The great Jonathan Winters passed away Thursday at the age of eighty-seven, taking with him Maude Frickert, Elwood P. Suggins and a seemingly endless array of eccentric characters drawn largely from his Ohio childhood. Winters was a true original. With most comics, you can point to at least one older comedian who clearly influenced their act. Winters came out of nowhere, anticipating the improv comedy explosion of the late 1950s with his "in the moment" brilliance.
That was the exhilarating, and sometimes frightening, thing about Winters: he was almost always "on". It was effortless for him to slip into a character; in the blink of an eye, he could transform himself into a batty old lady or a folksy farmer. Winters thought of himself as a satirist, but, as comedy historian Gerald Nachman points out in SERIOUSLY FUNNY (an essential collection of essays on 1950s and '60s comics), his *soft* targets were everyday Americans. NPR broadcaster Murray Horwitz said of Winters, "The accuracy of his satire is uncanny. He can give you a character in two sentences and in a couple of deft strokes he can paint a whole person and, though that person, often a whole world. Nobody before did this - not even Sid Caesar."
Winters's contemporaries were in awe of his talent, and, once he began making regular appearances on TONIGHT STARRING JACK PAAR in the early '60s, the nation fell in love with him, too. Winters was different in that he needed a good deal of space - i.e. air time - to create a character. In the '60s, guys like Paar could afford to be a little more generous with time, which allowed viewers a taste of what it might be like to see Winters let loose in a nightclub - and *that* was Winters in his natural environment.
There are, of course, several stories of Winters's bizarre behavior, the most famous of which involves him climbing the rigging of The Balclutha, a sailing ship docked in San Francisco, and barking commands to take vessel out to sea. He was committed for a time, which hurt his career in the early '60s, but he managed to get back on track by the middle part of the decade. From that point forward, Winters found his niche, which, sadly, was as a small-doses madman. He never had a long-running television series or a breakout performance in a movie; mostly, he did supporting bits, thus relieving writers and directors the burden of trying to figure out how to fully harness his unruly genius.
My first experience with Winters was when he joined the cast of MORK & MINDY as the couple's child, Mearth. I thought he was a gas (I was eight), but the show's ratings, already in decline, nosedived, which led to a swift cancelation. Winters would return to series television in 1991, starring alongside Randy Quaid in DAVIS RULES, and while the show didn't make it past two seasons, it did earn Winters his first and only Emmy.
If you want to get a sense of what Winters meant to the world of comedy, you need only take a trip to YouTube - or, better yet, check out the Twitter feeds of notable comedians, many of whom are linking to his choice bits. But I will leave you with one clip. It's Winters tangling with Arnold Stang and Marvin Kaplan in Stanley Kramer's chaotic IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD. I know this isn't Winters anywhere near his best, but it's a movie I loved as a child, and this scene, for whatever reason, always makes me laugh. For a man who often dealt in the inexplicable, this seems an appropriate sendoff.
From one Ohioan to another, thanks for the lunacy, Mr. Winters.
"People in general I love. The people I'm really after with my silver bullet are the bully, the bigot or the Babbitt. I'm not really out to snuff the life out of people. That's no fun for me. But just to watch people operate kills me. I carry a dagger, but it has a rubber blade." - Jonathan Winters
No him, no me.No MOST of us, comedy-wise, come to think of it.#RIP Jonathan Winters— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) April 12, 2013