering arsenal of ad-libs and stream-of-conscious allusions. Like satirical and surreal artists from Arcimboldo to Daumier and Dali, Winters often got laughs from the way he painted it verbally and visually or by his unique imagery—which included images comically homely (a prison warden eyeing a disturbance in the yard while “sucking on a tangerine”) or surreally hilarious (the inventor who vowed to master flight: “he scotch-taped a hundred twenty six pigeons to his arms.”)
Many have wondered who inspired Winters. He said in 1989 “I’d have to go back to James Thurber. Writers, more than performers. I think that Laurel and Hardy are still two of the funniest guys in the world. The Marx Brothers were funny guys. W.C. Fields a funny man. Chaplin, a very unique talent who also made statements about the times…I think that these guys were unique in their own right…you try to be just a little bit different. I learned a lot from Peter Sellers. I was one of his biggest admirers…”
Called the “John O’Hara of Sound,” Winters appeared on TV in 1954 doing sound effects while Mickey Spillane read from his detective book, “I, the Jury.” The odd sound-effects and lightning fast ad-lib impressions made him a novelty on talk shows hosted by Jack Paar and Steve Allen, and in 1957 Winters had his own 15 minute TV series. The time was too short and the format too pressurized to really show him at his best—the first of many disappointments with executives who recognized, but did not fully understand his talent.
In nightclubs in the late 50’s Winters developed dozens of six minute routines, little mini-movies in a style that was coming into vogue at the time with Will Jordan and Lenny Bruce. Many were actual parodies of films, as Winters acted out all the characters of “The Prison Scene,” or a western “Scratchy” or an adventure epic “The Lost Island” or a variety of horror films. Often Winters peopled the stage with one-man sketches that were bizarrely original: a nagging old lady at a funeral, a jaundiced look at the average amateur “talent show,” a scene in a pet shop selling used, defective or damaged animals, or a monologue about a turtle trying to cross a road of constantly speeding cars so he could see his girlfriend.
Performing such daring and original material at a time when it was literally unheard of was painful, as was the lifestyle of a comedian which involved endless travel, gruelling two and three shows a night gigs, and a reliance on alcohol and coffee to deaden the strain or pump life into a late show performance. The crash came in May of 1959 when, half in fun and half in desperation, he climbed into the rigging of a ship moored at Fisherman’s Wharf. “I’m John Q. from Outer Space,” he shouted at an arriving police officer. Winters was forcibly taken away in handcuffs as photographers snapped pictures of the angry, grimacing comedian.
Winters had now earned his reputation as “the nut,” the wild man of comedy. Talk show hosts, friends, fellow comedians, audiences—they all urged him to even wilder escapades. And now he had gone over the edge. Fortunately, though the publicity around the incident would dog him for decades, Winters recuperated within a few weeks and, remarkably, was able to resume his “on the edge” comedy style. Now he knew better than before exactly how razor sharp the edge was. He somehow found a suitable pace for himself, came back funnier and as bizarre as ever, and even joked about the incident on his next comedy album.
In 1961 Winters made an impressive appearance on “The Twilght Zone” as a stark and serious pool hustler. Comedy was still his domain though, and in the 60’s Winters hosted a TV variety show for a few seasons, began to make films, and found audiences willing to indulge him when he decided to “wing it” on stage, forsaking unfulfilling set routines for suggestions from the crowd. It was on his own terms now: he told the audience that some of their suggestions would pay off, and others wouldn’t, but that the show would at least be something unique and different.
Winters continued to influence performers all around him. Admirer Johnny Carson clearly patterned his “Aunt Blabby” after “Maude Frickert.” On talk shows, actor Burt Reynolds copied Winters’ hip conversational style (including meaningful comic glares and indulgent mock chuckling) to great success. His ex-wife Judy Carne, rememberedhis fondness for performing entire Winters routines for friends. And Robin Williams applied Winters’ stream of conscious techniques to the needs of comedy club audiences in the 80’s.
Though Winters often complained that he was “on the bench” more often than out on the field, his fans could always count on seeing him from time to time in concert or on a talk show, in a somewhat muted fim role, or in a sitcom (as “Mearth,” son of Mork on Robin Williams’ “Mork and Mindy” and later in his Emmy-award winning role as Randy Quaid’s eccentric and feisty father on “Davis Rules”).
When not busy with comedy, Winters, married and father of two, pursued his other interests. A capable announcer, he was often in demand for commercial voice-overs and narrated stories for children’s albums. In 1991 his resemblance to Iraqi war hero Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf led to a series of print ads with Winters dressed up in Army outfits. A well-trained painter, Winters won praise from many critics and his works were high-priced among collectors. A book of his short fables and observations, “Winters Tales,” turned out to be a best seller.
The book, along with the comedians’ stand-up albums, films, and video-taped TV appearances belong to posterity. Not so the physical body. Winters never wanted any fuss or monument after he was gone:
“I’m going to be cremated and have my ashes put in a Campbell’s soup can and taken out to the dump and mashed or something. I don’t even want an urn. I don’t want people around the house thinking it’s pipe tobacco, or hitting it and saying “What’s in that?” “Oh, that’s Dad.” I would level cemeteries. The ground is for the living. The ground is for food, for animals, for people. We don’t need to put a lot of stones up. The dead don’t get up…I don’t see people coming back. If they are, God love ‘em, then they’re coming back as squirrels or beavers.”