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Friday, April 12, 2013

Jonathan Winters dies at age 87

Jonathan Winters
(1925 - 2013)
"The Father of Improvisational Comedy"
  • [Source: L.A. Times; by Deborah Vankin] The trailblazing comic improviser Jonathan Winters, who died Thursday at age 87, was a seminal influence on scores of comedians and the person Robin Williams credits as his mentor.

    Winters' high energy, unpredictable and often surreal comic riffs included an array of characters, reenactments of movie scenes and pointed, quick-morphing sound effects that he often produced on the spot.

    Take, for example, his 1964 appearance on "The Jack Paar Program." In order to illustrate Winters' genius for creating comedy out of thin air, Paar gave him a simple wooden stick. “Do something with the stick” Paar said, and in what’s now a classic bit, Winters morphed from wayward fisherman to tepid circus ringmaster with a whip, to highbrow flute player.

    Johnny Carson was just as taken with Winters’ comic brilliance, said Andrew John Nicholls, head writer for “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” from 1988 to 1992.

    “Jonathan thrilled Johnny down to his socks,” Nicholls said. “They became like two 8-year-olds together. Harmless anarchical craziness, the loopy connection of disjointed ideas, deliberate mental misfiring just to see what'd happen, where it'd go. Johnny loved that stuff, it just tickled him pink, and Jonathan was the all-time master.”

    Dan Pasternack, vice president of development for IFC and a stand-up comedian himself, was one of Winters’ closest friends -- they spoke on the phone weekly. “Jonathan’s influence is absolutely singular,” Pasternack said. “There are so few original voices where you can say ‘it starts with this guy.’ As far as I’m concerned, anything in contemporary improvisational comedy starts with Jonathan Winters.”

    He pointed out that Williams hardly ever accepts an award without crediting Winters’ influence on his fast-paced, free-form streams of consciousness. Winters, however, who always watched proudly from home on TV, humorously took issue with that, Pasternack said.

    “He’d tell Robin after: ‘Don’t say mentor, say idol!’”

    The cherubic-faced Winters, also an accomplished painter, appeared in several films, including now-classic performances in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “The Loved One,” and he was no stranger to TV -- his hour-long variety show for CBS, “The Jonathan Winters Show,” ran from 1967 to 1969 and “The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters” was in syndication from 1972 to 1974.

    But he never achieved the kind of major, A-list Hollywood success that many of the comedians he influenced did. His legacy, however, is a cumulative one, living on in the plethora of comic voices he inspired.

    Maria Bamford, who talks about her lifelong struggles with depression, anxiety and OCD in her comedy special, “Maria Bamford: the Special Special Special!” said she turned to Winters -- who also talked openly about his mental health struggles -- for personal advice recently.

    “He didn’t know me at all, but he took time to talk to me on the phone, this was about a year ago,” Bamford said. “I was worried about going back to work and not stressing my brain and not feeling afraid and going back to performing live. And he said: ‘Well, you got a good shrink?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said: ‘Well then, you just keep going!’ I thought that was very simple, but it was a relief to me. I’m now touring again and working on new material and feeling pretty great.”

    “I was honored to have talked to him” said Marc Maron, who interviewed Winters on his WTF podcast in 2011. “I'll miss him. There was no one like him and there won't be ever again. He took comedy where no man had gone before."

    Added Andy Kindler, who’s also appeared on WTF and who was a series judge on the final season of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing:” “Jonathan Winters had a quote that I always loved and agree with wholeheartedly: ‘Most people don’t have a sense of humor. They think they do, but they don’t.’”

    Jamie Masada, owner of The Laugh Factory in Hollywood, said he remembers a night in 1986 very fondly. “Jonathan came into the club with a bunch of comedians that night -- he didn’t go onstage, but he walked around and did impressions of Groucho Marx. Everybody was on the floor laughing. It was such a moment.”

    “He’s the father of improvisational comedy,” Pasternack said. “Nobody did it before him.”

  • [Source: L.A. Times; by Patrick Kevin Day] Jonathan Winters had a talent ideal for the small screen. Though he did appear in several comedic classics, including "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and "The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming," it was the less constrained world of TV that allowed him to flit and morph between comic bits at lightning speed.

    One of the first great venues on TV where the comic rose to prominence was on "The Jack Paar Program." This appearance from 1964 demonstrates Winters' ability to improvise at a moment's notice, in this case with the prop of a simple stick.
  • One of Winters' most popular comic personas was the slightly naughty, extremely frumpy old lady Maude Frickert. Winters frequently appeared as the character on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. (In fact, the character inspired Carson to develop his own old lady character known as Aunt Blabby.)

    In this clip, Winters appeared with Dean Martin on "The Dean Martin Show," and demonstrated how his improv wit allowed him to continue to stay current even as the times went from stodgy to more swingin'.
    He frequently appeared in character, especially around Carson. Winters even appeared in character as an unnamed bumpkin from Carson's past at the revered late night host's 1968 Friars' Club roast.
    Of all the comedians Winters influenced with his rapid-fire riffs and spontaneous character creation, none owed as obvious a debt or became as famous as Robin Williams. The comedian, who ran with Winters' style and amped it up to a dizzying speed, revered Winters and on the fourth and final season of his breakout sitcom, "Mork and Mindy," Winters joined the cast as the alien child of Mork.

    Yes, Winters was older than Williams, but that was explained away by the bizarre alien physiology of the Orkan people.
    Unlike many comedians who broke out in the 1960s and faded into obscurity over time, Winters managed to remain respected and popular, even into the 1990s, when he starred in the sitcom, "Davis Rules," alongside Randy Quaid.

    Although the sitcom only lasted two seasons and was criticized for being too safe of a family sitcom, it did allow Winters some space to demonstrate a little of his comic flair, even if it was between the more traditional sticom elements.

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