For several years now, I've been one of those people who wakes up repeatedly during a night's attempt at sleep. Early this morning, at 4:20am, I woke up with one thought on my mind, "why did I take the pork chop out of the freezer before I went to bed? That wasn't what I'd intended to make for tonight's dinner." I was perturbed, but I'm not sure if it was over the waking or the pork chop.
The news finally reached the online services I read this morning. Jonathan Winters passed on Thursday. I hate writing phrases like that. Words like "died", or "dead", euphemistic terms like "passed away", are all so final. "Passed" is not much better, but it leaves things a little more open. See, the thing is this; Jonathon Winters can never die. He lives every time a comedian takes an off the wall chance to either succeed or fail, and quickly changes the subject no matter the reaction. He lives every time Robin Williams performs in public. Williams famously referred to Winters as his "mentor", to which Winters replied he'd prefer "idol".
When he was 7, his folks broke up and Jonathan was taken to live with his grandmother. You can just tell he didn't fit in anywhere, and must have spent a great deal of time alone in his room. I can relate. He left high school to join the Marines and fight in the second World War. He married in 1948, and shortly thereafter found himself in need of a watch. Watches were much more expensive in those days than they are now; the young couple couldn't afford one. His wife challenged him to go to a local amateur contest and win the needed funds. He did, and got a radio show out of it. Sometimes there weren't any guests. He made them up. He soon found himself in New York working at a comedy club.
One night a janitor sweeping up at the club told him that doing imitations of famous people and making fun of them was okay, but asked him why he didn't make fun of regular folks, the people he'd left behind in small town America. The odd ball characters in his head were let loose. One of those characters, Maude Frickert , was basically stolen by Johnny Carson as a recurring character on the Tonight Show as "Aunt Blabby".
In the later 1960's, I heard that Winters had been institutionalized, locked up in a sanitarium. They only let him out to perform. There was some truth to the rumor, and in later manic sketches if a character was too much or didn't work there might be a quick aside, "No, not that one, they might put me back in." It was typical Winters.
Winters could throw out a punch lime, but his real humor was in his characters. All of it seemingly improvised on the spot, and quite "off the wall", a trait that only his contemporaries Jean Shepherd and Ernie Kovacs shared.
Like Kovacs, Mr. Winters gallops through many of my early tv memories. He was a guest on any number of shows, particularly when Steve Allen or Jack Paar was the host. Paar once gave Winters a piece of wood and challenged him to do something with it. For a few seconds he used it as a fishing rod, then a judge's gavel, then as baseball bat, then a lion tamer's whip - cracking it over the heads of the audience before a quick look at one person with an, "Oh. Sorry." And it was on Jack Paar that he famously asked the audience if they'd ever undressed in front of their dogs. (Pause.) “You think about that for a minute. A bird somehow doesn’t count. Or a cat. But a dog.” (Pause.) “They really stare.”
While it's true that almost every comedian or comic writer of the last 50 years, right down to those working in the business today learned form him (whether they know it or not), I don't like to think of a world without him. This morning's pork chop incident suddenly plays in my mind, and I giggle. Jonathan Winters taught me that. In one of his few movie appearances, he played twin brother undertakers in the film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One". One of the brothers devises a plan to cope with a crowded cemetery by launching coffins into space, labeled "Resurrection Now!" If only.