Friday, April 12, 2013

I Loved Jonathan Winters

My late father and I had an emotionally frayed relationship for a long, long time.  After my parents divorced, I didn't see him for 20 years.  But we did eventually reconcile.  When he was in our home, when my parents were married, some of the rare times in which he and I fully and fabulously bonded involved Jonathan Winters.  When I was kid, my parents were fans of The Jack Paar Show.  That prime time NBC variety/talk show was great.  When Winters would be on and Jack Paar just set him up and let him go, Dad would laugh so hard that tears would roll down his cheeks.  My little sides would ache from laughing -- laughing at that huggable, hysterically funny bear of a man on TV and laughing at the sight of my brawny WWII veteran father uncharacteristically out of control with sheer glee.  We bonded thanks to the improvisational comedy brilliance of Jonathan Winters.  The famed comedian and actor died last night at age 87.  I loved his work.

The way that film, not stage, was the perfect medium to illuminate and distill the intimate essence of Marilyn Monroe (she never would've been a Broadway baby belting out showtunes -- a fact that Smash ignored), and the way that Broadway was the best showcase for Ethel Merman, night time television was the perfect medium for Jonathan Winters.  He talents were too quick, too fast, too zany and free-form for movies.  TV was more immediate and suited his energy.  But he did leave some funny film work with us.  His first big screen assignment was one of his best.  He landed an ensemble cast spot in Stanley Kramer's all-star screwball comedy,  It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

There he was holding his own with heavyweight veterans like Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers.  The lovable lug of a truckdriver role was a fine fit for Winters.  He wasn't a comedian who did one-liners and gags. He did more character work.  It was smart comic acting.  That's why he was such a good fit in the Stanley Kramer comedy.  His face was a joy to see.  A lot of his great comedy came from the way he reacted to someone else or a situation.  He had an Everyman quality.  Even when he played a woman.  As Lennie the trucker in It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, he's the nice guy who tries to do the right thing, gets pushed a little too far and then blows his top.  We could relate to that.

Winters had a cast of characters in his head, a wonderfully mobile face and, like Mel Blanc, he was a human sound effects machine.  When I was kid, he seemed like a cartoon come to life.  You wanted him to be your next door neighbor, teacher, gym coach or uncle.  He was fun.  And friendly.  And safe.  He hadn't lost the sense of playfulness that seemed to disappear when people became "grown-ups."  On  television, he was free to let all his characters and sound effects out.  And he could get immediate response from a studio audience, just like he did on his comedy albums.  The Jack Paar Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Andy Williams Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour...the talk/variety format let Winters fly.  He was not limited to a movie script.  He didn't have to "hurry up and wait" for hours before getting on camera.  He didn't have to give the same exact performance and remember the same exact blocking the following night on stage.

Also, TV was different then.  Jack Paar and Johnny Carson were funny hosts who had the sense and humility to play the straight men.  They'd set you up for the laughs.  They were also good conversationalists.  They knew how to listen.  In decades to come, it would be standard to give stand-up comedians the talk show host spot.  Many hadn't mastered the art of listening.  Nor would they set up a newcomer to be funny the way Paar and Carson did. And I miss variety shows.  Today, instead of true variety shows with established and rising talent, we get audition shows packed with mostly young people who want to be stars.  The talk/variety shows gave Winters a sweet arena for his comedy club routines.

Watch the obituary segments about Jonathan Winters on the network and/or local news.  Notice how many clips of Winters at his best are from television.  Mostly talk/variety entertainment television.  Here's a clip of Jonathan Winters with Jack Paar.

Can you see Jay Leno setting up a comedian today for that much time in the spotlight?

Nowadays, there can be a TV in every room.  You can watch TV shows on a computer.  You can see TV clips on your cell phone.  The TV has become more portable. We wish we could be like TV.  As it got older, it got slimmer and more mobile.  Back in the day, it was a big boxy magnet that attracted family members into the living room.  Watching TV shows was a family affair.  Sometimes even neighbors dropped over to watch TV with us.  It was there, like another relative.  It spoke to us.  It kept us informed.  It started conversations.  At times it made us cry.  Most of the time, it entertained us.  When we heard a certain talent was going to be on a certain show again, it was like hearing that a good friend of the family was going to stop by for a visit.  That's the way it was for our family with the Jonathan Winters appearances.  He was the guest that you wished would stay a little bit longer.
Thank goodness for the TV talk/variety show.  Without it, millions of us would not have seen the brilliance of Jonathan Winters.  I loved watching him on TV, and in movies, and I loved hearing his comedy albums.  His talent enabled me to have some big memorable belly laughs with my dad.  We needed those laughs more than we realized.

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