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