Friday, April 12, 2013

My Comic Hero

Jonathan Winters died yesterday. I have had a handful of comedy heroes in my life. Jonathan Winters was one. He was the comedian’s comedian. All the great comedians of his era worshiped him. Mostly because he was just brilliantly funny and fearless, with a gift for voices and improvisation that no one could come near.

Jonathan was one of the many regulars on Jack Paar’s talk show. I was a kid, twelve years old or so, when I first saw him perform. I’d already fallen in love with jokes and comedy, memorizing comedy albums and practicing my timing by simply learning the pace of each comic I admired, from Woody Allen to Bill Cosby to Tom Lehrer (who recently turned 85—Happy Birthday, Tom, you’re another of my personal comedy heroes). Jonathan Winters was a whole different game.

You could see that Jack Paar was thrilled, and scared to death at the same time, to have him on his show. Paar often said that he never wanted to know what Jonathan Winters was going to talk about, or how he would look when he walked out on stage. And when Jonathan Winters got going, the tears of laughter would stream down Paar’s face. Mine, too. As soon as he walked on stage, I began to smile. It made me want to be funny.

Winters once walked out as a “faun,” announcing Spring. With a silly accent, he proceeded to do about ten uninterrupted minutes of pure silliness and genius. Or he might appear in drag as Maude Frickert, the World’s Oldest Airline Stewardess. Maude was a hard-drinking old woman based on Winter’s Aunt Lou, the classic Dirty Old Broad. There were seemingly hundreds of people living in his brain, and you never knew which one would be in charge.

Genius is rare in any field. Winters was a comic genius. He didn’t tell jokes, he didn’t really have punchlines. He created a world and you were immediately drawn into it. He could make you laugh with a simple look on his face, or a tone of voice. Jack Paar famously handed him a stick on the air one night, and Winters did five minutes of brilliant and funny improvisation with that simple stick. It’s wondrous to watch even now. There is no one like him--a simple definition of genius.

I always wanted to meet him. Just to shake the hand of a great, genuinely great, comic mind. One of my most valued books is a book signed by Jonathan Winters, a book he wrote entitled “Winters’ Tales.” That’s as close as I’ll come.

Throughout his life, he famously battled his demons, was in and out of treatment for mental breakdowns. He must have known great heartache and struggle. But he had a great influence on me. It was Jonathan Winters’ example of fearlessness, his ability to just let it fly, say and do whatever your comic mind told you to say, that I always tried to emulate. I stayed up late whenever he was on Jack Paar, or Johnny Carson, or anywhere else. I’m not sure anyone has made me laugh more, and laugh in a way that isn’t about the intellect, but about silliness and childishness and imagination.

Our heroes get old and die. But Jonathan Winters was forever a child. And it’s always that much more tragic when a child dies. I’ll be on YouTube watching him. The tears will be from laughter. I like to think that’s how he’d want to be remembered.

Here's a short tribute that might make you laugh: Jonathan Winters


Charlie Olken said...

Amen to that.

Genius is a rare gift. It is rarely earned or learned. It is just there and it takes control of the brain whether you are Hawking or Winters.

A lovely tribute.

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
What was it you said to me when I did that post about my old fart "Walter" dying, that the world needs more characters not less? Your words came bounding to mind when I read this heartfelt tribute to one of your heroes. Very sweet Love, and so very you.

I remember the first time I saw Jonathan Winters, or the first time I recall anyway and I'm sure this will kill you but it was on Mork & Mindy when he played their child Mearth. I think ti was about the 3 episode when I noticed that him just merely being on the screen was making me laugh, just looking at him and my shoulders would start bouncing and the snickering would start. Very few people with the kind of presence, he was a rare treat. Thanks for the touching post and the YouTube clip, lovely way to start the day really. I love you.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
Most kids have sports heroes, or idolize musicians. My heroes were comedians. Yes, I loved Koufax and Drysdale, but it was guys like Jonathan Winters and Bill Cosby, even Tommy Smothers, who I worshiped. Memorized their comedy records, tried to be funny like them. I read MAD Magazine, and CRACKED (never as funny), and learned how to write jokes. But Jonathan Winters taught me how to be funny, and silly, and fearless. Watching him on YouTube yesterday made me as happy as I've been in a long time. "Genius" is a word we toss around far too nonchalantly. But Jonathan Winters, undeniably, was a genius at making people laugh.

voice of reason said...

kind words, Ron... and well deserved... JW will be missed.

Cris Whetstone said...

He was definitely a talent. One who demonstrated that the line between genius and mental illness is never clear. An amazingly funny person in any case.

I remember him being on Carson once with Robin Williams. There was no real point of having Carson there of course as those two took over the show with the most hilarious 5-10 minutes ever just off the tops of their heads. I'm off to YouTube for some memories.

Don Clemens said...

Ron: I couldn't agree more. Watching him on the comedy highwire was more exciting than anything else I ever saw on TV. Danger and comedy - a potent combination.
I just happened to have purchased "Its a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" last week, mostly because I wanted to see Jonathan Winters again. Sheer genius.
Thanks for the post,
Don Clemens

Marcia Macomber said...

I loved Jonathan Winters. I couldn't wait to see him on whatever program he was guesting on. Like Tim Conway, he was extra dangerous when he got on Carol Burnett's show. It was a comedy overload.

One of my favorite quotes of his was: "If your ship doesn't come in, swim out to meet it." Smart and funny guy. He will be missed.

Unknown said...

Sorry Ron.. gotta disagree with you on this one.. comedy is a lot like wine in the sense what you love, someone else goes meh? That's the way it is for me and Jonathan Winters.. I just don't get it.. at least he should be pilloried for the insufferable Robin Williams.. you want pain? Try watching Williams run amok on the Actor's Studio on youtube.. oh.. all this non-stop mugging, gibberish and riffing on nothing.. whereas the episode with the cast of the Simpsons.. nonstop laughs for me... or any episode of the Simpsons..or Larry Sanders.. great social satire, biting wit, black comedy at its finest.. give me a well written jab, crack, remark, etc (that's why I love your columns) over any of these so-called improvisational genius's any day of the week.. ..

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I saw "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" about four times when it was released in Cinerama back in 1963. Something of an odd film, one of Spencer Tracy's last, with cameos from almost every comedian of the era. And Jonathan Winters destroying the gas station singlehandedly is a crazy kind of genius. And they filmed the final scene, with all of the stars getting tossed off a fire truck ladder, in my home town of Long Beach, CA. So that was cool for me. I about 11 or so when it came out.

Yup. Comedy is very much about personal taste. Just don't blame Jonathan Winters for Robin Williams. Aside from mania, the two had little in common comedywise. But, believe me, as a guy who claims to write satire, I KNOW that for every person who finds me funny, there are ten who think those people are stupid.

Bob Henry said...


The New York Times ran this loving tribute with video clips:

Video: Remembering Jonathan Winters

And I concur with your "genuflecting" to Tom Lehrer, whose body of work was first introduced by me by Barry ("Dr. Demento") Hansen, a childhood friend whose Sunday night live radio show aired on KMET in Los Angeles.

(Aside to those posting comments to this blog entry: Unfamiliary with Tom Lehrer? "The rest of you can look it up when you get home.")

~~ Bob

Unknown said...

Why not blame Winters for Williams?? They performed together numerous times after Winters was washed up.. and he was riding on William's coattails..
Another annoying thing of these improv geniuses laughing hysterically at their crazy improv on Carson, ohh aha ha ha hehe .. meanwhile I'm sitting stone faced at home.. like wtf is so funny??
Bill Maher wrote an interesting piece about his first time on Carson and I posted underneath, one wonders if Carson ever watched Larry Sanders and was squarely aimed at him, the vain, insecure, humorless host about himself, the miserable prick producer, the no talent hack sidekick guy laughing at nothing.. throw in a bunch of vain, stupid celebrities.. oh man.. I just start laughing again.. funnier than the wine biz!!

Unknown said...

Speaking of J.W., I was running a restaurant in Toluca Lake called "Val's" in 1988, and he and his wife were in for dinner. While waiting for her in the foyer as they were finished, he had me in stitches by just doing an impromptu bit with the mirror of which I was the lucky, only fan. Truly, a comic genius. Thanks for this, Ron. Oh, yeah, I like wine, too.

Thomas said...

Hear, hear, Ron.

To David Pierson: I fully understand that you do not appreciate a certain brand of humor. No problem with that from me.

What I don't understand is how many times you had to watch Winters and Williams on the dreaded Carson show before you decided you hate them all-and why you seem to feel it is important to make sure that people on this blog know how you feel about them. On one hand, you say that humor appreciation is a matter of taste; on the other hand, you suggest that you are the arbiter of taste in humor.

Unknown said...

A soft side to the Hosemaster... Bravo. I enjoyed JW as well Ron. I actually saw him once as a young man in Cherry Hill, NJ in an old Supper Club. Our waitress was terrified of him. I remember my date asking her why she was so scared of such a funny man and she said. "He ain't funny". I guess she was related to David Pierson.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

ME Fine Wines,
Lucky you. I do wish I'd met him. I met many others, but not Jonathan Winters. And I remember Val's! Went there once, a long time ago. Cool joint. Thanks for chiming in.

Can you ever comment and NOT look for an argument? Wait. Don't comment on that.

Well, there's the HoseMaster, and then there's me.

Whether or not Jonathan Winters made David laugh is completely unimportant to me. David seems to be a good guy, and thinks I'm funny, so he's clearly a poor judge of comedy. But, for whatever reason, Jonathan Winters and his brand of comedy, at that time in my life, when I was a shy, quiet, introverted kid, made me want to make people laugh. It was an era of "button-downed" comics, very mainstream and uniform, funny but basically all the same. Winters was himself. Childish, crazy, fearless, and like no one, NO ONE, before him. We can argue about whether he was funny, or whether he was funny later in his life, but he was original and interesting in an era that was about conformity. That was his gift, and his genius.

Unknown said...

Thanx Ron I wasn't saying I'm the taste master.. I thought I had some guts to say hey, maybe this ain't so funny after all.. one thing you might not know, he played a top pool guy in Twilight Zone.. my ex said to me when I brought home the Hustler.. ohh not a movie about pool... and I said, it's not just a movie about pool, it's about life..

Thomas said...


"We can argue about whether he was funny..."

No, we can't.

How's that for a comment AND an argument?

My apologies to David Pierson. I should have left it alone.

In my defense, all I can say is that the Internet is slowly inching its way toward inching me out. So much of the discourse seems to me like a game of King of the Mountain--and now, I am tainted, as Ron has noticed my tendencies toward climbing to the top...

Brad Davis said...

My mom literally ran into him on the sidewalks of SF. She was walking backwards and talking to her friends and backed right into him. She turned around and saw him and was at a loss for words. He made some comment about her new approach to walking and took the time to talk with her and friends and was just a complete gentleman and generous with his time...

Unknown said...

Ron, curious on your take on all this comic genius stuff being heaped on Williams.. watched an hour of Charlie Rose recaps and didn't laugh once, like wtf is so funny?? I know I'm in the minority. so funny etc.. but there's an actual I hate Robin Williams on google, and it nails why I hated his humor... it's just not funny.. oh the manic riffing about nothing, the stupid accents, talking fast like people might actually realize this isn't funny at all... told my girl, he was a nice guy, he just wasn't funny..

Samantha Dugan said...

So you thought a couple of days after he took his own life, because of his struggle with depression, addiction and a life threatening illness, was the time to share with the world that you thought he sucked? I'm sorry but, just seems to me that letting it go, without ceremony good or bad, is the decent and grown up way to end your relationship with this performer. Not trying to be a dick but man....that was just cruel.