Friday, April 12, 2013

Life Without Jonathan Winters

My parents always appreciated great comedians, and they passed that appreciation along to me.

In a way, I guess you could say I was indoctrinated.

As a child, one of my earliest memories is of watching I Love Lucy reruns with my father.

As I got older, I remember watching TV comedies and funny movies with my parents.

They introduced me to all the great comedians — and I am sure they must have been the ones who introduced me to Jonathan Winters, who died last night at the age of 87. I just don't remember the occasion.

I do, however, remember watching Winters with my parents frequently and laughing at anything he did.

Over the years, I have admired many comedians, usually for certain strengths they possessed. Some were great standup comedians. Others were great TV stars or great movie stars. Very few excelled at all three.

But Winters did.

He could do it all, but he was especially entertaining in improvisational comedy, and he had a stable full of recurring characters that amplified his zany side, notably Maude Frickert. Winters described Maude as a cross between Whistler's Mother and Norman Bates' mother.

That was about right.

Jack Paar once introduced Winters this way: "If you ask me who are the 25 most funny people I know, I would say, 'Here they are: Jonathan Winters.' " He really could do it all.

As Ann Oldenburg observes in USA Today, Winters inspired many contemporary comedians, including Robin Williams, with whom he appeared on the Mork and Mindy TV show.

In modern times, there may be no other improvisational comedian who better approaches Winters than Williams, and Williams freely gives Winters credit as his inspiration.

And he always brought out the silly side in anyone with whom he was paired on a TV show — no matter how serious that actor or actress might be in most settings.

Winters wasn't just funny as an improvisational comedian or a TV comedian. He was a great addition to any comedic film in which he was cast.

As great as he was, though, he never seemed to be appreciated as much as he deserved, and that is a bit of a shame. He may have been the most versatile comedian of his time, known to have inspired many of today's most entertaining performers, but he isn't as recognized as he should be.

That may not have mattered to Winters. It may have been enough for him merely to know how versatile he was.

In 1961, he co–starred with Jack Klugman in an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone.

In the episode, he was a pool player, the best in a particular neighborhood who was still revered even though he had been dead for awhile. Klugman was a young pool player, eager to be regarded the best, and he challenged Winters' ghost to a match. At stake was the reputation for being the best.

In the end, Klugman won the match, but Winters' character clearly demonstrated that one can win by losing. It wasn't necessarily a funny episode, but Winters' character delivered a monologue that seems appropriate now on the occasion of Winters' death.

In the episode, Winters' character suggested that Klugman should get out and enjoy life. Klugman replied that wasn't how Winters got to be the best, that he spent a lot of time playing pool.

"Of course I did, but I took time out to live, too," Winters said. "I've been places where they never heard of billiards. ... I may not look the part, but I made love, walked up hill, swam in the ocean."

It isn't hard for me to imagine Winters saying something like that. It wouldn't even surprise me if it was something he contributed to the story.

And it wouldn't surprise me if Winters took time out to live. He clearly enjoyed life, relished its ironies. In that sense, he reminds me of my mother. She, too, enjoyed life, and she relished its ironies.

That must be why she found Winters' routines so appealing.

And it seems likely to me that it was while Winters was taking time out to live that he came up with much of his best stuff.