I remember the first time I ever saw him. He was on the Tonight Show in the early Johnny Carson days and Winters absolutely blew me away with his quick, off-the-wall wit. I’d never seen his equal. Carson obviously liked Winters and no one laughed harder at Winters than did the-most-admired Tonight Show host.
Although there are many very good comedians around today, I’m not sure we’ll ever see anyone who can match Winters’ amazing ability to create comedy on the fly. He had no script. Ever. Or at least not one he could stick with.
Not much has been said in recent years about Winters’ two nervous breakdowns in which he committed himself for treatment. A friend of mine once described Winters’ mind thusly: “no brakes.”
Reportedly, the first time he sought treatment followed an episode when Winters was found, stark naked, climbing the mast of a ship in San Francisco harbor and looking upward, shouting: “Wait for me! I’m coming with you!” I’ve not seen that story repeated in anything recent, but if it’s true, I’m sure Winters was just introducing a new form of comedy.
Winters created characters instantly and could change characters and/or routines at the blink of an eye. Call it schizophrenia if you like, I call it comedic brilliance.
Winters did a character called “Maude Frickert.” Carson’s version was an advice to the lovelorn character called “Aunt Blabby,” which Carson would do in costume, gray-wig-with-bun and all, as did Winters with Maudie. With each, it was comedy at its best. Winters’ “Maudie,” as he called her, was an innocent-appearing little ol’ lady until she opened her mouth.
A MAN with the cherubic face, Winters possessed the ability to mold his face into a multitude of expressions. He also had a great stock of sound effects. Example, a turtle walking: “thfffffpt, thfffffpt, thfffffpt.”
Once a friend of mine, an ad agency executive and a bigger Winters fan than even I, slipped his own recorder into a studio where Winters was taping a TV commercial with an actress. His unbridled comedic mind produced a 45-minute tape of “out-takes” from the recording session that were some of the most side-splitting, mind-boggling comedy you’d ever want to hear.
Winters was doing voice-overs for a cartoon character in a Pfeiffer’s Finer Salad Dressing TV commercial. His character was the “creator” of the dressing, Fussy Pfeiffer. He and a commercial voice actress were taping the commercial. In the middle of one episode, the actress was doing her lines and Winters burst into the sound track with: “Judas Priest, honey, tear off your clothes! Live the part!”
In the background you could hear hardened sound engineers, who never laugh at anything, AND the actress in roaring laughter as Winters skittered off script.
Early in his career, Winters had a 15-minute radio show that was a total laugh freak-out.
Later, he briefly had a run at doing his own TV comedy show. It didn’t last a full season, because, someone reported, Winters absolutely could not stay on script.
TO SAY that he was “on stage” constantly with off-the-wall comedy would be a gross understatement. After watching him admiringly and enjoyably so many times, I think he enjoyed his quick creations as much as his fans did. Obviously he loved comedy, his own and others, and his great, funny brain was creating constantly.
I feel certain someone will produce a video of some of his standup routines and also a sound CD of his best stories and jokes.
I’ll buy both.
I miss the idea that Jonathan Winters will no longer be around to tickle our funny bone and our fancy with his creative, off-the-wall comedy.
Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.