Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pure Helium: Jonathan Winters

Jonathan Winters (1925-2013)

Jonathan Winters, who died on April 11, was the funniest man in the world. That was pretty much the official consensus among the informed community of professional comics and the kibitzers in the peanut gallery who cared about comedy to an obsessive degree, and for most of his life, exempting the period from around 1969 or so when Richard Pryor found his voice to a little over a decade later (when he started to lose it), it may have even been true. I was aware of Winters for as long as I can remember, but his ascendency happened before my time, and I was in my teens before I discovered that he was a revered figure, a name to which terms like “greatness” and “genius” were often attached. At the time, that came as a bit of a surprise, like hearing that Captain Kangaroo was considered a front-runner for the Nobel Prize.

Winters, who made his movie debut as the voice of a pig called Sir Quigley Broken Bottom in the English-language version of a Japanese animated feature called Alakazam the Great enshrined as one of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time in a book of that title co-authored by professional melon head Michael Medved was someone I had grown up seeing on Hollywood Squares and Dean Martin roasts, who once appeared, in cartoon form, as himself on The New Scooby-Doo Movies. I think I sort of felt that I liked him, but I also felt that he was somewhere between a square, a hack, and a children’s entertainer, someone that a sophisticated fourteen-year-old had outgrown. The two things I really knew about him were that he was plus-sized and that he did funny yokel characters. If I ever heard anyone else say this, I would automatically, mentally consign them to Hell, but I have a terrible suspicion that I had filed him in the same category as Junior Samples on Hee Haw.

Carol Burnett and Winters, 1968 @Bettmann/CORBIS
Winters was born the same year as Lenny Bruce, and he broke into show business around the time that Bruce and other hip comedians, such as Mort Sahl and Nichols and May and the improvisational-revue performers of the Second City, were redefining live comedy. But Winters didn’t do political material or topical references. He also didn’t “work blue,” to use an almost Victorian-sounding show business term that he was still throwing around in interviews a couple of years ago, more than a decade after you might have thought that it vanished from the Earth with the death of Red Skelton. In his biography of Lenny Bruce, Albert Goldman made a key distinction between Bruce the hipster, whose scabrous outsider’s viewpoint colored everything he said, and Mort Sahl, who was merely “hip.” And Sahl was only hip in the sense that he had a relatively sophisticated take on politics, at least before his career cooled and he degenerated into an assassination-conspiracy nut. His comedy was mostly a matter of conventional joke construction, which is why nobody but ‘50s nostalgia addicts and people working toward their graduate degrees in pop culture ephemera are likely to be popping their fingers to old Mort Sahl LPs today. But Winters was openly hip about one thing: comedy.

Trying to explain how funny Winters was by quoting lines from his bits would be as hopeless as trying to do the same thing with Richard Pryor. As Winters succinctly put it in a 2011 interview with Marc Maron on Maron’s WTF podcast, “I’m not a joke guy.” Pryor had started out as a joke guy, before freaking out and melting down, walking out on a sold-out crowd at a Las Vegas show and reinventing himself as a one-man militant black theater company. Winters was, apparently, always Winters; the alienated, apparently unloved son of an alcoholic failure and a mother with show business aspirations (she hosted a radio show), he was a lonely kid who began doing voices and sound effects just to keep himself amused. He got the meltdown anyway. In 1959, just a few years after establishing himself in nightclubs and on TV, Winters was picked up by the police in San Francisco Harbor and institutionalized for several months. (He had gone to the harbor straight from a performance at the Hungry i; when Lenny Bruce played there, his first words to the audience were, “So this is where Jonathan flipped!”) Legend has it that he had boarded a ship and climbed up into the rigging, announcing that he was “John Q from outer space,” but Winters told Marc Maron that all that really happened was that he had told the man selling tickets to tour an historical vessel that he should be wearing a tri-cornered hat. “Not everybody,” he said dryly, “has a sense of humor.”

There was a darkness in Winters, who dropped out of high school during his senior year to serve in the Pacific during World War II, and who was ultimately hospitalized twice for “nervous breakdowns,” at precisely the point when his career was lined up on the runway and should have been about to achieve maximum takeoff. (He was ultimately diagnosed as a manic depressive.) There are fascinating moments in some of his performances preserved in TV footage and comedy records where you can see or hear the darkness trying to get out, and observe the artist who is devoted to providing his audience with pure fun either stamping it down or exorcising it by turning it into sick jokes and veiled references to his time in “the zoo” and his other travails. (It computes that his most popular character was the grandmotherly Maude Frickert, who was able to indulge in salacious asides and morbid fantasies that might have given Flannery O’Connor the heebie-jeebies, because the American mass audience is committed to the idea that anything a heavyset man says or does while wearing a gray wig and a dress is harmlessly cute.)

Jonathan Winters as Maude Frickert
Although Winters confessed to seeing himself as a “satirist,” he never blew any smoke about using humor to excoriate and expose society’s ills, like George Carlin on his off days and later pretenders to the Lenny Bruce/Richard Pryor throne, such as the late Bill Hicks, who often seemed to be reading their own press materials onstage. He just committed to his art and went out there and was funny, even on nights when being funny must have been like shoveling the walk in the middle of a blizzard. But however much he suffered, his struggles with his demons never did for him what Bruce’s and Pryor’s drug problems did for them they didn’t bestow upon him the tragic glamor of a tortured artist. If anything, his well-publicized problems only made it easier for people to pigeonhole him as an actual nut, which might have been easier for many people than to look at this guy recreating a monster movie onstage, not just playing all the characters himself but embodying the sounds of the creaking doors and the mad scientist’s gurgling lab equipment, and see a conscious artist.

In a 2000 interview, Winters said that people sometimes came up to him and demanded that he “say something funny,” and that his standard reply was, “I would, if I thought you’d get it.” Those who didn’t get it, including the guy at San Francisco Harbor and also plenty of people who do the comedy booking in show business, were the bane of Winters’ existence. There were always people willing to hire Winters some of whom, from talk show hosts such as Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson to whoever invited him to mix it up with the SCTV veterans who made up much of the voice crew on the Saturday morning cartoon The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley count as heroes for their efforts.

But there weren’t that many people who were prepared to do what needed to be done to really make the most of the opportunity, which came down to just sticking a camera or a microphone in front of him and letting him go. Winters acted in movies, from Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World an attempt by the most humorless director who ever lived to create the “ultimate” movie comedy, as if it were a stunt for the Guinness Book of World Records to the misbegotten 1994 movie of The Shadow, and he wasn’t bad, except that it was like seeing Fred Astaire proving his measure as an all-around thespian by not dancing in Kramer’s On the Beach. But he never got his Richard Pryor Live in Concert the Rosetta stone besides which even Pryor’s greatest comedy records are like Cliff’s Notes. (On the other hand, he was also never a mainstream movie star, which means that his IMDB isn’t littered with titles like Moving and Critical Condition.)

For fifty years, Winters overcame his personal pain, stripped himself of all self-consciousness, and made people happy in a way that nobody else could. Short of inventing penicillin or ending human trafficking, that’s about as tremendous a use as anyone has ever made of their time on this planet. If there remains anything frustrating about his legacy, it’s that it needs proper tending to make things easier for future generations. Right now, there’s an ongoing Winters festival on YouTube, but you have to put it together for yourself. By jumping from clip to clip, you can while away an hour or two listening to him recount the plot of King Kong or see him crashing the dais at Dean Martin’s roast of Johnny Carson, advising the king of late night that, whatever other mistakes he makes with his life, he should never return to his home town, or “they’ll just beat you to death.” Somebody needs to roll up their sleeves and spend a few months at Bill Paley’s Tomb, or whatever they’re calling the Museum of Broadcasting this week, working on a Winters retrospective comparable to the Shout! Factory box sets devoted to Lenny Bruce and Mel Brooks. Who knows how many units it would move, or how much the rights to old Jack Paar clips go for these days. But it needs to be on the shelf, for when we want to pull it down and show the grandkids what’s so damn funny.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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